Apple Inc. has already revolutionized the way people listen to music and use smartphones. Now the company could shake up another area of our lives, as it pushes into the "wearable" device category with a smartwatch that has interchangeable straps, a scratch-resistant sapphire screen and a sleek ecosystem of applications.
"I think we're now at a compelling beginning," said Jonathan Ive, Apple's senior vice-president of design, in a video accompanying the announcement of the new Apple Watch.
After months of speculation and leaked gadget tidbits, Apple showcased the watch in a glitzy launch event that featured the band U2 and the launch of two new iPhones with bigger screens than existing versions.
The much-anticipated watch, however, was arguably the highlight of the event. The gleaming watches, some highlighted with 18-karat gold and all with elegant interchangeable straps, kicks off a new product line from Apple that serves as a reminder that this is still the innovative child of legendary CEO Steve Jobs, and not just a me-too company pumping out larger iPhones to keep up with Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and other rivals.
Apple, of course, did not invent the smartwatch or an ecosystem of software applications tailored to the new gadget. Digital timepieces have existed since clunky calculator watches, and various companies – from Nike and Fitbit to Garmin – have come out with a slew of Internet-connected wristbands in recent years for those wanting to keep digital tabs on their health.
Samsung also came out with its Gear smartwatch last year, and Google Inc. has been expanding its "Android Wear" platform, which can be installed on newer smartwatches, including LG's G Watch and Motorola's Moto 360.
But although Apple did not invent the smartwatch category, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company likely hopes it can profit from disrupting and then dominating it, said Paul Jackson, a technology analyst with London-based Ovum.
"Remember what MP3 players were like before they brought out the iPod," Mr. Jackson said. "They popularize things that were really niche."
Apple's new watch comes in two main sizes and three distinct types – including a sport version and a higher-end one that is adorned with gold. The straps, from sweat-resistant, colourful bands for fitness buffs to more elegant versions with mesh steel and magnetic clips, can be swapped easily. The device will hit stores with a price around $350 (U.S.), and is obviously a premium product – quite literally a "gold standard" for a technology category that has previously been defined by slightly clunky, inefficient models, Mr. Jackson said.
Although he noted that more recent models have improved, Mr. Jackson said Apple hopes that it can stand out with its trademark attention to design detail, as well as by bringing its vast scale and loyal developers to a relatively new, watch-specific software ecosystem.
The Apple Watch, like other similar devices, has sensors on the wrist side of the watch that allow the device to monitor the wearer's physical exertion. Apple had previously hired fitness consultant Jay Blahnik, who worked on Nike's Fuelband, a device that connects to a smartphone and helps monitor a person's activity.
In a video on Apple's website, Mr. Blahnik describes how the new Apple Watch monitors activity – gauging how many calories a person burns but also making subtle suggestions, such as ensuring users break long periods of being seated by standing up. The watch is meant to run with an iPhone, and can tap into the phone's WiFi and GPS location using Bluetooth in order to figure out, for example, how far or how fast someone has travelled on a bike.
"Apple Watch actually gets to know you the way a good personal trainer would," Mr. Blahnik says.
The device is set for commercial release in early 2015, Apple said, and aside from the functions shown off by the company, it was unclear exactly how long battery life would be – a problem that has bedevilled some other models.
Apple isn't the first company to launch a smartwatch. Samsung released the Galaxy Gear in September 2013, and followed it up in April with the Gear 2, with a third generation, the Gear S, slated for release in October 2014. Here's how Apple's impending watch compares to Samsung's Gear 2, one of the most popular on the market so far.
Available in two sizes, 38mm and 42mm
Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Heart rate
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth 4.0
Through a magnetic attachment
To be determined
Samsung Gear 2
Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Heart rate
Infrared Blaster and Bluetooth 4.0
Via micro-USB charging dock
Two to three days of use