Apple Watch: From Accessory to Platform

Look around, and you will find no shortage of Apple Watch skeptics. Those who continue to bang the drum that Apple Watch is a flop. Or those who believe the Apple Watch serves no purpose and is a confusing product. Many so-called experts and self-proclaimed pundits fail drastically to understand Apple as a company so it should come as no surprise many of those same people are confused by a product like the Apple Watch.

I’ve been bullish from the start of Apple’s entry into this category, and I stated my full case when I wrote this report for clients at Creative Strategies in 2014. I was also one of the few who got a chance to use the Apple Watch before the general public and in this article, I dove into the core things that set a wearable computer apart from our pocket computers. A screen on your wrist is prime real-estate and poised to add value in ways a computer that sits on your lap or desk or in your pocket can not.

What’s been interesting in watching this category evolve is how adding cellular connectivity seems to have changed sentiment around the category broadly. In a recent poll of iPhone owners we conducted, we found that 26% of consumers stated that adding cellular connectivity to Apple Watch has moderately increased their interest in the product. 23% of those in our study said that adding cellular connectivity has significantly increased their interest in Apple Watch. Cellular connectivity seems to be the catalyst that has moved Apple Watch from must an iPhone accessory to a product in its own right. When I step back and acknowledge how public sentiment has changed, I think we can finally see the puzzle pieces coming together that sets the Apple Watch up to now fully become a platform.

Apps Where Art Though?
A healthy part of the wearable/Apple Watch debate has been the role of apps and specifically third-party apps. Up to this point, there hasn’t been much of a commitment by developers to embrace the Apple Watch as a development platform. Those who have, have done so as an extension of their smartphone app. But what I think is interesting is to look at the Apple Watch as a platform not for apps but for services. Meaning the software/app that runs on Apple Watch is simply a delivery mechanism for an underlying service.

The smartwatch presents an entirely different environment for software due to its smaller display and short interaction paradigm. This is where I think the missing piece of the software platform has been machine learning since the start. When I wrote the first smartwatch report outlining the opportunity, I shared several examples of context and location-based services that made sense on Apple Watch. Things like Starbucks that were able to look at your location and see you were close to a Starbucks location. It could also cross-reference your calendar and make sure you had time to stop at a Starbucks. It would also know your personal favorites of drinks at Starbucks and be able to offer you a discount if you stopped and got your favorite drink. This type of service is exactly the kind that highlights how to think about the Apple Watch platform as a services platform.

The big difference between the iPhone’s app platform and the Apple Watch’s services platform is the iPhone has a captive user. Someone is looking at the screen to be using it and get value from it in most cases. The Apple Watch is the interface to the digital world by a non-captive user. Which means the Watch must get its users attention when there is something valuable or useful to alert them about. This is where machine learning comes into the picture in a way it was not ready for before today. The Apple Watch platform is a push services environment, meaning services will need to reach out to consumers instead of the other way around. Here is an example from my report in 2014 linked above.

It seems particularly clear at this point, that voice assistants are going to play a key role in the smartwatch/wearable computer category. After using the Apple Watch Series 3 for a bit now, giving Siri a voice on Apple Watch has almost instantly increased the value of Siri on the platform. The next step will be moving Siri from a user requested service exclusively to one where Siri starts to reach out to me on its own when it recognizes useful information for me. This is how the paradigm of computing will start to change.

Smart assistants will be the user interface paradigm that starts to limit our dependence on the computer in our pockets. It will play a role in driving things like smartwatches, and other wearables like Augmented Reality glasses for example, into the hands of normal consumers. They are, perhaps, the most important new interface to computers since multi-touch came to smartphones. But what powers them is the services driven environment I outlined above. This observation is tied to one about how Apple has been building the underlying foundation of iOS to enable a services-driven environment for third parties. These things are not a coincidence, and Apple is tactfully skating to where the puck is going my shifting their platform, slowly, to services one vs. a standalone app one. The Apple Watch is where developers and third parties will perfect the services driven philosophy of the brand, product, or service and then Apple can expand that to new categories when the market is ready. Services, not apps, are the way forward.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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