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Apple iWatch: The next big thing? [Update]

(MoneyWatch) Apple (AAPL) is "experimenting with wristwatch-like devices made of curved glass," according to reports by the New York Times and others.

[Update: Bloomberg reports that Apple has a 100-person team working on the concept, including software and hardware engineers who previously worked on the iPad and iPhone. This is the same size team that Steve Jobs led in developing the first Macintosh.]

But what would the device do? Act like the wrist-worn communicators in the old Dick Tracy detective comic strip? Provide some smartphone-like computing ability? Provide directions for people or offer mobile payment capabilities, as Nick Bilton at the Times pondered? Tell time?

The sources for the stories about the mystery device -- the usual people familiar with the company's plans -- make it sound as though this could have been one of Apple's planned leaks, possibly to woo investors who seem to have fallen out love recently with the tech giant's stock.

Why Apple might quietly spread the word about a new device is as easy to see given the sharp decline in the company's stock after its most recent earnings release. A major concern of investors has been whether Apple could continue to enter new product categories and create runaway hits. Rumors of a wrist device at least draw attention to the company and the possibility of something innovative coming along.

There have been crosses between mobile computers, phones and wristwatches before. Microsoft had an MSN watch in 2006. And multiple Android-powered phones now come with touch-screens.

But the product category has never taken off. Perhaps Apple could make it work, as the iPod took over the previously existing MP3 player market with a combination of style and functionality that made it irresistible to consumers.

Perhaps a Bluetooth connection could connect to a wrist device using something like Corning's bendable Willow glass; it also could include touch sensors to make a phone-in-the-pocket controller and display. That might be a step forward from wireless ear pieces.

Some of Apple's recent patent filings conjure up other possibilities. For example, the company has applied for a patent for a body-bar sensing system that among other things could strap to a wrist to determine the amount of physical activity a person was undergoing, perhaps for athletic or healthcare monitoring.

Another patent application, titled "Activity Monitoring Systems and Methods," describes a monitor in a housing that could measure such things as speed, distance traveled, time, number of steps taken and so on, whether on gym equipment or mounted on a pair of skis or bike, with the information transmitted wirelessly to the wrist device.

A patent application for smart garments mentions such information as "location information, physiometric data of the individual wearing the garment, garment performance and wear data (when the garment is an athletic shoe, for example)" that is relayed to a wrist display.

So the likely function for an iWatch would be to act as a non-obtrusive display that is always at the ready, is able to connect with an iPhone and other Apple gear, and can track personal data for health, sports and entertainment.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Hendrawillyanto

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