What to Watch – Is Apple Watch the Next iPad or Google Glass?
On the day the iPad launched in 2010, I was in full-scale curmudgeon mode. Why did I need something that basically split the size gap between my phone and laptop but couldn’t replace either one? A year later, I had one – seemingly everybody did.
When Apple Watch was introduced last week, some of the same feelings came to mind. I decided to keep my powder dry and think about it before bursting forth with an instant take. A week later, I still don’t know entirely what to think. Apple Watch is an undeniable technological and creative achievement – and it may help Apple recover aspects of its innovation mojo – but I’m not sure how widespread its ultimate adoption will be.
Will Apple Watch become the next iPad – a cool and increasingly practical mainstream hit, immediately desirable to many, and enhanced materially with each new release? Or is it the next Google Glass – a design/engineering triumph, yet easily relegated to niche status due to limited sex appeal and questionable practicality?
The Case for Apple Watch as iPad
To those who question the ‘need,’ it really doesn’t matter. We’re not talking Maslow here – this is not about functional needs as much as raw desire. When at its best, Apple products are ‘craveable,’ more like fashion than consumer technology. With Apple Watch, the company is replicating the process of its previous hits – taking an existing (though nascent) category, significantly improving on it, and wrapping its product within an irresistible design/brand aesthetic.
Plus, there are enough practical benefits that the rational part of you issues a permission slip. It tells time. It brings you even closer to the things you need so you can leave your phone in a pocket or handbag. It delivers health data with greater precision than FitBit or GPS-enabled running watches. You can pay for things with the flick of the wrist. There is substance and utility beneath all the flash. Even with these practical features, the trajectory of Apple’s tent pole products is one of constant improvement once developers get hold of it and the company focuses on successive generations.
Lastly, the essential rhythms of Apple Watch are far more familiar than something like Google Glass. Millions of people wear a watch every day and are accustomed to glancing at it. Many successful watch brands cluster around the $350 price point Apple is seeking – Citizen, Movado, Seiko and other ‘better’ quartz watchmakers. If you need a watch, why not get an extremely cool one that does a lot and boasts many customization options?
Apple has sold around 55 million iPads in 2014 thus far – and the most optimistic analyst estimates are in the 30 million units range for Apple Watch in its first year. This may not be as big as the iPad, but it’s certainly not a niche product at that level of volume.
The Case for Apple Watch as Google Glass
Apple Watch paves new ground in ‘wearable’ tech, but will ultimately be a niche product because it doesn’t really do anything independently. This is really not a standalone concept, but rather an iPhone accessory. It will only work if you have an iPhone in your pocket or handbag, and the core of its appeal is an ‘easier’ way to use iPhone functionality without having to use the phone itself. With the exception of the heart rate aspect of the Health App, what advantage is gained by using the Apple Watch? If it’s ONLY about the cool factor, that suggests a niche market and not a mass market play.
Then there are the questions about how user-friendly the Apple Watch experience will be – the mastery of which drove iPod, iPhone, and iPad adoption. How durable is Apple Watch? The company has said little about water or dust. I certainly wouldn’t keep an iPhone in my hands as I wash them. Then what about battery life? Those who wear quartz watches have to think about that once a year at most, as opposed to the every 1-4 days of current ‘smart watches’ on the market. What will be the impact on data usage and iCloud storage? Do the dimensions enable the watch to fit under the cuff of a dress shirt or blouse? The answers to these usability questions may severely limit the practicality of the product.
Furthermore, what is the trajectory of wearable tech in general? There is a real question as to whether wearable technology is a failed (or niche) space rather than the type of immature one Apple normally acts to coalesce. Many launches have been much ballyhooed and widely supported in the marketing realm – smart watch concepts from major players like Samsung, etc. Yet it hasn’t broken through. While Apple Watch is wearables’ best hope, there is a fundamentally different dynamic than what the i-devices faced.
With watches in particular, the marketplace has its unique rhythms. Those who buy real timepieces – like Rolex, Cartier, Omega and the tier even more premium – will likely not ‘trade down’ for an Apple Watch, no matter how cool. For them, horology may be a passion or an expression of success – but either way, they aren’t good prospects for Apple Watch. Among the rest of the market, one questions whether or not watches are the staple they used to be. Only 32% of Millennials regularly wear a watch – ironically, Apple and other mobile device makers may have starved the watch market by making the time and other features accessible on phones.
So all things considered, how will Apple Watch fare when it launces in 2015? My guess is that the initial launch – driven by curiosity, design and brand – will fall somewhere in between niche and mass market hit. Then we’ll be able to debate where it will go from there – will Apple’s innovation cycle lead to increasing strength or will consumers’ generally lethargic replacement behavior halt momentum? One thing I know is that it will be worth watching!
Bill Gullan, President