In the past few days, Wired, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal have all published reports of Apple creating a smartwatch — a multifunctional wrist-based wearable with a curved glass display. At Forrester, back in 2011 we predicted that wearables would be one of the next important form factors in personal computing. In fact, we put a date on it: “Wearables will broaden from health and fitness to more verticals in 2013,” we wrote in the report, and in a follow-on report last April, we predicted that wearables would be a battleground for the platform wars between Apple and Google. An Apple smartwatch would fulfill that multifunctional vision we have for wearables, broadening the category beyond health and fitness.

The body is the next frontier for personal computing, and as Apple looks for new growth markets, it seems like only a matter of time before Apple enters the market directly. (Apple is already in the wearables market through its accessory partners like Nike, Jawbone, and Lark Technologies, and it sells all those devices in its Apple Stores.) But success in wearables is not an inevitability. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that Microsoft launched a smartwatch back in 2003, and discontinued it in 2008. Fossil has made Bluetooth smartwatches since 2006, but they weren’t a runaway success. An Apple iWatch would be different, and could provide the growth Apple is looking for, for several reasons:

  • Smartphone penetration. Smartphones mean that wearables can do less: They can piggyback off the phone’s display, processor, radio, and more. In 2003, there were no smartphones. At the end of 2012, 41% of US mobile users had a smartphone as their primary phone, according to Forrester’s data. Penetration is lower in many geographies, but it’s still a swiftly saturating market.
  • App ecosystem. Third-party app developers are the magic that create new use cases for a device. Apple leads in apps by a long shot. As of January, the App Store had 40B downloads, 775K apps available, 500M active accounts, and had paid more than $7B to developers. Creating new experiences for an iWatch is a no-brainer for developers.
  • Apple’s marketing, distribution, and brand. Apple can launch a new product like no other company because it owns its own retail channel, has privileged real estate in other retailers, and has a brand that’s recognized even by two-year-olds. All of these factors contributed to the incredibly fast uptake of the iPad, which surpassed 100 million in sales last October.

Will an Apple smartwatch kill the feisty startups in the space, like Jawbone? My answer is no: Some startups are bound to fail, and Apple might hasten their demise, but there’s still a market for focused-functionality devices. The Jawbone UP is comfortable enough to wear night and day. The Misfit Shine tracks sports like swimming (and I doubt an iWatch will be that level of waterproof). And fitness wearables generally cost less than $150, which Apple won’t likely match. Most of all, an Apple iWatch will immediately make the behavior of wearing your tech acceptable, just as Siri created a new social norm of talking to your phone like it’s a person. In addition to startups, an iWatch puts the most pressure on Google to deliver something equally tantalizing for consumers and developers.