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The iWatch: What the Heck Is It, and Why Is Apple Making It?

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
Yahoo Tech
Artist's concept of the iWatch

iWatch concept. (Mindspi Vision/YouTube)

If you’ve been following the tech news, you probably know that Apple’s highly anticipated iWatch is expected to make its debut Sept. 9, along with Apple’s new iPhone.

Based on the amount of hype this iWatch has generated, it could be the most important piece of consumer technology since the original iPhone launched in 2007, or the iPad in 2010.

But seriously: Why? What exactly will the iWatch be able to do? What will it look like? And more to the point: Why would Apple want to get into the wearables market, which, despite being loaded with a variety of offerings, isn’t nearly as robust as the smartphone market?

Below is a brief explainer about the iWatch, its raison d’être, and why Apple would want to even enter a market that’s still largely unproven. School is in session.

What’s an iWatch?
In short, the iWatch is Apple’s long-rumored smartwatch that analysts and company watchers claim could put to bed all of those nagging rumors that Apple’s well of innovation has run dry.

Artist's concept of the iWatch

iWatch concept. (Belm Designs)

The watch itself is expected to feature a touchscreen and connect to your iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth and provide you with notifications from your favorite apps. So you’d be able to view messages from your phone without removing it from your pocket or walking across the room to retrieve it. It’s like having your smartphone screen on your wrist at all times.

Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal report that the iWatch will also have a near-field communication, or NFC, chip, which could be used to make wireless payments with the watch. To do so, you’d simply tap the iWatch on an NFC payment pad at a store’s checkout counter. The watch would then automatically pay for your items with money from the bank account you linked to the wearable. 

As a bonus, the iWatch is also expected to work as a kind of fitness and health tracker. You’ll also reportedly be able to track your steps via the watch’s built-in pedometer, see if you should slap on some sunblock via its UV monitor, and check out other fitness information through Apple’s upcoming HealthKit platform.

HealthKit?
That’s right, HealthKit. Introduced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference as part of iOS 8, HealthKit takes all the data from your disparate health and fitness apps and combines it into one convenient app on your iPhone’s home screen.

iPhone HealthKit app

That means you’ll be able to see your heart rate, the number of calories you burned in a day, how many hours you slept last night, your blood sugar, your cholesterol, and more.

HealthKit will also let your various fitness apps, like RunKeeper or MyFitnessPal, talk to one another and share your data to ensure that you get a clear picture of your overall health.

So why would Apple make an iWatch?
The so-called “wearables” market is still in its infancy, but many tech analysts expect it to grow exponentially in the coming years. According to market research firm IDC, shipments of wearables will increase from 6.2 million in 2013 to 19.2 million by the end of 2014.

As IDC’s Ramon Llamas notes, Apple is keenly aware of the huge numbers of apps downloaded from its App Store for the various fitness trackers and other wearables on the market. So why wouldn’t Apple want to get in on that itself?

Artist's concept of the iWatch

iWatch concept. (Todd Hamilton)

There’s also the fact that the iWatch will be perfect for collecting anonymous data about its customers. That will give it, at the least, better information to sell more highly targeted ads.

“Wearables are the most intimate of devices,” Llamas explained. “These are things that you have on you nearly 24/7.

“There is a lot of information that Apple could collect about a user if they wear a watch,” he added. “There is a lot of gold in there to be harvested.”

Will it really be called the “iWatch”?
Not necessarily! That’s just the name that tech watchers have given Apple’s smartwatch device, as a kind of shorthand. It could be called something else entirely.

OK, so what will the “iWatch” look like?
Well, that’s the thing. There isn’t much known about how exactly the iWatch will look. Those renderings you see above are mere guesses, or fantasies, of Web artists. Unlike the iPhone 6, of which a new alleged prototype hits the Internet every day or so, no purported images of the iWatch have surfaced.

Our best guesses about how the iWatch will look come from Apple’s patent filings and reports citing unnamed sources. In February 2013, AppleInsider came across a patent Apple filed for a wearable device with a full-length screen that wraps around your wrist like a slap bracelet.

Line drawing from Apple's patent filing

In June, Reuters cited a source saying that the iWatch will have a 2.5-inch rectangular display that will be slightly raised above the watch’s band. Another report from Taiwan’s Economic Daily News claims that the iWatch will instead come in two screen sizes, 1.6 inches and 1.8 inches.

All of that is to say, the iWatch is still a pretty big mystery.

We’ll find out on Sept. 9 though, right?
That’s the word on the street, yes. Multiple reports have indicated that Apple will unveil the iWatch along side the new iPhone 6. Unfortunately, other reports, including one from Re/code’s John Paczkowski, point to Apple holding off on sales of the iWatch until 2015.

What’s interesting is that we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of the iWatch yet. And in a world where new device designs, even those from Apple, are regularly leaked online, that’s quite an anomaly.

That likely means that the watch hasn’t gone into production, where it could be surreptitiously photographed and shared across the Web. That also jibes with rumors of production issues with the watch.

So what happens if the iWatch doesn’t debut on Sept. 9?
I’ll eat my own shoes.

So stay tuned for our coverage of Apple’s big day, and get ready to see either the iWatch unveiled or a grown man eating his sneakers. Either way, it’ll be a fun show.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+ here.