The Apple Dick Tracy iWatch leaks: Why now?

February 11, 2013, 11:15 AM UTC

Corning’s bendable Willow glass

FORTUNE — In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s been a lot of buzz in the tech press over the past two weeks about the wrist watch-size computer Apple (AAPL) may or may not be preparing for release, culminating over the weekend with a pair of stories in the
New York Times
and the
Wall Street Journal
— two of Apple’s go-to outlets for leaks from within the company.

The idea, if you missed MG Siegler’s modest wish list or Bruce Tognazzini’s extravagant speculations, is that a device on your wrist would be paired with your smartphone and save you the trouble of having to go to your pocket to check the time, see who’s texting you, find an address etc. The Times — citing unnamed sources — reported that Apple is developing a smartwatch around Corning’s flexible, paper-thin Willow Glass. The Journal added that the company has been talking to Foxconn — its chief Asian manufacturer — about building such a thing.

I’ve got no inside knowledge about what Apple is up to, but I assume that where there’s this much smoke, there’s probably some kind of fire.

But why now? Why these seemingly coordinated leaks to the Times and the Journal?

I’ve got five theories, offered in the order of least to most likely:

  • To deflect attention from Google Glass. On January 29, Google (GOOG) gave a secret briefing to developers about writing applications for a different kind of wearable computer — one that feeds information to you through a tiny screen above your eye. Perhaps. But Apple is a pretty insular company that doesn’t usually react so quickly to what the competition is up to.
  • To boost Apple’s stock price. Wall Street hammered Apple last fall after Tim Cook promised a spate of exciting new products and delivered only incremental improvements on its existing product line. An iWatch might be just the thing to prove to investors that Apple hasn’t lost its disruptive mojo. That may be, but since when did Apple care so much about its share price? 
  • To deflect attention from iTV. For several years, it’s been assumed that Apple’s next target for disruption would the TV industry. But that’s hard to do if Hollywood won’t play ball. Apple could get much higher profit margins from a smartwatch without having to negotiate any tricky content deals. All true, but why choose this moment to break Apple’s rule about discussing unannounced products? 
  • To deflect attention from the cash distribution story. Apple’s beleaguered shares staged a modest rally last week on signs that the company was about to give shareholders some of its $137 billion in excess cash. If that payback is going to be delayed, or will be smaller than investors have been led to expect, Apple might want to soften the blow. Again, since when has Apple cared so much about what investors think?
  • To dampen runaway iWatch speculation. If you read the story posted last week by Bruce Tognazzini, a long-time Apple interface designer, you might think that there is almost nothing this watch can’t do. His version of an iWatch knows all your passwords, has a near-field communications chip for making payments, monitors your vital signs, knows how far you’ve walked and how many laps you’ve swum, can find your missing car keys, predict the weather, fix what’s wrong with Apple Maps and much, much more. The best part: You never have to take it off for recharging because its batteries are refreshed over the airwaves. Apple might very well want to warn us that its iWatch plans are considerably more modest.