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Will.i.am plies a new wearable, says Apple rules (Q&A)

The Black Eyed Peas frontman talks about the new device he launched Wednesday, and shares his thoughts on Apple and Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine.

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Will.i.am launched his new smartwatch on Wednesday. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Will.i.am is no stranger to technology. After all, he's the grammy-award winning artist and member of the Black Eyed Peas who once rapped, "I've got that rock and roll, that future flow."

The musician -- born as Will Adams -- also served as Intel's creative director and has a founding stake in Beats Electronics, the headphone maker and streaming music company that Apple bought for $3 billion in August. He has also been a vocal proponent of STEM -- or science, technology, engineering and math -- education.

On Wednesday, Will.i.am added one more thing to his portfolio: He launched the Puls (pronounced Pulse), a sleek minimalist wrist-worn device -- he insists it's "not a watch" -- onstage at the Salesforce Dreamforce conference at the Moscone Center here.

The device stores music, has a voice navigator named Aneeda powered by the speech-tech company Nuance, and makes phone calls without being paired with a smartphone. While that's rare when compared with the rest of the smartwatches that have already been unveiled by other companies -- including the Apple Watch, coming early next year -- it won't be alone. Samsung's Gear S watch, demonstrated in September, will also make calls. Network partners for the Puls are AT&T in the U.S. and O2 in the U.K.

While the musician gave the device a proper coming out party on Wednesday, he first showed it off in April, on a British talk show.

The market for wearables is nascent but promising. In 2013, 9.7 million wearables were shipped, according to CCS Insight, a research firm. By the end of 2014, that figure is projected to jump to 22 million units. And by 2018, 250 million wearables will be in use, the research firm estimates.

This isn't the first wearable device that Will.i.am has put out. Last year, his company i.am+ launched the foto.sosho, an iPhone case worn around the neck that costs $475. The accessory essentially turns your iPhone into a fancier camera, with things like a keyboard, interchangeable lenses, built-in flash and photo editing. On Wednesday, Will.i.am also talked about other connected-wearables his company makes, like shoes, a bag and a jacket.

CNET sat down with Will.i.am in San Francisco, hours before he launched the watch on stage. Below are excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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The watch can make calls without pairing with a smartphone. James Martin/CNET

Question: You've done wearable tech products before. Why did you think it was important to get into this space?
Will.i.am: The wearable conversation has been led by tech alone. And the fashion world has called it "fashion" for decades. They don't say wearables. The reason they say wearables is because there's technology inside of the things you put on your body. And I want to enter the conversation, and suggest, 'Hey, here's a device we are bringing to market that is non-tethered.' And we want to design it from the standpoint of expression.

We've created other components that allow you to have two days of [battery] power, or utilize the device with jackets. We've created shoes that allow you to weigh yourself and count your steps. Because what good is it to count your steps from your wrist if you don't know how much you weigh? So we're completing the conversion by looking at it from a perspective that most folks aren't looking at if from.

Wearables haven't gotten mainstream quite yet. What do you think companies haven't yet done right? And how is your product different?
Will.i.am: That's a hard question. Because I don't want to knock other people's attempt to bring awesome technology to culture. So it's not my place to say what awesome companies are doing right or wrong. What's my place is to tell my team what we should aim to do right. Because it's all relative. Some people like things that I don't like. I like things some people don't like. I want to use my energy to corral my team to think of things other companies haven't thought of.

My colleague saw you at the Apple Watch launch event last month. What do do you think of the watch?
Will.i.am: That's an amazing piece of technology. It's awesome. It's beautiful. It's Apple. They're like the most amazing company on earth. [Pauses.] They're the most amazing company on earth.

You are both in the wearables business now. Do you see them as a competitor?
Will.i.am: There's a guy that I worked with in the past -- I'm going to use music as a metaphor. Before I worked with him, he was my idol. His name was was Michael Jackson. He did the most amazing music on earth. He entertained us all. He showed us what to do when you're successful.

Michael Jackson was the most amazing artist ever. But that didn't stop me from doing music -- because Michael Jackson made music. I didn't look at Michael Jackson as a competitor. He was my inspiration. He made me want to make music too. Apple makes me want to make products. How can I compete with those guys? Those guys are the masters of the universe. Literally. And they're my inspiration. And they make amazing stuff.

Speaking of Apple, you have a founding stake in Beats Electronics. What do you think of the company's acquisition by Apple?
Will.i.am: That came out of the blue. That's a blessing. Jimmy Iovine, that guy's amazing. I showed Jimmy my device, and he's proud of me. Because most people have ideas and are afraid to execute them. And when people tell them no, they stop.

I funded this. People in world are waiting for someone to give them money. They say, hey, I'll promote your product. That's going to cost you. Rarely are they ever willing to put down X amount of dollars.

I know Jimmy Iovine is one of your mentors. What advice did he give you as you were starting this company?
Will.i.am: Jimmy would say, [starts doing Iovine impression] "Whatever you do will, just gotta focus on it. You can't be doing a million different things. You already do too much. Focus on it."

So, that's what I've been doing for the past two years. I've got to build this company. Not only for me but for the kids I'm telling to get into STEM. I'm telling them not to hang out on the corner, and learn to code. And then I'm not doing the same thing?