Apple IWatch Concept
This iWatch concept from Esben Oxholm shows off a simple wristband and a sleek watch face, as well as Apple's signature home button. Esben Oxholm

Those expecting Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) to unveil its futuristic wristwatch later this year are in luck: Apple was serious enough about the name “iWatch” to go apply for a trademark in Japan. According to one patent official familiar with the situation, Apple submitted the iWatch trademark application on June 3, but Japan Patent Office website chose to release the patent on June 27, which reportedly covers “computers, computer peripherals and wristwatches,” the official told Reuters.

Rumors about the iWatch hit a fever pitch in early June. Just days before Apple kicked off its 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference, CEO Tim Cook spoke to Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at AllThingsD’s D11 Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., where he discussed Apple’s intense interest in wearable technology, calling wearables products that were “ripe for exploration.”

“There are lots of gadgets in this space right now, but there’s nothing great out there,” Cook said, after mentioning how most wearable technologies, like the Nike Fuelband or Jawbone Up, can only perform one or two key functions. “But none of them are going to convince a kid that hasn’t worn glasses or a band to wear one. … There are a lot of problems to solve in this space. … It’s ripe for exploration. I think there will be tons of companies playing in this space.”

Cook noted how Google Glass, the wearable technology most people know about by now, has some merit and can “appeal to some vertical markets,” but doubts the smartglasses have broad-range appeal -- likely because it targets the wrong part of the human body, in Cook’s estimation.

“I wear glasses because I have to,” Cook said. “I don’t know a lot of people that wear them that don’t have to. They want them to be light and unobtrusive and reflect their fashion. … I think from a mainstream point of view [glasses as wearable computing devices] are difficult to see. I think the wrist is interesting. The wrist is natural.”

Cook certainly wasn’t shy talking about the notion of an Apple-made wristwatch; ever since February, when The New York Times reported on Apple’s plans to create a smart wristwatch that could rival “science fiction comics and spy movies,” most people simply assume the iWatch exists, and will release within the next 12 months. So much for Apple “doubling down on secrecy.”

Rumors and reports indeed point to a late 2013 release date for the Apple iWatch. According to Japanese blog Macotakara, which cites two new reports from the Taiwanese newspaper Economic Times, Apple has begun manufacturing displays with RiTdisplay, a subsidiary of Taiwan-based RITEK that focuses solely on touch-sensitive organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens, and has even sent orders to its manufacturing partner Foxconn to build roughly 1,000 units of the iWatch, which isn’t enough for mass production, but is likely enough for a small-scale trial to test the durability and quality of the iWatch display.

Even though Apple uses liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) for its iPhone and iPad displays, OLED would be ideal for an Apple iWatch since the screens are self-emitting (unlike LCDs) and can be made extremely thin and lightweight. (Apple CEO Tim Cook called the color saturation on OLED displays “awful,” but the company did hire LG's OLED expert in early February.)

The iWatch, according to a report from the Economic Times, will feature a 1.5-inch display built by RiTdisplay with the help of Intel, which will presumably supply the processors for the iWatch; Intel chips power most Apple devices, including all Mac laptops and desktops.

Apple has every reason to finish the iWatch and ensure a release date before the end of 2013. Since the first New York Times report, many rival companies to Apple including Samsung, Google and even Microsoft announced intentions to release competitors to Apple’s presumptive “iWatch,” and are fast-tracking their production to ensure a release date before or around that of the iWatch. Even Sony, which has rivaled Apple since the iPod vs. Walkman days, recently released its SmartWatch 2 in late June.

The race to build the best smartwatch is clearly on, but when will Apple release its highly-anticipated entrant? According to Bloomberg, Apple is serious about the iWatch and has a team of roughly 100 product designers working on the device, but even though Apple continues to “experiment” with the iWatch design, the considerable amount of effort already invested to hire and build partners in the wearable technology space points to a release date that’s coming sooner rather than later.

“Over the long term, wearable computing is inevitable for Apple,” Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps told the New York Times in February. “Devices are diversifying, and the human body is a rich canvas for the computer. But I’m not sure how close we are to a new piece of Apple hardware that is worn on the body.”

Apple fans would be keen to look forward to October as a possible unveiling or release date for the iWatch: Last October, Apple silently retired its touchscreen iPod nano and its popular family of add-ons that turned that particular square-shaped iPod into a wristwatch. Apple’s option to release the iWatch one year later would be fitting, especially since it would coincide with the alleged release date schedule of the newest iPhone and iPad models, and it would also give Apple plenty of time to build hype around the iWatch right before the all-important holiday season.

Apple iWatch Release Coming: What Will The Final Design Entail?

Late last year, Chinese tech site Tech.163 reported on Apple’s plans to release a Bluetooth-enabled smart watch in the “first half of next year,” which would feature Intel chips and a 1.5-inch OLED screen. Besides the display, an Apple iWatch would need several other components to function. Obviously, a watch and its display need a battery, and a small cellular antenna would allow the Apple iWatch to be potentially used for standalone calls and data. Apple has already patented a “microstrip cellular antenna,” which could possibly be integrated into a wristwatch-size iWatch.

Apple iWatch working with iPhone
The iWatch would presumably be able to connect to your other iDevices with Bluetooth and iCloud to let users launch and use applications right on their wrists. Courtesy / Nickolay Lamm,MyVoucherCodes

One of the main difficulties Apple will face in building the iWatch will be the watch’s wrist strap. Many watchmakers prefer all-metal enclosures; considering Apple is a luxury brand, the company may pursue some form of lightweight metal to help create the iWatch strap. However, if Apple wants the iWatch to appeal to lower-income markets, it may consider investing in inexpensive, interchangeable leather watchstraps as it did with its sixth-generation iPod Nano.

The final design for the iWatch will fold in the most popular features of iOS, including Siri and Apple Maps, but may also introduce a few new technologies commonly found in wearable technologies, such as a built-in pedometer to monitor exercise and activity, as well as an NFC chip to help the iWatch communicate with nearby interactive technologies. The full list of iWatch features is currently unknown, but even without knowing exactly what the iWatch will be or look like, Apple clearly has the technology and the capital to make the iWatch a reality: With Bluetooth and Apple's iCloud infrastructure, the iWatch won't need much internal storage to be a powerful device. By communicating information back and forth to your phone wirelessly, the iWatch could essentially do what most of today's fitness bands could do -- namely, measuring your pulse and body activity, possibly even using it to power the device -- but with the addition of Apple's App Store and iOS ecosystem, an iWatch could do so much more. We’ll see what Apple has in store for its iWatch if and when the company chooses to unveil or release the device later this year.

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