iWatch: Apple’s first true foray into wearable tech

You have to say the odds are stacked against them though.

Reports from Silicon Valley suggest Apple is currently recruiting heavily in its iWatch wrist computer division, in the hope of ironing out design problems the team is currently grappling with. Insiders at its Cupertino headquarters suggest the hiring spree has been sparked amid concerns the new tech will not be ready until the end of 2014. Apple’s first true foray into wearable technology, chief executive Tim Cook said in June that this market segment was "ripe for exploration" and "incredibly interesting".

Although not yet officially announced, industry insiders agree a new smartwatch is the most likely piece of kit under development; with Apple has already making several applications to trademark "iWatch". Mr Cook hinted at its existence in April, saying: "Our teams are hard at work on some amazing new hardware, software and services that we can't wait to introduce this fall and throughout 2014."

With Apple clearly investing heavily in the iWatch, you have to wonder whether the company is backing the wrong horse. Industry analysts have long been predicting the explosion of wearable tech, but its growth has so far been meagre at best. Critical consensus hasn’t yet been reached either, with Google Glass generating a lot of column inches but also polarising opinion. Reviews have praised its inituitive hands-free interface in the same breath as pouring scorn on the potential privacy problems associated with the glasses-mounted camera, which makes it difficult for others to tell if you are recording them or not.

It remains to be seen if the iWatch will encounter such a reception upon its release, but at this stage at least, you have to say the odds are stacked against Apple. One of the biggest advantages of Google Glass is that it frees up your hands to do other things, while still allowing you to make use of the technology’s features, as Google has made very clear in its promotional material. I doubt many people will rush out to buy the glasses because they allow you to record your skydive hands-free, but Google is clearly showing us what the future possibilities of the wearable tech market are. In the case of the iWatch, it is hard to see how this could be made to be hands-free, so this advantage is immediately wiped out, meaning its other features will have to be especially enticing for it to succeed.

Still, if anyone can take a nascent market segment and really make it a success, it’s Apple. The iPod, iPhone and iPad were not the first MP3 player, smartphone or tablet to be released, but their huge success shows just what a difference a compelling product and some canny marketing can make. The iPhone has now sold in excess of 250m units.

However, success isn’t always guaranteed even when it comes to this tech giant’s products; Apple TV anyone? Lauded as the future of television when launched in March 2007, the digital media receiver has never really caught the public’s imagination despite a redesign in 2010 and again in 2012. The difference between success and failure of the iWatch could rest heavily on Apple latest recruits.

Reports from Silicon Valley suggest Apple is currently recruiting heavily in its iWatch wrist computer division. Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.