Apple Defines Wearables as Fashionable Computing

on October 1, 2014
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Apple pioneered the PC, the mouse-driven PC, the digital music player, the modern laptop, the smartphone, and the tablet. Steve Jobs directed the creation of each of these transformative products, collaborating with Steve Wozniak, Jon Rubinstein, Jony Ive, and others along the way. Apple is now entering Wearables without Steve Jobs at the helm – though Jony Ive’s fingerprints are all over the Apple Watch (literally. The Apple Watch is a fingerprint magnet). Along with several other Techpinions columnists and a few thousand journalists, Apple employees, and Apple guests, I attended the launch and got hands on with several Apple Watches.

A Strange Way To Launch a Product (for Apple)

Apple famously limits the number and type of products it works on. When it enters a new product category, like smartwatches or tablets, it explains what it thinks is wrong with the existing products and what role its device will fill. Apple also often curates use cases for a new product, and opens it up for apps and features later. The original iPod had fewer features than the competition; it took years before FM radio was added. The first iPhone was described as a phone, an iPod, and a web browser – the App Store did not come until a full year later. The context portion of Apple’s launch monologue typically explains why a minimalist approach makes sense. The limited functionality allows consumers to understand precisely what the problems the product is designed to solve – even consumers did not realize they had that problem before Apple pointed it out.

That is not how Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced the Apple Watch. Like Samsung or Google or Asus, Tim Cook simply said Apple is building a watch. He then went on to describe endless features – exceptionally accurate timekeeping, interactive watch faces, fitness tracking, notifications, Siri dictation, GPS directions, Apple Pay, hotel access, BMW integration, watch-to-watch communication, and more. Rather than take the less-is-more approach – with more-is-more over time — Apple jumped straight to the more-is-more stage. This part reminded me of the iPad launch. However, the iPad really was “just” a larger iPod touch – and it was fair to say that consumers understood the value proposition of iOS apps on a larger display. That isn’t the case for apps on watches.

Consumers need concrete reason to buy things, especially new things; Apple may try to rectify this closer to launch. Google has not explained to consumers why they need an Android Wear watch, and mainstream consumers are not buying them. Samsung has not explained why consumers should buy one of its Tizen watches, and they are not selling, either (Samsung stuffed the channel with the first generation Galaxy Gear, but many ended up being given away with purchase of a Samsung TV or smartphone). Note: the reason to buy an Apple Watch is crystal clear for early adopters – get the first Apple Watch! I’ll discuss that below.

In Apple’s conception, a smartwatch does not solve a limited set of problems, it is intended to be a computing platform that combines fashion and a unique user interface. While Apple is prioritizing timekeeping, watch-to-watch communication, and fitness, Apple does not really know which watch apps will appeal to consumers – the apps have not been written yet. The Apple Watch will not be available for at least a few months, and it was announced now to give developers time to write apps. (The fact that it stalls consumers from buying rival smartwatches is a really nice bonus.) This launch was as much an appeal to developers as it was a pitch to consumers.

So What is the Rationale Behind the Apple Watch?

Tim Cook didn’t explain why Apple said “yes” to the watch and “no” to all the other things Apple could have built instead. So I’ll provide three:

  1. 1. Apple SVP Design Jony Ive wanted to wear a watch that he and his staff designed. I’m completely serious. Apple is unlike any other consumer technology company in that its products do not always start as ideas from Engineering or Marketing, they often come from Design. Vendors competing with Apple tend to be organized differently, and their product focus and prioritization of attributes within those products reflect it.
  2. 2. Apple strongly believes in the power of new user interfaces to create new categories. Once the design staff decided to investigate watches as a potential product, they not only did research on horology, but on user interface design. The combination of touch, force touch (pressing down harder invokes secondary options), and using the crown for variable zooming is different from any of the existing smartwatches. Does it work? We’ll see. But Apple believes that this opens up new possibilities for small-scale app design.
  3. 3. Apple is capitulating to demand for larger phones, and that opens up the opportunity for limited computing experiences at times when pulling out a large device from your pocket or purse is unwieldy. For example, Apple Pay is built into the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch, but it makes a lot more sense on your wrist. Fitness tracking is easier on your wrist. Looking up directions is better on a phone, but following directions on your wrist is fantastic. This is similar to the reason Apple gave for building a tablet, as there are times when a phone is too little and a laptop is overly fixed and complex.

Key Attributes of the Apple Watch

It is a fashion device first. It is expensive – there are three collections (with six watch band options), and they start at $349. The gold version could be priced in the stratosphere: it’s real gold. No other vendor has paid this much attention to the style of the case and especially the straps, which are simply design masterpieces. There are two sizes – small and large 38 mm and 42 mm, and even the larger model is smaller than most competing smartwatches. No other smartwatch even offers a smaller, more female-friendly option. On the wrist, the Apple Watch looks much smaller than it appears in photos. Apple has also put a tremendous amount of effort into making the watch faces beautiful. Some are interactive. No smartwatch competitor has anything like this.

It’s a computing device second. The user interface combines touches, swipes, “force touch” (pressing harder), a side button, and a side scroll wheel/home button. Creating text is simplified with watch-generated short responses or with dictation (I was not able to get a live demo of this, but if it works well, it will significantly enhance usability.) No one thing is central to the Apple Watch – the concept of apps is the central conceit. This is similar to the iPhone (after the App Store was launched) and the iPad. Timekeeping is not central to the Apple Watch any more than phone calls are central to the iPhone. The Apple watch offers fitness tracking, navigation, notifications, NFC for Apple Pay, and much more. Two users with Apple Watches can send each other drawings and a haptic simulation of their heartbeat.

It is a phone companion (for now) requiring an iPhone 5 or better. The Watch does have its own processor and storage, so it can be used untethered for fitness tracking, music, and some apps. However, GPS, messaging, and anything requiring cellular connectivity will not work when out of Bluetooth range from an iPhone. Battery life is clearly an issue, as the screen turns off when you don’t have your wrist raised, and you’re expected to charge it every night using a magnetic cable. The magnetic connection is elegant, and an improvement on most competitors, though it is another unique cable to pack (and lose) while traveling.

Finally, the Apple Watch indicates the company is moving away from the “i” branding that started with the iMac and became a phenomenon with the iPod. It seems that Apple views the “i” mark as old fashioned and limiting, preferring the Apple mark itself for Apple Pay and Apple Watch.

Assessing Apple Watch Potential

Short term, Apple did not provide mainstream consumers a reason to buy the Apple Watch, but it certainly provided plenty of incentive for Apple early adopters: this is a gorgeous timepiece with a new user interface and endless utility. The pool of tech early adopters has increased significantly over the years; Pebble has sold over a quarter million watches. Apple early adopters are a far (far) larger group than that, and Apple should expect to sell millions of first generation Apple Watches.

Long term, two assumptions must be made. First, that Apple’s user interface works well, and second, that app developers show the value of having computing capabilities on your wrist. Given Apple’s track record with user interfaces and its relationship with developers, both of these conditions are probable. If both are proven true, the Apple Watch will have broad appeal to the installed base of iPhone users. This is a finite pool, though it is large, and some consumers may potentially buy more than one Apple Watch. Apple may make the Apple Watch less dependent on an iPhone in a future version, opening up adoption to consumers who use Android (or Windows) phones.

The biggest driver for mainstream adoption in the second and third generations is likely to be a lower entry price point. However, higher end models – potentially extremely high end – will remain in the line for as long as consumers buy them or they lend the line cachet. Apple could also expand its styles, adding a round design and creating special editions. Apple could also expand the connectivity contained in the watch; while it is unlikely that a watch would replace smartphones for most people, it is certainly conceivable that, sometime in the future, Apple might design a watch that could.

This column was adapted from a Current Analysis report. The full report includes key competitive comparisons and recommendations for Apple, Google, Samsung, Pebble, and MetaWatch.