Why an Apple iWatch would need an app store

Commentary: To app or not to app, that is the question. Apple sometimes passes on third parties when it launches new devices, but competition may force its hand

With a so-called iWatch -- or some other wearable device -- apparently imminent, rumors have swirled that Apple will also offer app store capability for it. But would Apple really need one?

In July, Apple was awarded a patent for a "wrist-worn electronic device." Apple/USPTO

Apple's iOS app store has earned billions for developers and even more billions for Apple itself. It's gone on to inspire app stores from Google and Microsoft.

But the mechanism that reinvented smartphone functionality almost wasn't. At its launch in 20007, the iPhone didn't allow third-party apps. Apple had advocated a "Web app" approach that, in theory at least, isn't that different from the approach since taken by Chromebooks. Apple also touted some of the same advantages, such as a higher level of security. Despite its success in attracting a rich library of games, Apple has also held back on third-party apps or an app store for Apple TV, which also runs a version of iOS.

When might the mythical watch or the like debut? It could be as early as today. Apple is hosting a press event starting at 10 a.m. PT where it is widely expected to unveil the iPhone 6 in some form or other, and hopes are high that Apple will also unveil its take on wearable tech.

Abstaining from an iWatch app store would also have other benefits for Apple. The company could probably get away with a lighter-weight computing platform like the kind it used on the iPod Nano and extend battery life, perhaps the supreme challenge for smartwatches.

As with the TV, it's unclear what the potential is for smartwatch apps and app stores. Perhaps the most mature retail effort, the Pebble store, includes variations on things Apple could or would likely build in -- calendars, watch faces, remotes (integrated with the HomeKit smart-home software due with iOS 8). Google's new Android Wear has brought the power of a rich app ecosystem to a smartwatch, but so far the apps have focused on extensions to Google Now, with perhaps a few extensions to the smartphone apps with which they are distributed.

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But while Apple was once content to skip the apps in a high-profile mobile product, and mobile security concerns remain as hot a button as ever, the mobile app ship has sailed. Since the launch of the App Store, apps have come to be a cornerstone of Apple's marketing of the iPhone and iPad -- first in terms of quantity and then, after the ascendance of Android, quality. Apple's recent TV commercials highlight a range of apps, and at the company's developer-focused WWDC event in June, it opened its keynote with a video that was essentially an app developer love letter.

Besides, despite the midyear purchase of Beats' hardware business, it is in Apple's DNA to produce platforms, not accessories. Apple may forsake battery life with a more powerful platform, but it would hope to make the iWatch worth owning based on the strength of the imagination and creativity of its developers. Components such as processors, displays, and batteries will improve over time. But not bringing developers along to the platform party stands to breed a frustration that won't yield easily.

Releasing a closed iWatch would cede ground to Apple's ecosystem competitors, mostly Android. Going the open route instead, Apple would one-up them with the same kind of high-end platform that has proven so successful in its larger mobile products.

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