Unlike the almost forgotten Apple TV set, there might be a real product in the iWatch. But as rumors about the device intensify, the scuttlebutt conveniently skirts key questions about the product’s role.

As reverberations of Apple’s Developer Conference begin to die down, the ever-dependable iWatch has offered itself as the focus of another salvo of rumors and speculation. Actually, there’s just one rumor — a Reuters “report” that Quanta Computer will begin manufacturing the iWatch in July — but it was enough to launch a quick-fire series of echoes that bounced around the blogosphere. Not to be outdone, the Wall Street Journal added its own tidbits:

“Apple is planning multiple versions of a smartwatch…[that] will include more than 10 sensors to track and monitor health and fitness data, these people said.”

(“These people” are, of course, the all-knowing “people familiar with the matter”.)

The iWatch hubbub could be nothing more than a sort of seasonal virus, but this time there’s a difference.

At the WWDC three weeks ago, Apple previewed HealthKit, a toolkit iOS developers can use to build health and fitness related applications. HealthKit is a component of the iOS 8 release that Apple plans to ship this fall in conjunction with the newest iDevices. As an example of what developers will be able to do with HealthKit, Apple previewed Health, an application that gives you “an easy-to-read dashboard of your health and fitness data.”

The rumor that Quanta will soon begin “mass production” of the iWatch — the perfect vehicle for health-and-fitness apps — just became a bit more tantalizing… but there are still a number of questions that are left unanswered.

Foremost is iWatch “independence”. How useful will it be when it’s running on its own, unconnected to a smartphone, tablet, or conventional PC? My own guess: Not very useful. Unless Apple plans to build a monstrosity of a device (not likely), the form factor of our putative iWatch will dictate a small battery, which means the processor will have to be power-conserving and thus unable to run iPhone-caliber apps. Power conservation is particularly important if Apple wants to avoid jibes of the ‘My iWatch ran out of battery at the end of the day’ type. Such occurrences, already annoying with a smartphone, could be bad publicity for a “health and fitness” watch.

So, let’s settle for a “mostly dependent” device that relies on a more robust sibling for storage, analysis, and broad overview.

That raises another question: Will the iWatch be part of Apple’s ecosystem only, or will it play nice with Windows PCs or even Android smartphones? If we take Apple’s continued tolerance of the Android version of Beats Music (at least so far) as an example, the notion of an Apple device communicating with a member of the Android tribe is less heretical than it once was. Again, my own guess: Initially, the iWatch will be of restricted to the Apple ecosystem. We’ll see what happens if the device catches on and there’s a demand for an “non-denominational” connection.

As for what role the iWatch will play in the ecosystem, those of us ancient enough might recall the example set by the Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) that Microsoft launched a decade ago. No need to repeat that bit of doomed history by targeting too many platforms, by trying to make “Smart Objects” omniscient. Instead, Apple is likely, as it insisted at its early June WWDC, to tout its Continuity ethos: Let each device do what it does best, but don’t impede the flow of information and activities between devices. In plainer English: Hybrid devices are inferior.

So, besides telling time (perhaps in Yosemite’s new system font, a derivative of Helvetica Neue) what exactly will the iWatch do? The first part of the answer is easy: It will use its sensors to collect data of interest. We’ve already seen what the M7 motion processor and related apps can do in an iPhone 5S; now imagine data that has much finer granularity, and sensors that can measure additional dimensions, such as altitude.

Things quickly get more complicated when we turn to the “other side of the skin”. Heart rhythm and blood pressure measurements look banal, but they shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially if one wants medically reliable data. Oxymetry, the measurement of your oxygen saturation, looks simple — you just slide a cap onto your fingertip — but that cap is actually transmitting lightwaves through your finger. A smartwatch can’t help the nearly 18 million US citizens who suffer from Type II Diabetes (a.k.a Adult Onset Diabetes)  because there are no non-invasive methods for measuring blood sugar. And even as the technical complications of collecting health data are surmounted, device makers can find themselves skirting privacy issues and infringing the HIPAA charter.

The iWatch will also act as a receiver of data from a smartphone, tablet, or PC. This poses many fewer problems, both technical and ethical, than health monitoring, but it also offers few opportunities. Message notifications and calendar alerts are nice but they don’t create a new category, and they certainly haven’t “moved the needle” for existing smartwatches. In a related vein, one can imagine bringing the iWatch close to one’s face and speaking to Siri, asking to set up a calendar event, or sending a text message… but, as with the trend towards larger smartphone screens, one must exercise care when fantasizing about iWatch use cases.

Then we have the question of developers and applications — where’s the support for iWatch app creators? When the iOS App Store opened in 2008, the iPhone became an app phone and solidified the now universal genre. What iWatch rumors fail to address is the presence or absence of an iWatch SDK, of iWatch apps, and of a dedicated App Store section.

Meanwhile, Google has already announced its Android Wear platform and has opened a “Developer Preview” program. Conventional wisdom has it that the Google I/O convention next week will focus on wearables. Samsung has been actively fine-tuning and updating the software for its line of Galaxy Gear smart watches (the watches originally ran on an Android derivative but now use Tizen – until next week).

Finally, we have the question of whether an iWatch will sell in numbers that make the endeavor worthwhile. As the previously-mentioned WSJ story underlines, the smartwatch genre has had a difficult start:

“[...] it isn’t clear how much consumers want the devices. Those on the market so far haven’t sold well, because most wearable devices only offer a limited set of features already found on a smartphone.”

The most ambitious rumors project 50 million iWatches sold in the first 12 months. I think that’s an unrealistic estimate, but if a $300 iWatch can sell at these numbers, that’s $15B for the year. This seems like a huge number until you compare it to a conservative estimate for the iPhone:  50 million iPhones at $650 generates $32B per quarter.

Taking a more hopeful view, let’s recall the history of the iPad. It was a late entrant in the tablet field but it coalesced and redefined the genre. Perhaps the the iWatch will establish itself as The Smartwatch Done Right. But even if it succeeds in this category-defining role, it won’t have the power and flexibility or the huge number of apps of a true trouser pocket computer. As a result, the iWatch will be part of the supporting cast, not a first order product like the iPhone. There’s nothing wrong with that — it might help make high-margin iPhones even more attractive — but it won’t sell in numbers, dollar volume, or profit comparable to the iPhone or iPad. The iWatch, if and when announced, might be The Next Big Thing – for the few weeks of a gargantuan media feast. But it won’t redefine an industry the way PCs, smartphones and tablets did.

JLG@mondaynote.com