Further Thoughts on the Apple Watch and Smart Watches in General

After spending more time digesting the Apple Watch announcement and talking to dozens of journalists, doing several radio shows, reading many articles, and doing two podcasts, I have some updated thoughts.

If you have read many of my posts on smartwatches, namely this one and this one, you will know it has been a category where the value proposition has not been clear. I’ve been very specific that notifications alone, or at least in their current form, are not entirely useful for your wrist. The value can not and is not in notifications alone. That is the primary value Android Wear has implemented and as myself and many others who have tried every version point out, it is unclear if there is any real value there. So what have we learned from the little bit of information we have on the Apple Watch? Does this product extend the value proposition in any meaningful way? At a high level, Apple brings several assets to the category.

User Interface

As Tim Cook said, in a recent interview with Charlie Rose:

Apple’s goal is to be the best, not necessarily the first, but the best.

This is achieved by their user experience prowess. Apple takes things, related to computing in this case, and simplifies them from the current complex state they are in. If I was to articulate why an average consumer would not like any of the smartwatches I have tried, the word complex would be front and center. For this category to take off, Apple’s user interface and user experience design chops will need to be front and center.

Philosophy

Apple has stated their screen philosophy as “the right screen for the right moment.” This is their argument for not merging iOS with OS X the way Microsoft has with Windows 8. So the interesting question with the Apple Watch becomes, what is the right moment the watch is the right screen for?

Even though I am critical of smartwatches, there are pockets of time where I have found them valuable. All of those instances when I have found value have been when my smartphone is not near me or I’m not in a place where I can use it. For example, when I am at home, I often take my smartphone out of my pocket and leave it on a table near my entry way. With the Android watches, I only get value from the watch when it is in proximity (appox. 15 ft) to my phone. So if I go outside or upstairs or into the kitchen, all my smartwatch is is a watch. Apple’s approach with Wifi will allow the watch to remain smart even when it is not in proximity to my smartphone. The same is true in the car. Personally, I’ve found wrist notifications quite useful during my long commutes. Exercising, bike riding, even walking down the street in the city between meetings, become interesting use cases where arguably a better device than our smartphone could exist to add value to our digital lives.

The right screen for the right moment philosophy is, I think, a key way to think about the role the Apple Watch will play in Apple’s ecosystem. Both for us watching Apple and for Apple itself.

The Evolution of Communication

If we think about it, mobile phones have played a role in the evolution of our communication. Arguably, nothing has had as large an impact on communication as SMS. Hands down, the longest conversations I have with people are when we are face to face. Audibly talking on the phone would come second, but in the digital world, our conversations are shorter and more compact. With SMS, short responses are the norm. Even though a conversation can be engaging or drawn out, it is simply done with shorter messages. Part of me wonders if we are on the cusp of yet another form of mass communication evolution.

Benedict Evans and I discussed this briefly on the Mobile Focused Tech.pinions Podcast, and we mentioned an upcoming iOS app called Popkey. Popkey, in a similar style to Line stickers, is enabling new ways to communicate but through a more visual nature than text. For example, a friend of mine named Ben Thompson who is the author of Stratechery, turned me onto Line. It is one of the seven messaging apps I use, but I only use it to talk to certain people and he is one of them. Our conversation will go along and then I’ll say something like “I’ll email you the details.” He will then follow up with this Line sticker.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 3.44.57 PM

This sticker is his way of saying “Ok” or “sounds good” and it is always this same sticker. It has a style and a personalization unique to him. But these stickers are somewhat static. You can create your own but how many people do that? Perhaps Apple’s doodle type method on the screen will enable similar yet even more creative ways for us to interact as a part of this communication evolution.

All of that being said, there are still questions I have that will not be answered even after the Apple Watch is released. For example, what is the replacement cycle? Is there a replacement cycle? Benedict Evans had a great tweet the other day that said, “watches replace their owners.” Meaning, a great watch outlives its current owner and is handed down or re-used by someone else. Is this a product category Apple is future proofing like a watch or is it more like a typical electronics product? Is this an annual release cycle of a product or longer? If you spend $2,000 on a watch will you be angry if it is outdated in a year when the new one comes out? I have a long list of other questions to dive into for another analysis but I’ll leave it at this for now. Smartwatches are officially a category thanks to Apple and good or bad, I have a feeling there will be some bumps in the road.

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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

27 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on the Apple Watch and Smart Watches in General”

  1. Regarding the life cycle question, it seems very probable than smartwatches will be closer to an IT product:
    1- the battery will age then die. Not an insurmontable issue by itself, but since it will require some expense, and a trip to the shop, upsell will be rife
    2- capabilites will evolve. There are already smartwatches with 3G, I’m sure 4G is coming. I’m sure we will be treated to faster SoCs and more memory… probably not quite as fast as apps can eat those up
    3- quality will get better. Especially screens: brightness, contrast, legibility in sunlight…
    4- design we’ll get more refined. The only smartwatch that looks good today is the Moto 360. The Apple device, with its square but assymetrical look, its side joystick, feels both ugly and not that ergonomic.
    5- this is v1 for almost everyone except Samsung, and Samsung go in so many simultaneous directions that all their watches up to now have been v1 of something (Tizen, Android, data-enabled…). The one thing in common between Apple, MS and Google is that things don’t get really convincing until v2 or, more often, v3.

    Maybe a few product cycles down the road we’ll get something that sufficiently well-designed to be long-lasting. The current generation isn’t.

    1. 1. Batteries in iPhones don’t die, they lose some battery life, but they don’t die even after 4-5 years use. Batteries will be replaceable at service centres, and if you are spending $500 in the Watch & compatible straps, replacing a battery will be popular.
      2. The Apple watch won’t lose any capability when newer revisions are released. In 5 years time the Apple watch will do exactly the same thing it did when it was bought (probably more given apples support for previous devices).
      3. Not one person complained about the build quality of the Watch or screen – by all accounts it was extremely nice.
      4. Quality of Design is subjective. you don’t like the Apple watch, thats fine. don’t know what you mean by “joystick on the side” – if you are referring to the digital crown – it looks identical to the crown on every high end swiss watch. I myself, along with many in the watch & fashion press judged the Apple watch to be far superior to every other smart watch alternative and better than many watches in the sub-$1000 premium watch market.
      5. Apple version 1 was the square iPod nano released serval years ago. What they revealed last week was likely the 3rd or 4th iteration of that device.

      1. 1- A battery that’s tired enough to last less than a day is, practically, dead.
        2- it won’t, but the whole point of IT is that v2 is better than v1, v3 significantly better than v1… v1 will look dumb once we get 2-3 days battery, better screens, … Same could be said for phones: do you keep your phone 5 yrs ?
        3- Same : No one complained about build or screen quality on older iPhones at release, yet the next iterations were better.
        4- crowns are usually centered. and as a UI element, it feels… puny, fiddly, and fragile. Remember the trackpoints on phones and laptops ? Same thing.
        5- you really think Apple don’t have several prototypes of **all** their devices before release ? They had those for the iPod, too.

  2. @benbajarin:disqus how can you have the entire world Knowledge base sitting right there on your wrist ready to answer all of your question on demand with just a voice command in the form of Google knowledge base with predictive information, and voice action that can help in a lot of situation and still find it not that useful, without even taking into account Fitness, and App integration that just starting, isn’t that simply a lack of imagination on your part or maybe you were simply not that interested at finding out all the things that one can do with an Android wear SmartWatch,

    that sound totally different from my experience, just saying

    1. Mostly because Google now has worked exceptionally spotty for me on the Samsung Gear device. I get the Moto 360 today so I’m hoping for a bit of a better experience. I have lots of UI issues and execution issues with Android Wear to date. I’m talking to all the companies who make these products so hopefully trying to help them execute better here.

      As I pointed out in my smart watch notification article, the anticipation engine (that is what I call it) of Google Now is by far the most promising feature and the area with the most potential on the wrist.

      http://techpinions.com/dear-smartwatch-thanks-for-the-notification-now-what/33866

      Also see Benedict’s latest smart watch post also which is very good.

      http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2014/9/15/ways-to-think-about-watches

      1. it turns out that Google Now seem to work better when you use either the Google now launcher or Motorola or Nexus Phone because of Google superior integration.

        i totally agree with Ben evans except the fact that i think SIRI should have been the main feature on the watch interface for third party App to integrated through voice Action as a way to deal with the extreme limitation offered by the microscopic screen, otherwise the watch will have to compete with the bigger, stronger, and better screen that is on your pocket

        1. I don’t think mainstream consumers are interested in talking to a watch in public all day. It looks idiotic (to me at least). It is ok in a quieter more personal setting, like an office or home, but on the street or other public location you need the primary interface to be something other than voice.

          1. mainstream consumers are not that interested in talking to their phone or playing with the tiny screen on their watch in public, either but some still do it other do not

            your watch would not replace your phone entirely it ill only be a conduit for service to receive Glanceable information when you need it with an easy and quick way to respond either via touch or voice Action.

          2. “your watch would not replace your phone entirely”

            I can’t understand how some can claim the >4.5″ are the only reasonable size for smartphones and then extol the virtues that Apple provides with the Apple Watch’s small screen. Unless they see the future of smartwatches and smartphones as the SW replacing the use case of SP and SP replacing the use case of either tablets or PCs.

            Personally I think Apple jumped the shark by eliminating new <4.7" iPhones.
            Joe

      2. Do you have any insight on how “ordinary” people use Google Now, if at all?

        I don’t use Google Now, even when I’m testing Android, and I don’t have a informed opinion on it. I do suspect though, that most people don’t like being prodded all the time.

        As for the most promising feature on the wrist, I’m more interested in how Apple uses AI, not for anticipating your every wish or move, but to make it easier to quickly reply to your messages, leaving you in charge of the ultimate decision.

        1. I’ve been trying to get Google Now to do anything of value to me… Maybe I’m holding it wrong, but the only things it does is recap my appointments (that are already displayed in my calendar widget), tell me it’s sunny outside (probably trying to save me getting whiplash from turning my head to the window ?), and push some random newsbytes that I’ve carefully curated out of my RSS feeds.

          Feels a bit like AdSense bombarding me with home server ads for weeks after I bought my ProLiant… One’s enough, thanks… Now I’m looking for a few HDDs…

    1. We raised the price of Cointent yes. We are bringing more of the core analyst team to start contributing more analysis to the Insiders portal. We are going big and deep on Insider content as to make it even more valuable.

  3. I was at Best Buy yesterday and saw the Moto360 in real life. Bought it on sight! Not because of what it does, I’m checking that out now, but for it’s looks. Any functions it performs are gravy (and extraneous).
    The way I see it, all “real” watches are at least as gawky, so I bought it primarily as a watch. The major negative is daily charging. Oh well, if I don’t like it, my favorite kid (of the day) will get it.

    1. I think one of the challenges marketing the Apple Watch will be to maximize that kind of serendipitous encounter with the right customers (fashion conscious men and women).

      That is to say, I think that Apple has to significantly broaden its distribution channels so the Apple Watch will be displayed inside the windows at shopping malls, department stores and all the places that fashion conscious people go shopping (not Best Buy 🙂 ). Apple does not yet have a presence at these places.

      If they do go for the broader distribution channel, they will have a big challenge in educating the shop staff, making sure that have the right display ,and providing a demo area. Much like they did when they introduced the Bondi Blue iMac, but this time with an unfamiliar distribution channel.

      It will be a prime lesson in channel marketing, and I’m very interested in seeing it unfold.

      1. Jewellery Shops already know how to sell watches to people, I think we will see Apple expand its retail channel to include them.

          1. Reminds me of that time I had to buy a luxury watch for a friend’s birthday, and had to endure the salesman 30-min pitch about how it was a living thing, embodying centuries of craftsmanship.. so… it wouldn’t tell the time for a few months.

      2. Back when the internet cafe was a new thing (mid-late 90s), I was weighing the pluses and minuses of starting one myself. My brother, wise man that he is, kept saying to me not to underestimate the draw of a good cup of coffee. Even back then he was more interested in charging for the coffee and giving internet access as a feature not the product. Out of all the internet cafes that got started back then, I think it is obvious the route taken by the ones still in operation.

        I think there is a correlation within what you suggest. For the smartwatch to be successful, in a very important sense, the internet/computer function is really the added feature, not the product. Broadening the distribution will certainly help influence that perception. Just as the iPhone would likely not have been as successful if they only sold in Apple stores vs cell phone stores, too.

        In a very real sense, only Motorola and Apple have created an actual watch that people might want to wear. And even as the smartwatch concept evolves and technology moves beyond what is now available, at the very least, 5 years down the road, either watch can still be at least a watch to be worn.

        Joe

        1. Yes. I agree.

          There are two functions (jobs-to-be-done) of a watch. One is to tell the time. The other is to look good.

          A smartwatch must not compromise on either of these. Just like a coffee shop must have good coffee.

          1. I’d argue a watch never looks good. At best it can be discreet; at worst it is ostentatious. Mostly, it advertises vulnerability to marketing and groupthink, since nowadays it is utterly useless.

    2. let us know how the battery life holds up, and I would also be interested to know how you feel the 3rd party apps work on a round display.

      1. Will do. Initial impressions: First day 13 hours. Loving the round display, but have not put 3rd party apps through their paces yet.

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