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Spectre of an iWatch looms over the smartwatch market

As in previous computing eras, giants like Apple and Google will try to keep their winning streaks going, while the upstarts hope to disrupt the incumbents.

The Pebble smartwatch. Sarah Tew/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- The wearable world awaits, some people with excitement and others with anxiety, for the long-rumored iWatch. Apple fans are looking forward, most likely in 2014, to a breakthrough product that decorates their wrists and seamlessly integrates with the iPhone and App Store. The anxiety is most persistent among those who are building wearable products that will eventually compete with an iWatch or whatever wearable device Apple delivers.

"Apple is the category definer," said Ryan Block, vice president of product at AOL, speaking at the Launch Mobile & Wearable conference on Monday. "As soon as Apple drops the bomb, it's the end of the game."

Eric Migicovsky, founder and CEO of smartwatch maker Pebble. Dan Farber/CNET

Eric Migicovsky, founder and CEO of smartwatch maker Pebble, doesn't believe an iWatch would mean the end of his company.

He said that some people want the flexibility to change phone platforms and that his company "doesn't want to build something that forces you to conform to the watch." He noted that Samsung's new Galaxy Gear smartwatch doesn't work with other Android phones, and others, like Apple and Google, could be compromised by the need to support legacy of applications. He added that Pebble has focused for five years just on smartwatches, and competitors won't get the same level of performance or apply the "effort and intensity to build the interface."

Of course, based on the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, it's wishful thinking to believe that Apple doesn't have the effort or intensity to deliver game-changing wearable devices. The introduction of the sensor-laden M7 coprocessor on the iPhone 5S and reports of a large team working on the an iWatch means that Migicovsky has something real to fear on the future.

Nonetheless, the Pebble CEO is trying find a way into the heart of Apple. He has met with the overlord about making the Pebble available through the Apple Store, like the Jawbone, FitBit, and other wearable devices that work with the iPhone. He was not at liberty to disclose the substance of the conversations, but so far Apple has not seen fit to allow the Pebble into Apple stores.

It may be that Pebble has developed its own operating system and application platform that Apple views as competitive, even though it works with the iPhone. So far Pebble has booked 275,000 orders for its smartwatch and collected $25.7 million in funding, including more than $10 million via a record-setting Kickstarter campaign. The $150 Pebble is available through Best Buy and AT&T.

In addition, Google could expand its wearable ambitions beyond the controversial Google Glass. Google's Motorola division impressed reviewers with its fashionable Moto X smartphone, and a companion smartwatch would not be unexpected.

Lior Ron, head of new products for Google's Motorola division. Dan Farber/CNET

Lior Ron, head of new products for Google's Motorola division, called smartwatches an "exciting" area, but said there are deep pain points to solve before smartwatches move beyond Silicon Valley to the mainstream. Speaking at the Launch conference, Ron said that for a smartwatch to be successful it has to make a fashion statement and eliminate a lot of friction in your digital life.

Ron doesn't believe that long battery life, like that of a traditional watch, is necessarily critical to the success of a wrist wearable. "People want great battery life and get out of hassle of charging, but history shows that people are willing to make trade-offs if it shows something phenomenal. It has to add tremendous value," he said. He noted that the battery on the first iPhone was bad. "Both solutions exist, and the market and users will speak," Ron concluded.

As in previous computing eras, the giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung will try to keep their winning streaks going with the wrist as the platform, while the upstarts hope to disrupt the incumbents.