Apple's best iWatch strategy: Reinvent the iPod

iWatch? What about iPod? Apple's most forgotten big brand seems ripe for a makeover.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple hasn't had a new iPod since 2012. There were two that year, debuting alongside the iPhone 5: an updated iPod Touch and a redesigned Nano. It's been a while. And during that time, the iPod line's share of Apple's revenue -- once the company's bread and butter -- continues to fade.

Meanwhile, even as rival companies like Google and Samsung laying their cards on the table of the nascent wearable tech market, Apple has yet to announce -- or even hint at -- a wearable product. It's mid-2014, and we still don't know what Cupertino has in the works yet. All we're left with are guesses.

I have no more insight into Apple's plans than anyone else outside Apple's campus, but there's one thing I do know: when it comes to wearable tech, there's not much competition out there worth being scared of. The whole category, such as it is, is still a mess. And even though Apple fanboys pray for the company to make its presumed future mythical device magical, or captivating, it might make a lot more sense for Apple to just take the boring path.

And by boring, I mean useful. Practical. And possibly a little unexciting. The product that most fits the bill? The iPod.

I've felt all along that an Apple wearable shouldn't just be a watch. It should be modular. It should...well, it should feel a lot like the iPod lineup of old. And given that the line is already a recognizable brand -- albeit one that's in need of a turnaround -- it would make sense if Apple's rumored wearables turn out to also be the new iPods. I've been feeling that way for a while, and recent articles by others like John Gruber show I'm not alone in that opinion.

It's already a perfect name

The name iPod has always been enigmatic and a little futuristic. It's not iMusic, or iPlayer. It doesn't have to just be about music. It suggests something small. Why not make iPod the name for Apple wearables?

And, iPods have already been wearable. The Shuffle and Nano are already clip-on devices that can slide easily into a tiny pocket. Some people already wore the old Nano as a watch. I was one of those people.

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Hex watchbands for the 2011 Nano. Sarah Tew/CNET

The return of the Nano plus wristband

Apple already cracked the solution: a small puck that can snap into a wristband or clip on a pair of running shorts. It's the 2011 iPod Nano. That device didn't have Bluetooth, but it did have some basic Nike+ software.

The old Nano, the one that fit on optional wristbands and was, already, a watch, could be a really model for what comes next. A modular, Bluetooth-connected device, that could also track steps and be a good overall music player, would solve a lot of needs. It wouldn't necessarily be super-exciting, but it could also get to a price that wasn't too expensive.

How the product lineup could work

Yes, the Nano could return as a wrist-worn, more advanced health tracker and smartwatch alternative. But maybe there's more than one Apple wearable. The Shuffle could incorporate an M7 processor -- Apple's motion co-processor that debuted in the iPhone 5S -- and double as an entry-level pedometer (think Fitbit Zip).

And maybe there's an even higher-end product, one that casts a wider net on lifestyle beyond fitness. A new Nano could add wireless connectivity for subscription music services, and maybe even some connected smartwatch-like features, if it's Bluetooth linked.

Just adding M7 processors and Bluetooth would be a big first step to giving Apple, essentially, wearable fitness products. Even in its reduced state with no new products, Apple still sold 2.75 million iPods last quarter -- a number that dwarfs the number of Samsung Gear watches sold to date. It wouldn't take much for Apple to go from zero to 100 in the wearable space, if its wearable products could at least double as iPods.

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CNET

Standalone vs. "phone accessory"

I can't think of a single wearable I've seen that isn't function-challenged. It's a glorified pedometer, or it's got half-baked apps, or it has a ridiculously short battery life, or...it doesn't do anything a phone doesn't already do. That's the story of most bands and glasses. And almost all of them suffer a fate of being a phone accessory, serving a role that most people haven't found a need for yet. Most of these watches have awkward chargers, unreliable connectivity, and questionable apps.

Apple would have to solve these problems, and I'm not sure all of them can be solved right now. So maybe the answer is baby steps. Create a product that does a few things well now, and wait until next year or the year after to take the next leaps. Make it small, make it affordable, make it stand apart from an iPhone. That's something that even the lowly, screenless, 4-year-old $50 iPod Shuffle does well -- once you load it full of music, at least.

Let someone else figure out the wristbands

It's hard to make a great wristband. Snapping a band out and finding the right design is a pain. Most smartwatches also have to deal with wear and tear on those parts, too.

Selling the bands separately -- or, whatever other accessories are compatible -- seems most like the path of the iPhone, iPad and iPod. Apple has created a massive halo industry based on docks, headsets, cables, chargers, and especially cases. The wearable iPod can follow in that tradition. Sure, Apple can toss in a default band, but the core device shouldn't be married to one. Letting accessory partners fill in the gaps will make it easier to appeal to both men and women. The Misfit Shine and Withings Pulse have already taken this path.

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Misfit Shine: already has an iPod Shuffle-like design. Sarah Tew/CNET

More fitness tracker, less smartwatch

I can't help wondering about who would buy a mythical iWatch, and what it would actually do to convince people to buy one.

When the iPad debuted, it wasn't the first tablet. The iPhone emerged when a fair number of people owned cellphones, and even smartphones. The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player. But the smartwatch market feels a lot less mature than those tablet, smartphone, and music player markets were at the time.

Fitness trackers are a different story. Because they're affordable and simpler to use, I know more people who bought or want to buy Fitbits, Fuelbands, Jawbone Ups and other bands. Fitness tracking is the market that makes the most sense for Apple.

An M7 chip-equipped iPod with a pedometer and Bluetooth audio may not sound exciting, but a lot of people would use one. Who? Anyone who's in the market for a basic fitness tracker. Add in an ability to transfer music wirelessly via iTunes, or work with a subscription music service like the one that Apple might have from a partnership with Beats, and knit in more advanced Nike+ Fuelband-like connectivity, and you have an equation for a better, more attractive iPod.

Beats might just sweeten the deal

Is that enough for now? Maybe not if you're expecting a revolutionary device, but watches studded with features that can also run apps are only as good as the use cases they're able to be amazing for. Samsung's Gear watches are full of features, but they're not very easy to use, and they don't do all that many things exceptionally well. They're forward-thinking, but unfinished.

Alternatively, a new wearable-friendly iPod could work in some new advanced tech and be really good at it: excellent heart rate monitoring that worked as well as Touch ID does for fingerprints, for instance.

Or, maybe the much-discussed but still not finalized Apple-Beats deal could provide new headphone tech, or extra features that enhance sound. Is Beats necessary for a future iPod? No, but if any Apple device seems like a no-brainer for Beats integration, it would be the iPod.

In a landscape as messy as wearables, I'm increasingly of the opinion that any gadgets are better off doing one or two things well or not do them at all. If this is the humble iPod's destiny, I'm all for it.

 

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