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Remembering Apple's first iWatch: The 6th generation iPod Nano

April 05, 2013|By Chris O'Brien
  • Lunatik was one of the companies that made wristbands to turn the 6th generation iPod Nano into a watch.
Lunatik was one of the companies that made wristbands to turn the 6th generation… ( Lunatik )

The tech industry has been buzzing in recent weeks about the sudden burst of announcements about wearable computing, and in particular about rumors that Apple is working on some kind of iWatch.

But in the view of some Apple fans, such a gadget wouldn’t be Apple’s first watch. As far as they're concerned, Apple already released -- and then withdrew -- its first watch when it introduced the 6th generation of its iPod Nano in 2010.

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As part of a larger story about Apple’s iWatch plans, I spoke with Scott Wilson, a Chicago-based designer who has been involved in various ways with smartwatch efforts over the years. The first time he saw the iPod Nano 6, he had no doubt that here, at least, was the first version of a smartwatch he’d dreamed about:

"When I saw the size, it was so small," Wilson said. "All the smartwatches to date had been too big and clunky to make it a mass market. Whey they showed that iPod, it was like, 'Wow, look at what they packed into this tiny package.'"

Previous versions of the Nano had a rectangular shape. With version 6, Apple reduced the size to a small square with a touchscreen: 1.48 inches x 1.61 inches, and just 0.35 inches thin. In other words, about the size of a watch face. 

Along with the multi-touch screen, the Nano came with many features smartwatch boosters crave. These include an accelerometer, a Nike+ app that turned the device into a pedometer, an FM radio, and the ability to sync music from iTunes (via a USB cable). The battery promised the ability to listen to 24 hours of music.

All this new iPod Nano needed was a wristband to let you slap it on your wrist. Wilson launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money that he used to design wristbands to hold the Nano. They became so popular, he started a side business called LunaTik to sell them.

There were a few limitations with the iPod watch. Wilson said you had to push a button to view the screen. It didn't have Bluetooth, which means you couldn't link to your iPhone. And it wasn't water-resistant.

"Everything else was pretty phenomenal," Wilson said. "I've worked on a lot of products. But I never saw something that had so much stopping power in conversation. It still does to this day."

Apple must have had some inkling that people might use the gadget this way. On the product description page, the company noted the options for different clock faces that "turn iPod Nano into a stylish timepiece."

Apple even used to sell several different wristbands from other companies through its website. 

Alas, Apple redesigned the Nano again last year, returning it to a rectangular shape for the 7th generation that is too awkward to wear on your wrist. Was this driven by natural design evolution? Or was this spontaneous watch market getting ahead of Apple’s official plans for a watch? Nobody knows for sure, of course.

"We were obviously disappointed," Wilson said. "You can never count on Apple not to change their product. When they did that, they either completely lost a product that was a vision of the future. Or, they have a plan up their sleeve."

Wilson thinks it's the latter, saying he still talks to folks at Apple who tell him a smartwatch is coming. 

"It's not really a question of if they do a smartwatch," Wilson said. "It's when."

But Wilson also noted that delving into the watch market will present a number of challenges for Apple, and not just technical ones.

For instance, will the company release just two designs (black or white) as it does with iPhones? Will it offer a handful of colors as it does it iPod Nanos? Or will it just sell the watch face and let third parties sell the bands?

Whatever the case, Apple can expect plenty of competition given the number of recent announcements of other companies working on smartwatches. Wilson said he's been getting lots of calls lately from big tech companies (which he declined to name) who wanted to talk about smartwatches. 

"We’re getting all these calls from companies who want to do a smartwatch," Wilson said. "We're not sure how we're going to participate yet."

iWatch - LunaTik Unboxing & Review from Michael Eggert on Vimeo.


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