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iWatch Rumors: Sapphire screen production issues to result in limited launch

It was obvious during CES 2014 that manufacturers love smartwatches — there was an entire section of the show floor dedicated to them called the “Wrist revolution.”

We’re not sure any of them have revolutionized our wrists yet, but if anyone can launch a truly groundbreaking smartwatch, it’s Apple. The impending arrival of the iWatch, as it has been dubbed, has been rumored for many months.

However, there’s absolutely no official proof such a device is in production, or planned by the firm. Instead, rumors, leaks, and a mountain of circumstantial evidence is piling up around Apple making a move into wearable tech, potentially starting with a watch. Will it be the product to silence those who say Apple can no longer innovate? Here’s everything we’ve heard so far about the iWatch.

Everything we know about the iWatch:

Updated on 7-31-2014 by Malarie Gokey: Added a report from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo that says production issues will limit the number of iWatch shipments to just 3 million this year.

When is the iWatch going to be released, and how much will it cost?

If you’ve followed the story, then you know the iWatch has been expected since early last year. Since it hasn’t materialized, production may not be going smoothly. This is backed up by reports saying less than 50 percent of models assembled actually work, thanks to problems making the tiny devices reliable, and that the battery has been causing headaches.

Production: Rosenblatt Securities analyst Brian Blair expects Apple to make 18-21 million iWatches for the second half of the year, with production kicking into full gear sometime in July or August. In early July, KGI Securities analyst Ming Chi Kuo revised his earlier opinion that production for the iWatch would kick off in late September. Due to difficulties in the design and creation process, Kuo now believes that Apple will start production in late November. He added that Apple is still aiming for an October launch, but that the quantities may be limited to about 3 million.

Release Date: In August 2013, DigiTimes claimed that the iWatch was scheduled for launch during the second half of 2014. New reports point toward a more specific Q3 2014 release, meaning we may see it in the July – September timeframe. Apple may be hoping to ship 65 million units in 2014, which sounds like a very high number, judging by the current wearables market. Another analyst has lower but still substantial expectations, pegging the figure around 18 million during 2015.

A DigiTimes report says three Apple suppliers have started to provide sample flexible circuit boards destined for the iWatch, and ready for an announcement around September.

An Apple product roadmap, created by analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, predicts the iWatch will be announced alongside a 4.7-inch iPhone model around August or September this year. On the last day of July, AppleInsider obtained a note to investors from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, which states that production issues have delayed the iWatch manufacturing process significantly. Kuo predicts that these problems will result in a limited launch for the iWatch this year.

Earlier in the month, Kuo said that Apple won’t start production in September as previously expected, but will get going in November. Kuo reaffirmed this information and said that as a result, Apple may only sell 3 million units before the end of 2014, instead of the incredibly high estimates made earlier in the year. In this note to investors, Kuo added that the issue lies with shortages of sapphire screen covers for the iWatch. The analyst said that the production bottleneck may force Apple to issue some iWatches with regular glass screens instead.

In June, a report from Japanese newspaper Nikkei hinted at an October release for the iWatch. The paper’s sources also claim that the iWatch will feature a curved OLED screen and a focus on health-tracking features. One parts manufacturer said that Apple plans to reach 3-5 million units in commercial output each month, due to its tight partnerships with Mayo Clinic and other hospitals.

Price: An analyst pegged the price at around $150 to $230, calling it an iPod replacement rather than a smartwatch. More recently, an analyst from Morgan Stanley estimated Apple would charge $300 for the iWatch, matching the original Galaxy Gear price. The same analyst added the iWatch could bring Apple $17.5 billion in revenue over the first year, $5 billion more than the original iPad. It’s also noted that like the iPad, Apple will target existing customers with the watch, promoting it as primarily a companion device.

Rumors continue to suggest there will be more than one iWatch model, and according to industry analyst Ming Chi Kuo, Apple will also produce each one in various specs and materials. This could mean the price will vary drastically, with the very top models potentially costing thousands of dollars. However, another analyst predicts the average price of the watch will be around $250, and that some versions may come with “insurance subsidization,” which could work on the same principle as network subsidization for phones. This would apparently rely on the device’s health monitoring features.

Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty cited customer loyalty as the main justification for the $300 price. According to Huberty’s research, 90 percent of those who buy Apple products in developed countries stay with the company. The report also states that — assuming Apple fans react to the iWatch with as much enthusiasm as they do the iPhone — the launch will be  a rip-roaring success. Huberty told investors that Apple could sell anywhere between 30 million and 60 million iWatches during the first year of its availability. The appeal of the Apple brand, the iWatch’s design, and the added health and fitness sensors will supposedly heighten the device’s popularity. This is, of course, just speculation.

More than one version is possible

Early on, a Korean news source said Apple is developing three different versions of the iWatch — which may explain why no one can agree on the screen size — perhaps so it can provide a model suitable for men and women separately. The report also talks about the watch having a flexible OLED display. Subsequently, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo predicted Apple will offer the iWatch in two sizes. One with a 1.3-inch screen, and the other with a 1.5-inch display. The flexible AMOLED screens would be covered in sapphire crystal, according to Kuo, and some of the mechanical parts could be made from liquid metal.

Then, in mid-July, Taiwanese news outlet Economic Daily News reported that Apple will release three versions of the iWatch with two different screen sizes. The screens will be larger than originally expected, at 1.6 and 1.8 inches respectively.  The 1.8-inch iWatch will reportedly come in two models: one with a harder sapphire coating and one without. The publication added that Apple fans can expect a fall launch for all three versions of the iWatch.   iwatchs_martinhajek_family1 Speculation, and not fact, has brought up talk of a fingerprint scanner just like the iPhone 5S, along with the inclusion of NFC for wireless payments and syncing. While they’re possibilities, the inclusion of Siri may be more likely, if only to make it easier to use the small screen. Would the watch have to run a full version of iOS? A cut-down version for use on the wrist makes more sense. Of course, we can expect fitness and health tracking to play a part, along with sleep analysis and all the usual notification and music controls we’ve seen on existing smartwatches. All of this is made possible by Bluetooth Low Energy.

Finally, we’re not sure whether the iWatch will end up being able to make calls. If so, it may follow the Galaxy Gear and include a microphone and speaker, rather than a SIM card slot. Rosenblatt Securities Brian Blair’s sources tell him that there will be “models” of the iWatch, though he didn’t specify the nature of those models.

In late June, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple will release multiple iWatch designs sometime in October. Anonymous sources familiar with Apple’s plans stated that the different versions of the iWatch will sport various screen sizes, although exact specifications are still being finalized. The sources also said that Apple aims to create a smartwatch is useful and practical. The iWatch design team’s ultimate goal is to create a smartwatch that offers customers a bigger incentive than just the convenience of checking the time and their notifications. As such, Apple will reportedly place more than 10 different sensors on the iWatch. Most of the sensors will focus on health and fitness.

What’s the tech going to be like?

We’ve heard about the people working on the iWatch, but what will the watch be like? For much of this we must rely on analyst predictions and speculation. Sizes ranging between 1.3 inches and 1.5 inches have been put forward as possible iWatch stats, as has a much larger 2-inch screen.

Curved OLED screen: Japanese newspaper Nikkei claims that the iWatch will feature a curved OLED screen, instead of a round face like the Moto 360. KGI Securities analyst Ming Chi Kuo confirmed the curved display rumor, but stated that the iWatch will feature a flexible AMOLED, not an OLED. He also stated that the display would be made of sapphire glass for added durability.

LG is making the screens: According to a Korean news source, LG was awarded the contract to produce the screens for Apple’s iWatch. Apparently measuring 1.52 inches, the screens will be P-OLED displays, the same technology used on LG’s G Flex flexible smartphone. Mass production is said to begin after July, which makes a late September or later announcement seem possible. The usual supply constraints are also mentioned. It’s all far from official though, and the article was pulled from the website after publication.

Willow Glass: The watch could also be covered in Corning’s super flexible Willow Glass, which is thin and flexible enough to be used on curved displays, has been specially designed for touch screens, and is compatible with OLED panels. It’s so strong, Corning says it can be wrapped around a device. Patents from Apple showing curved screens have been spotted in the past.

Sapphire: Willow Glass isn’t the only option for keeping the iWatch’s face free from scratches and damage, however. Apple’s recent deal with makers of sapphire crystal panels, GT Advanced, means it’s in a prime position to use the almost indestructible material instead. A document has been uncovered that seems to show Apple and GT Advanced’s new factory in Mesa, Ariz., will start operating in February.

There’s no confirmation it’s going to produce screens, but the so-called Project Cascade is going to produce “a critical new sub-component of Apple products.” The use of the word “new” suggests it won’t be anything to do with Apple’s current use of sapphire — the camera lens cover and TouchID sensor on the iPhone. Working with sapphire crystal is time-consuming, meaning any product that relies on the GT Advanced component is many months away from release.

Circular shape: Rosenblatt Securities analyst Brian Blair went into detail about what the iWatch will look like. According to his supply chain sources, it will have a circular shape, much like the Moto 360 does. However, sources said the iWatch will have a slimmer profile.

When did all this iWatch talk start?

Amazingly, iWatch rumors can be traced back to the end of 2012, when a Chinese site indicated Apple was building a smart watch with a 1.5-inch OLED screen, which would connect to the iPhone. An early 2013 launch date was provided, which obviously didn’t come true. iwatchc_martinhajek_clean_31 The next round of meaningful rumors began in February 2013, when both Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal discussed Apple’s interest in a “wristwatch-like” device. At the time, Apple had a team of around 100 people working on the project, including software and hardware engineers and a marketing team. This suggested the device had moved beyond the concept stage and was being primed for release. A report around the same time from the New York Times said the watch would run Apple’s iOS mobile software and differentiate itself from the competition by using curved glass.

Apple assembles a team, Mission: Impossible style

If the iWatch project is as important to Apple as we’re led to believe, it must have a crack team of geniuses working on it, right? The members of Apple’s very own IMF team has been the subject of much speculation, equalling talk of the watch itself. In July last year, 9to5Mac reported that Apple’s Bob Mansfield was heading up the team, assisted by VP Kevin Lynch and James Foster.

iWatch could be covered in Corning’s super flexible Willow Glass. It’s so strong, Corning says, that it can be wrapped around a device.

French website MacG.com added that other team members on the project also worked on the iPod. Of all Apple’s previous products, the sixth-generation iPod Nano is the closest it has come to releasing a wearable device. There are two other notable names attached to the project — unofficially, of course. The first is Jay Blahnik. Fitness expert Blahnik joined Apple in August 2013, having previously worked on the iOS-only Nike FuelBand, and sources told 9to5Mac he would be assisting the iWatch team.

The other interesting addition to the Apple family is Paul Deneve, who once headed up Saint Lauren Paris. He joined Apple in July 2013, and in a statement it was revealed he would be working on unnamed special projects. As style is going to be paramount to the iWatch’s success, this could be that special project.

At the beginning of January 2014, Apple went on a health kick and reportedly snapped up two health tech experts. The first, Nancy Dougherty, worked on a Bluetooth-enabled Band-Aid for Sano Intelligence, which can monitor heart rate, breathing, and body temperature. The second is Ravi Narasimhan, formerly of Vital Connect, which also makes a wearable sensor to monitor your vital signs. As fitness and health is rumored to play a part in the iWatch’s feature list, these could be two new additions to Apple’s team. The iWatch has also been linked with engineers who worked on the iPhone 5S fingerprint sensor and experts on miniaturization and power efficiency. Apple’s design expert Jony Ive is also said to be heavily involved.

Wireless charging may be essential

Patents hint at flexible battery packs, while a Forbes contributor says wireless charging will be an essential part of making the iWatch usable because the inevitable color display will eat through the unavoidably small battery. In a report published by the New York Times, anonymous sources indicated Apple has been experimenting with magnetic induction, or wireless charging, for the iWatch. Apple’s tech would potentially use the same method seen on several Nokia smartphones, where the device is placed on a special mat that charges without the need for cables.

Apple apparently hasn’t settled on wireless charging and may also be looking at both solar and kinetic charging. These have been used in watches before, but the increased power demands of a smartwatch could mean they will supplement a wirelessly charged battery, helping the device last through the day. If an analyst’s comments come true, we shouldn’t expect the iWatch to impress with weeks of standby time. A 200 to 250mAh cell could be inside, providing a a day’s worth of use.

What has Apple said about all this?

Here’s where the talk becomes somewhat less ephemeral — and Apple CEO Tim Cook is to blame. At the D11 conference in May he called the wrist “interesting” when talking about wearable technology, but dismissed the idea of smart glasses like Google Glass. He continued, “I think the wrist is somewhat natural,” and that the wearable market was “ripe for exploration.” Cook has also talked about what’s coming in 2014, saying the company has big plans for the year that “customers are going to love.” Will the iWatch be one of these products? With many months between us and the watch (at least), we’re sure to hear plenty more about it, so check back for regular updates.

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Past updates

Updated on 7-15-2014 by Malarie Gokey: Added a report from Taiwan that says Apple will introduce three different iWatch models.

Updated on 7-14-2014 by Malarie Gokey: Added new price and sale figure estimate from Morgan Stanley.

Updated on 7-11-2014 by Malarie Gokey: Added a new report from KGI Securities analyst Ming Chi Kuo on iWatch production delay, release date, and specs.

Updated on 6-20-2014 by Malarie Gokey: Added a Wall Street Journal report that claims Apple will release multiple iWatch designs with more than 10 sensors.

Updated on 6-06-2014 by Malarie Gokey: Japanese newspaper Nikkei claims that the iWatch will arrive in October with a curved OLED screen and health tracking.

Updated on 5-28-2014 by Williams Pelegrin: According to an analyst’s sources, the iWatch will have a circular shape and go into production sometime in July or August.

Updated on 4-14-2014 by Andy Boxall: We’ve updated the price and release date sections of the roundup, plus comments on the chance of seeing two iWatch models released.

Updated on 4-08-2014 by Jeffrey Van Camp: We’ve updated the article with new rumors from Economic Daily News (a Chinese publication) pointing toward a July – September 2014 release date for the iWatch. Supposedly, Apple hopes to ship 65 million watches in 2014 alone.

Updated on 02-04-2014 by Andy: An analyst has estimated Apple may charge $300 for the iWatch, and said it could make the firm up to $17.5 billion in revenue during its first year on sale.

Updated on 02-03-2014 by Andy: How will you charge the iWatch? Apple is rumored to be working on wireless, solar, or even kinetic systems.

Updated on 01-30-2014 by Andy: A document has been uncovered suggesting a joint Apple/GT Advanced manufacturing plant will start producing sapphire components in February. Could the panels end up on the iWatch? Also, Apple has reportedly been hiring health technology experts.

Updated on 01-20-2014 by Andy: A news source states LG has won the contract to product the iWatch screens, which will be 1.52-inch P-OLED displays. (Images courtesy of Martin Hajek)