You can look at the new Apple Watch in two ways: At the $350 price point, it is one of the best-looking, best-designed watches you can buy. No, really, in both the digital and mechanical/analog space, the $350 Apple Watch is a steal. The other way of looking at it is this: You’re paying $350 for something that you might wear once or twice, and then quickly relegate to your interesting curios (read: junk) drawer when you realize that it’s too bulky to fit under your shirt cuff or use at the gym, and that you have to recharge it every night.
At this point, I want to ask you a couple of questions. First: Do you actually want a smartwatch? Think about it. If you currently wear a Casio or Swatch or a horological mechanical masterpiece from Switzerland, do you want to replace it with a smartwatch? If you don’t currently wear a watch — which makes you part of the growing majority, don’t forget — would you want to wear an Apple Watch?
Second question: Why are smartwatches necessarily the future of both horology (the science of measuring time) and personal computing? Do you really think that, at least in the near future, we’re all going to start using smartwatches? Has the smartphone really had all of its allotted time in the limelight?
Big shoes to fill
In Apple’s (and the Apple Watch’s) favor, the company has a stellar record of releasing seminal, market-creating products. Apple popularized both the smartphone and the tablet, both of which went on to create massive multi-billion-dollar worldwide markets — and now it wants to do the same for smartwatches. Or should I say, Tim Cook and co. believe they can do the same for smartwatches.
On the one hand, there is an awful lot of inertia behind the Apple Watch. If anyone can popularize a new breed of gadget, it’s Apple with its legion of happy iDevice owners, strong industry ties and software ecosystem, and manufacturing mastery.
But this presupposes that there are a large number of people who really, really want to wear a smartwatch. The trend towards smartphones and tablets was much more natural and gradual. As various fundamental technologies improved, personal computers steadily shrank: From room-sized computers, to desktops, to laptops, to netbooks, to tablets, to smartphones. Each of these steps towards miniaturization was enabled by the emergence of a new or significantly advanced technology — the solid-state transistor, the LCD display, the lithium-ion battery. The entire reason each of these product categories was so successful is that they perfectly married state-of-the-art technology with our physical and mental needs.
The smartwatch sticks out like a sore thumb. At some point down the line the smartwatch might be the natural progression from Swiss mechanical timepieces or Casio digital watch — but right now, neither our wrists nor our technology are ready for such an incursion. Put simply, battery technology just isn’t there yet. Apple is normally very proud of the battery life of its devices — and yet at the Apple Watch’s unveil, there wasn’t a single mention of battery life except for a vague mention from Tim Cook saying you’ll “charge it at night.” Trust me, if the Apple Watch magically lasted a few days on a single charge, Apple would be shouting it from the rooftop.
There’s also the fact that the Apple Watch appears to require a nearby iPhone to function properly. This is again caused by smartwatches rushing ahead of the technological curve — we just can’t cram in all of the important chips and radios into something the size of a watch and still retain decent battery life. Again, this is something that Apple is being a bit fuzzy about — it hasn’t explicitly said that the Watch needs to be paired to the iPhone, but it also hasn’t said that the Watch works standalone. I have a feeling that, if the Apple Watch was capable of standalone use, Apple would be very proud of the fact.
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While the Apple Watch is an impressive bit of gear for $350, anyone with a nice mechanical watch can only possibly see it as a trade down in both style and function. Conversely, for people who currently wear a cheap digital watch, $350 is a lot of money to spend on a watch, unless you’re really sure that you’ll get a lot of use out of it. In both cases, Apple will have to overcome the fact that, for many watch wearers, a watch is an emotional thing — an adornment that you wear for years, possibly decades. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, will last for a couple of years before you want to trade up to the next best thing.
Beholden to the laws of gadgetry
Ultimately, I think that’s the Apple Watch’s biggest problem: The smartwatch is a gadget, and as such it is governed by the rules and bylaws of technology. Apple will release a new Watch every year that’s smaller, faster, and has better battery life. A decent dumbwatch on the other hand will fulfill its functional requirements and look great after decades of use. Maybe some people are OK with annually updating their watch so that it stays useful, but historically that hasn’t been the case.
This isn’t to say that Apple can’t popularize the smartwatch – but it will be an uphill struggle. Apple’s success will hinge on whether it can convince undiscerning watch wearers to switch to the Apple Watch. These people care less about the fact that the Apple Watch is big and bulky and requires daily charging, and more about the fact that it’s Apple, and it will work in perfect harmony with their iPhone. There are a lot of young people in this segment — and once they’re hooked on smartwatches, they will probably stick with smartwatches in the future. I don’t see the Apple Watch — at least this big, square, first-generation version — being popular among more discerning buyers. The round, svelte version that will follow in the future will have more appeal — but unless Apple can convince us that watches should be upgraded regularly, I still think it’ll be met with a lot of resistance.
Finally, though, we come back to my second and more important question: Why are smartwatches being pushed at all? Smartwatches — a digital watch that does more than tell the time and moon phase — have done the rounds in various forms since the ’80s (remember the Casio calculator watch?) Why is 2014/2015 suddenly the Year of the Smartwatch? The technology still isn’t there yet. The form factor isn’t there yet. There are no fundamentally broken experiences that smartwatch can swoop in and fix. Unlike smartphones and tablets, there aren’t really any existing products that the smartwatch can displace. Is this 3D TV all over again?
The Apple Watch reeks of reactionaryism. The pressure was on Apple to churn out a new, market-defining product — and instead of maintaining its zen-like ambivalence and waiting for the ideal technological conditions to launch such a device, Apple blinked first. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. I have no idea what happens next. Maybe, whether we want it to be or not, and irrespective of whether the technology is actually ready for it, this is the start of the smartwatch revolution.