The Daily Telegraph - Business
Time to get smart
There is no new iPhone this month but that means the smartwatch and iPad updates take centre stage
For a company that has often traded on the element of surprise, the cadence of Apple’s most important product release has become reliably uniform in recent years. Every September, the company gathers a few hundred industry watchers and the world’s media inside a custom auditorium on its Silicon Valley campus, with millions more watching from home. A spate of well-rehearsed device and software announcements follow, always culminating in the main event of a new iPhone, which reliably goes on sale a week later.
Financial realities have enforced this structure. A September release hits the sweet spot by falling close enough to Christmas while giving time to produce the iPhones in the required millions.
Tomorrow, Apple is once again hosting such an event but this week will be different. The realities of the pandemic have vetoed an in-person launch (the notoriously sharp-elbowed Apple hands-on area is certainly not Covid-safe) and the event will merely be video streamed. And, more importantly, there is not expected to be an iPhone in sight.
In July, Apple confirmed that its next iPhone generation will be released several weeks later than is typical, a deviation probably caused by supply chain slowdowns related to the virus. Apple usually sends planeloads of staff to China in the months leading up to an iPhone launch to oversee production, something that this year has required special waivers from Beijing.
While an iPhone launch is expected later in the year, its omission from tomorrow’s showcase will clear the way for its supporting cast.
A new iPad, sales of which have been strong during lockdown, is expected, as is a possible “Apple One” subscription service that will combine the company’s various digital media offerings like games and TV.
The star of the show, Apple’s trademark “one more thing”, is likely to be a product that has also evaded the limelight: the Apple Watch. Apple has not held an event starring the wearable device since it was released five years ago, and at product launches it has been an appetiser for the much more popular iPhone.
In its early years, the watch was regarded as a flop, a sign that Tim Cook’s Apple was not capable of the creative sparks that defined Steve Jobs’ reign. That is no longer the case: the device has found its place as a fitness and well-being monitor, and sales have been impressive in recent years.
To close watchers of the company, updates to the Apple Watch hardware and its operating system are arguably more interesting than changes to the iPhone. The newest version of the software can tell whether wearers are washing their hands for the recommended 20 seconds and can track sleeping patterns. Others in recent years include monitoring unhealthy noise levels, detecting unusual heartbeats, and calling emergency services if an elderly wearer falls. The device now appears to be in the similar phase of its evolution to where the iPhone was almost a decade ago: popular enough to have mass interest, but not yet at the point where it has been so refined that updates are incremental.
And while the iPhone becoming ubiquitous paved the way for Apple’s current push into digital services such as its lucrative App Store, the company’s smartwatch is on a similar path with people’s health.
At Apple’s size (even after the recent slump in tech shares, the company is worth almost $2 trillion) there are precious few industries that are so large that entering them significantly moves the company’s revenue dial. Health is one of them. In the US, spending on healthcare was $3.6 trillion (£2.8 trillion) in 2018, more than 17pc of GDP. America is an outlier, but ageing populations and greater awareness means costs are rising around the world.
Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has said that in the long term, the company’s biggest contribution to mankind will be about health. That sounds better than selling electronics, so take it with a pinch of salt, but it speaks to the company’s ambition.
If this is the plan, the Apple Watch will be central to it. As a wearable device, it is much better able to track vital signs than the Apple’s other gadgets. The miniaturisation of sensors and improved detection algorithms mean that the existing capabilities of the watch, such as heart rate monitoring, could be complemented by blood pressure or oxygen monitoring.
Hints at a fitness-related subscription service have also been discovered in the code to Apple’s forthcoming software. The company has been encouraging healthcare providers to make detailed medical records available to download on to an iPhone. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine all these combining into some sort of digital doctor service, constantly adjusting advice and diagnoses depending on the signals coming from the watch.
There are obvious data protection issues related to tech companies having access to personal information that is this sensitive, but Apple has spent years laying the privacy groundwork. Consumers would be far more likely to trust the company with medical data than, say, Google.
The fates may have conspired to delay Apple’s next iPhone, but the company’s future in healthcare could mean its smartwatch is to ready fill its shoes.
‘An “Apple One” service could combine the company’s games and TV offerings’