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

- James Tit­comb Tech · Smartwatches · Consumer Goods · Technology Industry · Industries · Apple Inc · Beijing · Timothy D. Cook · Steve Jobs · App Store · United States of America · Google · Wearable Tech · iPhone · iPad · iPad 3 · Apple Watch · Apple Watch

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’

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