Why Apple needs a wearable computer as much as wearables need Apple’s touch

There are some pretty basic — but tough — requirements for creating a wearable computer with mass consumer appeal: it has to be comfortable, stand up to dirt, water and sweat, and, perhaps most importantly, it can’t make you look like a huge nerd. No one has managed to do this yet. However, as some of the biggest players in the mobile industry race to figure out how, it’s looking more probable that Apple is preparing to put its own twist on this nascent market.

By registering trademarks for iWatch all over the world and hiring an experienced fashion executive, Apple(s AAPL) appears to be preparing for the launch of its first wearable computing device. Should such a smartwatch eventually emerge from Cupertino, and if Apple has figured out a way to make a geeky product mainstream, it could have the same effect on the fledgling wearables market that the iPhone had on the smartphone world in 2007.

Will Tim Cook’s team deliver an industry-changing, category-defining product like the iPhone or will it be a repeat of the Apple Maps situation? Or, are we playing the Apple TV game again — jumping at reports that Apple might define a category ripe for disruption, only to watch quarter after quarter pass with no product?

Jawbone Up
Jawbone Up

In the run-up to the expected launch of an Apple smartwatch, there are similarities to the smartphone landscape before the iPhone. Ahead of the debut of the iPhone, Apple had made its mark in a related category a few years before — iPods — and was attempting to push into an industry that wasn’t exactly new. The iPhone entered a field crowded with BlackBerry, Palm, Nokia and Samsung smartphones. And while they sold well, they weren’t mainstream yet. These devices were still mainly purchased by business users.

Six years later it’s safe to say Apple has done pretty well in the smartphone business. The iPhone flipped the the wireless industry on its head. Apple did that by building a device using existing technologies and a modified version of OS X for mobile, and struck the right deals to deliver a smartphone experience that worked for regular people.

The iWatch (assuming that’s what it will be called) has the potential of repeating a similar formula. Wearable computing is a burgeoning category expected to be worth $1.5 billion by the end of next year. While smartwatches have been so far been built to appeal to fitness types and the early adopter crowd, there’s clear potential that such a device will find a home with a mainstream audience if done right.

Sony SmartWatch 2 trio
Sony SmartWatch 2

A device that can combine notifications, email/messages access, with location services, health-tracking, and a rich third-party ecosystem is a trick Apple has pulled off before. This time, it has to do it in a much smaller package and also make the case for why we should wear a computer instead of carry it in our pocket or purse. That’s a pretty tall order, but Apple has proven itself here in the past.

There is, of course, another scenario. The one in which Apple, feeling pressure to enter a new category it doesn’t have a lot of experience with and hurries into it partly as a way of playing defense against a key competitor.

That was partly what went wrong with Apple Maps. Apple felt the need to remove Google(s GOOG) from providing a main function of iOS software — mapping — and build its own version of the software that addressed the needs of its customers (turn-by-turn directions was a legitimate feature need that Google was keeping back from iOS users).

But despite bringing in the outside expertise it would need — Poly9, C3, Placebase, via acquisition — the reaction to the first version of the product was a disaster for Apple. Maps was likely rushed in order to build it into iOS 6 in fall 2012, and Apple overhyped the brand new product without providing the clearly necessary warning about its possible shortcomings.

This scenario, of course, occurred in the post-Steve Jobs era at Apple. While iOS 7 was reportedly the first software product designed without him, it’s possible that any wearable device Apple comes up with will be the first hardware product made in the post-Jobs era. But, really, we don’t know how long Apple may have been discussing wearable computing — the iPad was in the works for years before it debuted in 2010, for example.

Tim Cook cleaned house after the Maps debacle, so it’s quite possible Apple learned its lesson about being overeager to ship a product that’s not quite ready — and the lessons from the MobileMe disaster of 2008 certainly remain fresh in the minds of senior executives. There isn’t a smartwatch in existence yet that Apple would feel compelled to rush out and top — yet. A leak to the Wall Street Journal last week made it clear that Google is indeed working on its own Android-powered smartwatch — a development the folks in Cupertino are obviously keeping a close eye on.

The debut of the iWatch, if and when it comes, is going to be the most closely watched Apple product debut since the original iPad. Not just because it’s an Apple product, and not just because Apple’s shareholders and customers have been clamoring for something shiny and new.

But also because everyone will be eager to see how the company that Jobs left behind plans to really move forward without him.