Watch This Space: Apple's New Device Will Only Get Better

Posted on Sep 17, 2014 10:04:00 AM

Apple's Watch will be the opening opening salvo in a long battle in the fashion industryApple Watch seems, at first glance, a rougher hewn product than most others the company has released. I predict that the company will use this first version to establish itself as a competitor to watchmakers and fashion houses foremost, and to plant solid roots in a category where it intends to compete for the long term. Pending additional information, like battery life and price, I do not expect the first Watch to move the needle on the company's revenue in a meaningful way.

This post is broken into three sections: why Apple is poised to outsell all Android watch manufacturers, the aesthetics of the device, and its functionality. Apple’s initial success in this market is important because it will position the company to edge further into the intersection of technology and fashion, and establish the watch as a worthwhile category. The aesthetics of this specific device deserve special attention as it is the first Apple device designed to be worn (distinct from earbuds or EarPods, which are not themselves devices), and its form—that is, how it looks—will therefore drive purchase decisions to a greater degree than any Apple device that has preceded it. Finally, I examine the question of whether its functionality is sufficient to actually drive significant early adopter purchase volumes.

I can say, rather immediately, that the current state of technology dictates that the Apple Watch will be a far more successful product than any Android watch currently on the market. There is one fact that makes this true: smart watches are inherently high-end devices.

Smart Watches are Inherently High-End Devices

Smart watches are a peripheral, and you do not buy peripherals if you cannot afford them. By definition, you do not need a peripheral to do any core function of a device, there may only be additional, “nice-to-have,” functionality made possible through its ownership. For Apple, this means yes, fewer people will buy an Apple Watch than will purchase (or have already purchased) a compatible iPhone. But Apple’s iPhone already has proven that it can sustain an ecosystem of “nice-to-have” functionality built atop it—it drives the majority of mobile developers’ revenue despite having a much smaller install base than Android. Android, by the same token, has a smaller addressable market of peripheral purchasers within its install base. This matters, a lot.

Android users are much less likely to spend money on apps, which typically cost a dollar, than iOS users. Indeed, even the massive scale of Android, with over a billion devices actively in use, has not garnered the platform an advantage there: developers still make more money of Apple’s smaller platform. If you can’t get someone to buy an app for the price of a candy bar, the chance of you getting them to buy a device on the side that doesn’t provide any core functionality outside of the phone you already purchased is exceedingly unlikely. This rings even more true when you consider that that secondary device probably costs as much or more than you paid for the phone in the first place (and this is true in subsidized markets where Samsung’s high-margin products thrive, as well as in unsubsidized ones where a good-enough Android device can cost $200 or less, total).

All of this fails to point out the other major component of wearing a watch: you wear it, on your body, where people can see it. If you are paying a couple hundred dollars, at least, for a watch, you probably care about what it looks like. Apple has the advantage here of not having made any visible design concessions like Motorola, which had to cut off a section of the screen to make room for sensors on the Moto 360, and of being good, in the first place, at design (Samsung is not).*

These facts—Apple’s design prowess, plus the realities of the market its products serve—indicates that the Apple watch should be more successful than the Android watches that have preceded it. But to be merely successful here is not really what Apple wants. It wants to create an entire new, meaningful product category, and I question whether this first go at it will achieve this.


* Samsung, amusingly, is marketing one of their watches as having the “The world’s first curved 1.84” Super AMOLED® display.” It is unclear whether the word “first” is being applied only to curved, or to “curved 1.84.”” If it is the latter, that is actually a rather unimpressive selling point.

Device aesthetics

The mass-produced nature of consumer technology and the broad range of tastes and other requirements of fashion products exist in contrast with each other, but I think Apple has done an admirable job reconciling the two.

Watches, worn on a wrist, have aesthetic requirements that devices that sit in a pocket do not. Most Android watches so far have been unattractive devices nested in unattractive bands and generally too large for most female wrists. By contrast, Apple’s watch comes in two sizes, and with a staggering array of watch bands. As if to beat its competitors heads with the idea that these devices are as much about fashion as they are about function, they are also releasing a version that comes in solid gold.

And of course, to the company’s credit, they have done an excellent job of enabling customization, both with the digital watch faces and the bands used to strap them around a wrist. I expect to see a rich ecosystem develop around creating bands for the watch, from cheap straps at mall kiosks to expensive luxury ones from established and upstart designers.

Personally, I don’t think this iteration of the Apple Watch is very attractive, and it is probably the first new Apple device I have ever seen where my immediate reaction was not the desire to own one. I doubt I am alone, though I suspect many people differ, as well. Regardless, Apple has proven its ability to iterate on past designs and sometimes to ditch them completely (see: the entire iPod line), and set a new standard for how these gadgets should look, so I imagine that years of iterating on this device will yield ever more devices for people to clamor over. It is also possible that the device looks better in person than it does on a website.

Overall, from an aesthetics standpoint, I think the Apple watch does a good job of addressing the challenges of building an item whose primary purpose is a marriage of fashion and functionality, and that the device appears to succeed on the fashion front where most other smartwatches have failed, and the company has left itself plenty of runway for future iterations. Whether the device’s functionality is enough to convince people to ditch a dumb watch at this early stage remains to be seen.

Functionality

At first, I thought it was pretty strange that Tim Cook introduced the watch by playing up how accurate it was. I would wager that most people considering an Apple Watch are not really being sold on this point. But I also don’t think the general consumer was the target of that discussion. Instead, I think Tim Cook was putting the watchmaking world on notice, as it is an industry that covets precision and attention to detail. In other words, Tim Cook was establishing Swiss watchmakers, rather than Motorola or Samsung, as Apple’s competition. [Edit: John Gruber points out that Apple never used the word "smartwatch" in his excellent take on the devices here.]

In any case, yeah, the Apple watch is good at telling time. Not a compelling feature for most consumers.

Next, the watch’s interface is a key element of its utility. I’m excited about the possibilities here, because Apple has seriously considered the interaction paradigms in a way that Samsung, et. al. have not. The device uses voice interaction, touch, and its digital crown (the knob on the side) to navigate its interface. It uses slight vibrations to provide alerts and directions to users. It appears to borrow from, rather than copy wholesale, the smartphone interaction paradigms that we all know already. This is a good sign. I’m excited to play with, if not own, one.

That interface is applied toward two major ends: communication and fitness.

The communication aspect of the device is geared toward quick replies to messages, and it even offers canned responses based on what the user has been sent already. These automated contextual responses could definitely be a great feature, though I do question the company’s ability to pull it off in a fashion reliable enough to be compelling (that seems more like Google’s wheelhouse). Time will only tell (pun decidedly not intended) how this feature works out in practice, but as designed on paper, it seems like a strong use case.

Finally, I believe its strongest feature out of the gate will be its fitness tracking. Apple spent a good deal of time in its keynote discussing how the software works to make you aware of your fitness levels and encourages you to be healthier, and it seems really, really strong. It is immediately apparent why Nike, an Apple partner, decided to discontinue its Fuel Band. As an avid runner, my distance traveled, mile splits, calories burned, etc., are all useful pieces of information to me in the pursuit of some other goal. They’re also things I wouldn’t pay to know on their own (I don’t own any of the devices this competes with in the personal health sector), but I might if it came bundled as part of an attractive device that I would use for other things. I suspect the drive to be healthier will fuel a lot of sales here.

I believe Apple does have a really strong product out of the gate here, and I am excited for my questions about it to be answered. One question, however, looms largest: how long does the battery last? If it is less than a day, the device’s utility dramatically decreases. It already requires another device that typically must be charged every day to function. Having this thing brick on your wrist at midday would be inconvenient to the point of rendering the device useless, practically speaking. Other questions include, “can I see the screen in daylight?” and “what does the $349 version get me?” It’s possible Apple’s developed some revolutionary battery technology, but I feel like the company would be yelling from the mountaintop about it.

Assuming acceptable answers to these questions, though, I think Apple has produced a product that will sell well in its first generation, but nothing like how it will perform upon future releases. Obviously, there’s much more analysis to come upon the actual release of the product. For now, a pun: If it can watch its battery life, Apple’s got a winner on its hands.

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