It is the first official hint that Apple has a new gadget in the pipeline: the notoriously secretive company has applied to register the iWatch name as a trademark.
The anticipated wrist-computer – which may be akin to a television, so little firm information about it is available – will be Apple's first new product of the post Steve Jobs era. Apple has filed for ownership of the "iWatch" trademark in Japan and, assuming it is a watch, it would be a further demonstration of Silicon Valley's growing interest in wearable computing.
The field is a hot new frontier for technology firms, as shown by the considerable interest in the Google Glass project, where futuristic spectacles can trawl the internet or take pictures on the move.
Speculation over the iWatch has gathered pace this year after Jobs's successor as chief executive, Tim Cook, described wearable products as "profoundly interesting." His rivals clearly feel the same way, with Google and Microsoft already developing watch-like products, setting the stage for a battle royal already described as "the new platform war".
Nitin Bhas, senior analyst at Juniper Research, said: "Apple has been hinting for some time that it has a big product in the works, this could be it." The speculation filling the void of Apple's studious silence is that the iWatch will link to other Apple devices, offering another way to access text messages or check email. Bhas added: "But that won't be enough. Apple won't offer something that just connects to your smartphone."
Bhas predicts any wearable iWatch will offer a new way to pay for shopping, carry airline or concert tickets and will function like a wrist-worn digital wallet. It may also take on health-related wearables from companies including Nike, Fitbit and Jawbone.
Apple reportedly has a team of 100 specialists looking at ways to take advantage of recent developments in hi-tech curved glass, cheaper sensors and better voice recognition software.
Wearable technology is a small market, but research firm Juniper estimates that it will generate $800m (£500m) in revenue this year and $1.5bn in 2014 with interest form the big three tech firms likely to ramp up the commercial windfall.
Apple has never felt the need to be first to market, relying on its ability to offer better designed, and pricier, takes on the latest technology. But that lead has been eroded in recent years and Apple needs a new hit to prove it is still a maker of must-have, innovative products.
The company's share price hit an all time high of $700 last September but is now around $400, driven down in part by fears that its days as the world's most inventive technology business are over.
Elsewhere, the iPhone's lead is being chipped away by Samsung, which uses Google's Android mobile operating system, while Amazon and Google are attacking iTunes. Apple is also a victim of rising expectations, coming under increased presure having launched no new device since last October.
The application for the iWatch trademark was made in Japan on 3 June, according to the Wall Street Journal, and made public on 27 June. Russia's Izvestia reported that Apple applied for the same trademark there in June. It does not appear to have registered the name in Europe, where an Italian company owns the trademark, but registering a trademark is usually an essential step made ahead of the launch of a product.
The name of Apple's iPod was first discovered from trademark filings ahead of its launch in October 2001. The name iWatch has been trademarked several times in the US although Apple trampled over Cisco's "iPhone" trademark in 2007 when it launched its phone that January. The two companies later came to an agreement.
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