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Apple CEO Tim Cook walks on stage to deliver the keynote address of the WWDC on June 10, 2013, in San Francisco.

Eric Risberg/AP

Apple Inc. has embarked on a hiring spree to tackle design problems with its "iWatch" wrist computer, bringing in fresh expertise amid concern that the launch of its first new product since the death of Steve Jobs could be at least a year away.

The company has begun hiring "aggressively" for the project in recent weeks, say people familiar with Apple's plans for the wearable device, a move that shows it has stepped up development but which raises questions over the ability of its own engineers to develop wearable technology.

As Apple moves from iPods, iPhones and iPads into an entirely new category of product, it is looking beyond its existing staff in Cupertino for the talent required to build it - an indication that the endeavour involves "hard engineering problems that they've not been able to solve", according to one source.

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Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, could still decide not to launch the product, just as past ideas have been scrapped, these people said. However, the iWatch - a brand for which Apple has made several applications to trademark - has now progressed from an exploratory phase to having several dozen employees dedicated to its development.

The timing of the hiring spree implied the iWatch would not be ready for launch until the latter part of next year, said people familiar with Apple's thinking, a blow to some investors who have been eager to see evidence that Apple's innovators still have the ability to create or redefine new product categories.

Apple declined to comment, but Mr. Cook said in April's earnings call: "Our teams are hard at work on some amazing new hardware, software and services that we can't wait to introduce this fall and throughout 2014."

While that is expected to include a new lower-cost iPhone with colourful plastic casing later this year, Mr Cook has recently expressed enthusiasm for wearable technology. Speaking at an AllThingsD conference in June, he said it was an area "ripe for exploration" and "incredibly interesting".

Earlier this month, Apple hired Paul Deneve, the outgoing chief executive of fashion house Yves Saint Laurent, to work on undefined "special projects", reporting to Mr Cook. His experience in fashion and luxury goods has been seen as potentially useful in a move into watches, as well as branding.

Apple's iWatch recruitment drive has included seeking out acquisitions of early-stage startups working on connected devices. Making so-called "acqui-hires" such as this has become common practice in Silicon Valley, where engineering talent carries a high premium, even for top companies such as Apple.

But with its stock price still far below its highs and facing growing interest in hardware and mobile software from neighbours such as Google and Facebook, retaining rank-and-file employees will be a challenge for Apple, say former employees and those recruiting at other firms.

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One senior member of the iWatch team, who had been considering leaving the company, decided to stay after being awarded a substantial pay increase, according to one source.

Apple is not the only company looking to recruit talent for wearable technology in Silicon Valley. Almost all of Apple's rivals, including Google and Samsung, as well as start-ups such as Pebble and even PC manufacturer Dell, are working on smart watches or similar devices.

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