New iPod nano no threat to smartwatches … yet.

A slightly improved iPod nano(s aapl) took a back seat to the iPhone 4S and iOS 5 announcements at Tuesday’s Apple event. The small touchscreen music player sees a price drop on both the 8 GB and 16 GB models, but looks identical to last year’s model, just like the new iPhone 4S resembles the iPhone 4. Apple’s newest nano does gain a software update bringing it one small step closer to being a smartwatch.

I’ve been following the market for wearable displays and smartwatches for some time now. These small devices either act as remote displays that interact with your smartphone over a wireless connection or have smartphone guts of their own. With them, you can run apps, manage messages, check your calendar or view the weather, for example. My first foray in this area was back in 2004 with a Microsoft SPOT(s msft) watch; it used FM radio waves to shoot news updates, text messages, event notifications and weather to my wrist. The service was quickly leapfrogged by smartphones and cellular wireless technology.

More recently, I tried a Sony(s sne) Ericsson(eric) Live View watch, but it lost connectivity to my Android(s goog) handset far too much. The MetaWatch prototype I reviewed back in June worked far better and is a reliable solution. And the folks at WIMM Labs are working on a wearable touchscreen device based on Android that has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and various other sensors.

The new nano can’t do nearly as much as these devices. With the software update, it gains new watch faces. The integrated accelerometer can measure how far and fast you run or walk; there’s no external Nike+(s nke) sensor needed. Since the device has no wireless radio, you’ll need to physically connect the nano to a computer for offloading the Nike+ data. And you can’t run third-party apps, so you can use any exercise software you want, provided it’s Nike+.

Now Apple isn’t positioning the nano as a smartwatch. But I could easily see the nano slowly morph into one with incremental upgrades. For the mass market audience, there isn’t yet a market for smartwatches. Few see the need, as they get all the information they need from a smartphone. But I see future merit in this market. Being able to triage or manage email and messages with a glance at the MetaWatch on my wrist is a huge time saver that doesn’t require me to pull out and power on a smartphone, and as we depend more on mobile devices, that’ll become increasingly important.

If this market does gain traction, I’d expect Apple to leverage the nano and iOS. Similar to past approaches with other products, Apple would likely create a smartwatch based on what it feels consumers need most in a wearable device. And because so few consumers are thinking about a product like this, it would be perceived as magical and revolutionary, much like the iPad is, despite the earlier presence of other consumer tablets.

For those currently developing smartwatches, there’s no immediate danger for two reasons. First, the nano isn’t yet a serious threat. Second, all the existing smartwatch efforts are based on Google Android; they don’t connect to iOS devices. That means as long as Android is around and popular — a safe bet — they can continue to mature their products for non-iOS users. But for those that have Apple products, the only smartwatch likely to connect to an iPhone is going to come from Apple, likely in the form of a nano successor.