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Apple's WatchKit for developers to launch in November

The release of WatchKit will allow developers to start creating apps for the Apple Watch, which is expected early next year.

Apple's WatchKit, which will help developers build apps for its new smartwatch, will arrive in November. James Martin/CNET

Apple will make its WatchKit toolkit available sometime in November, CEO Tim Cook said at its event Thursday, enabling developers to begin building apps for its forthcoming smartwatch.

WatchKit was first announced at a flashy Apple event last month, where the company unveiled the iPhone 6 , the iPhone 6 Plus and the Apple Watch, and concluded with a performance by the rock band U2. The Apple Watch is expected in spring 2015.

Today's event in Cupertino, Calif., a much lower-key affair, marks the second product launch for Apple in as many months. Some third-party apps appear to be already available for the wearable, including Twitter, American Airlines, Starwood Hotels (for unlocking your room door), Pinterest, BMW (with a car locator service), Honeywell (for connected home control) and others.

At the time of the Apple Watch announcement, Jeff Smith, CEO of the mobile music-making app Smule, told CNET that he appreciated the "cleanliness" of the watch's design. "I think my mom could use one of these, but I'm not sure that's true of some of the other [Android Wear] devices that have come out so far." Smule was one of the first third-party iPhone apps available.

However, developers don't expect WatchKit to be a game-changer in the app-building world. Matt Runo, the Android Development Manager for Zappos, described Android Wear and Apple Watch as "add-ons."

"It's not going to necessarily change the game in terms of Android versus iOS," he told CNET last month. "I don't think anyone's going to say 'WatchKit is amazing, I'm not going to develop for Google.'"

The Apple Watch marks Apple's first new product category since the iPad in 2010. It's also the first new push by the company under Tim Cook's tenure. Cook had promised for over a year that Apple in 2014 would introduce and enter beyond its wildly successful smartphones, tablets and computers. The Apple Watch, which will hit the market next year, fulfills that vow.

The device comes in three designs -- the stainless-steel-cased Apple Watch, the aluminum-cased Apple Watch Sport, and the 18-karat-gold-cased Apple Watch Edition. The smartwatches go on sale early next year at a starting price of $349. The devices must be paired with an iPhone, and are compatible with the iPhone 5 , 5C, 5S, 6 and 6 Plus.

Cook, introducing the Apple Watch before more than 2,000 people, called the smartwatch a "breakthrough" product. He described it as a "comprehensive" health and fitness device, walkie-talkie, and remote control for the Apple TV streaming-box. Those factors alone set the Apple Watch apart from other smartwatches on the market, which tend to simply track steps, provide notifications and run very basic apps.

But Apple went even further -- creating what Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty called a "Swiss Army Knife" sort of wearable. It included a near-field communication, or NFC, chip in the watch to enable mobile payments. It put a haptic feedback engine in the device so that it vibrates when receiving an alert or being given a direction in programs like Maps. Apple included a digital touch feature to allow two people to communicate quickly through taps and drawings and by sharing their heartbeats.

The company also placed a big emphasis on design, making sure the watch is fashionable and something people actually want to wear. While at first glance it resembles Samsung's Gear smartwatches and other wearables already on the market, it provides more ways the wearer can customize it. Apple will provide a range of bands in various materials -- including leather and metal -- so users can tailor the product to their style. And there likely will be bands from third-party vendors in the future, as well.

Market watchers had been waiting for some time for Apple to enter wearables.The company revolutionized the phone and computing industries with its iPhone and iPad, but people have been hoping it would do the same thing to another sector. Apple also needs a big new market to help balance out its operations -- nearly three-quarters of Apple's sales come from the iPhone and iPad. Analysts and investors largely don't believe wearables will be as big for Apple as smartphones, but it could open up new ancillary software and services that boost results.

Nearly all of the company's rivals have targeted the market in an effort to establish a strong foothold ahead of Apple. Mobile-device makers including Samsung, LG and Motorola and Taiwanese PC maker Asus have unveiled smartwatches and fitness bands. Traditional watchmakers, such as Fossil, are getting in on the act. And even Intel, the world's largest maker of computer chips, has announced a new bejeweled luxury smart bracelet called the MICA that will sell for less than $1,000 later this year.

Samsung, locked in ongoing patent disputes against Apple over smartphone and tablet designs, has introduced six smartwatches in the past year to define what the wearable market will be. Its devices include the Gear S smartwatch, which has its own 3G wireless connectivity (so it doesn't have to be paired with a smartphone or tablet); the Gear Fit fitness band; and the Gear Live, which runs Google's new Android Wear software for mobile devices.

Despite the push by tech companies, sales of wearables are believed to be weak. In the US, Europe, China, Japan and Australia, less than 1 percent -- or 0.81 percent -- of consumers own a smartwatch, according to a study by Kantar Worldpanel ComTech. Of global smartwatch owners, 51 percent have strapped on a Samsung device, 17 percent use Sony and 6 percent own a Pebble smartwatch, the research firm said.

Apple, which also wasn't first to market with a digital music player, smartphone or tablet, has an opportunity to do what it's done in the past: come out with an elegant, easy-to-use device that showcases why it's a must-have. That's what its smartwatch rivals -- dinged for creating big, clunky and unappealing designs -- have failed to do, proffering nice but not compelling features like fitness tracking and notifications.

Estimates vary on the potential size of the wearables market, with some analysts predicting it to soar and others forecasting its demise. Market research firm IDC projects that from the end of this year to 2018, wearable shipments will increase nearly sixfold to 111.9 million units. Forrester Research, however, predicts that by 2016 the functionality of smartwatches and fitness bands will be absorbed by other devices such as smartphones and sensor-laden headphones.

As for Apple, Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty estimates the company could ship at least 30 million Apple Watches in the first 12 months the device is on sale, generating about $9 billion in revenue. It's possible Apple could ship double that amount, she added. By comparison, Apple sold 35.2 million iPhones in the quarter ended this June, helping it generate a total $37.4 billion in fiscal third-quarter revenue.