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Apple Unveils the $349 Apple Watch, Its Wearable Device for Communication, Health and Fitness

Apple makes its first foray in the wearable technology market.

“We have one more thing,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said near the end of the company’s new-product event today at De Anza college in Cupertino, Calif.

And with invocation of Steve Jobs’s famous presentation line, the Cupertino electronics-maker stepped into the wearable technology market with the unveiling of a new smartwatch.

The watch, called Apple Watch, is a round-edged, square “smart” watch. It has a scroll-through touchscreen for navigating apps, as well as a physical button on the side of the watch, which, when pressed, will take the wearer back to the home screen.

It also tracks heart rate using an optical heart rate sensor and has an accelerometer for recording steps. Cook and other executives emphasized the device’s capabilities as a “comprehensive health and fitness” watch, one that feeds data into Apple’s upcoming HealthKit software. Two new activity-focused apps, one aimed at casual exercisers and another at more serious workout hounds, will run on the Watch, along with third-party applications.

Other features of the watch include: The ability to control music files on the iPhone or computer, summon Siri and run Maps. It will store and display photos.

Like many existing smartwatches, the Apple Watch will vibrate on the wrist and show notifications from the smartphone.

Perhaps most interestingly, Apple’s new mobile payments system, Apple Pay, will also run on the watch, supposedly allowing wearers to pay by tapping their wrists against payment terminals in stores. It’s unclear exactly how Apple Pay, which uses NFC technology and the iPhone’s Touch ID for identity verification, will run on the compatible Watch.

But many of these features, along with GPS, will be patched through the smartphone. This means Watch wearers have to have either an iPhone 5c, 5c, 6 or 6 Plus, and have Bluetooth or WiFi activated to share data between the phone and the watch.

The Apple Watch will start at $349 and ship sometime early next year, missing the holiday season. It will be available in different sizes and styles, some made of aluminum, stainless steel and 18-karat gold, with sapphire crystal and ceramic backs. There is also a “sport” version of the Watch for fitness-focused consumers.

Apple declined to offer any specifics on battery life, something that could be critical to the success of the product. It did say the watch uses inductive charging, with the watch snapping wirelessly into a charging cradle, rather than using the iPhone’s proprietary charging cable.

The company’s long-rumored smartwatch marks Apple’s first step into the wearable technology market, a relatively new category of devices that has seen mixed success over the past couple years.

Existing activity-tracking wristbands, made by companies like Jawbone, Fitbit, Basis, Misfit and even Garmin, have intrigued consumers enough to warrant 3.3 million device sales between April 2014 and March 2014. But in many cases user retention has been a problem. Some companies, like Jawbone, have recently focused more on software, partly because of the difficulties surrounding hardware — especially now, with Apple in the game.

And then there’s the smartwatch category. Electronics makers like Samsung, Sony, LG and Asus, as well as chipmakers like Intel and Qualcomm, have all introduced their own smartwatches over the past several months. In some cases, as with Samsung and Sony, there are multiple iterations of smartwatches. Late last week, Motorola introduced the Moto 360, a sleek-looking, round-faced smartwatch that my Re/code colleague Katie Boehret reviewed in full.

Apple, therefore, is not without plenty of competition, in a still-unproven category. The Apple Watch also won’t track sleep, something that other activity-trackers do.

But as I’ve written before, the company is incredibly well-positioned to produce a consumer-friendly device that comes with robust tech capabilities while not looking like a total-geek watch.

“We thought not only of the function, but of the way it looked,” Cook said at the event.

J.P. Gownder, principal analyst at Forrester Research, said he believes Apple will “legitimize and create the mass market wearables category.”

“With NFC, Apple Pay, and health and fitness monitoring, the Apple Watch interfaces with retailers, health care providers, and the human body to create a value proposition that’s different from simply pulling a phone out of one’s pocket.”

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