The Apple Watch conundrum revisited

The Apple Watch conundrum revisited

Two years ago, I asked Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin and's Harry Marks -- both of them experts in all things Apple -- to share their ideas on what a successful mass-market wearable would be. In a world of smartphones, tablets, notebooks and miscellaneous gadgets, would there be a mass-market audience for yet another device to charge and keep track of? And would a smartwatch from Apple be disruptive enough to matter?

Apple, which unveiled the Apple Watch in September (it's due out in April and starts at $349), faces a modern audience for whom watches have become increasingly irrelevant. With wearables already on the market mostly limited to a tech-savvy fitness crowd, it's natural to ask whether the Apple Watch will be yet another device trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist.

Some analysts remain skeptical Apple will succeed with its Watch -- I had some doubts two years ago -- but after spending the past few months using competing products, and after studying Apple's plans for the device, it's clear to me that Apple is about to disrupt the market again. That's assuming, of course, everything works as advertised.

One size does not fit all

Originally, I was afraid the Apple Watch would look like the Microsoft Band: a techy bracelet (read: dorky) that wouldn't achieve the sales numbers Apple would want. Two years ago, Marks summed up the issue: "[Watches] are personal statements, and one watch does not fit every outfit. An Apple watch -- hell, any smart watch -- isn't going to fit every style and occasion, which makes it a less appealing idea."

In other words, the one-size-fits-all mentality wouldn't work for a mass-market audience whose sole purpose for wrist-wear is fashion. And a play for that mass market audience certainly wouldn't work if the device looks dorky. (The same concern has been raised with Google Glass.)

Apple designers anticipated this, and skirted the issue by making their Watch actually look like a watch. And to appeal to a wider audience, Apple created a line of three distinct collections comprised of increasingly finer materials available in two sizes and three price points, as well as a host of gorgeously-designed interchangeable watch straps, allowing for personalization alongside the customizable software watch faces.

The Apple Watch team understood that to attract a wider audience, customization and personalization would be key to Watch's success.

The Crown makes it King

As it did with the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010, Apple usually side-swipes established industries with market-changing devices, attacking existing problems with a clever combination of well-designed -- and well thought-out -- hardware and software.

The Apple Watch has a display capable of sensing touches and swipes, but the display will also recognize the force with which the screen is pressed, which will execute contextually appropriate actions. The additional input method helps keep the interface free of clutter; given the limited space on the Watch's display, it's a smart decision.

Apple execs were quick to point out that the touch-based methods used for the iPad and iPhone wouldn't be enough for a smart watch; gestures like pinch-to-zoom are problematic because fingers block the small display. To circumvent this, Apple engineers devised what they call the Digital Crown. It's used to zoom in and out of apps and to scroll through customization options without blocking the watch face display. And pressing the Digital Crown brings up the Watch's Home screen -- it's just like pressing the Home button on an iPhone or iPad - while pushing and holding the Crown activates Siri.

With that combination of software and hardware, Apple engineers have delivered a level of interaction that's unique to the Watch, and they did so by taking a traditional watch feature and reimagining its use in a way that seems obvious only in retrospect.

Fashionable and functional

As fashionable as the Watch design may be, and as clever as the Digital Crown is, what's to prevent it from becoming another gadget that collects dust in a drawer? What real-world problems have Apple engineers cracked?

To be successful, keeping time needs to be the least interesting of the Apple Watch features. Two years ago, Bajarin explained where an Apple Watch would fit in: It would be an accessory to the iPhone, body/activity sensors would play a key role in its feature list and notifications-at-a-glance would be important.

He was exactly right. The Apple Watch requires an iPhone to work and is being positioned as an iPhone accessory. For at least the first generation, Watch apps will be an extension of the apps stored on the iPhone, and the Watch will use the iPhone's GPS to measure distance and speed to track daily activities. As it tracks activity, footsteps and the user's heart rate, it will be on the iPhone that the data is consolidated and tracked.

Bajarin was also correct about notifications and at-a-glance data. At the time, I undervalued the usefulness of receiving notifications on a wrist device, but my time with the Microsoft Band has shown me that this truly will be a key feature. Being able to glance at alerts cut down on the time I spent on my phone in social or work situations. With notifications on my wrist, the curiosity factor is instantly satisfied -- I already know who it is, and what they most likely want -- which is enough information to decide whether or not I need to drop what I'm doing to answer.

When I receive an alert and pull out my phone to check, I usually feel more compelled to reply on the spot. The Apple Watch, by virtue of being more discreet, allows me to pick and choose my responses more quickly.

Although the Microsoft Band and other third-party wearables can display notifications, most don't (yet) allow for replies when paired to the iPhone. Of course, the Apple Watch will integrate with the iPhone far better and offer far more capabilities than competing devices. For instance, unlike current tech bands, notifications received on the Watch will have quick-response actions. Text message alerts will display contextually specific quick-reply responses. If that's not enough, the Watch can send manipulatable emoticons, or you can reply using voice messaging introduced in iOS 8. Or you could use Siri to dictate a message. From your wrist. That's just the beginning.

The wow factor

A wearable featuring notifications and fitness tracking would only get you so far; like other groundbreaking Apple products, a wearable still needs a wow factor. Though, two years ago, none of us could think just what such a lust-worthy feature could be, we also knew Apple wouldn't release something without it -- especially considering the waning audience for a watch.

I don't think the Apple Watch is really trying to attract current watch-wearers, most of whom have reasons for wearing a watch that has less to do with telling time and more to do with making a personal statement. The trick for the Apple Watch will be to entice people that gave up wearing a watch, or never wore one in the first place. And the only way to attract new customers is to give them a reason to wear it. Being fashionably designed is a small part of the answer; if the Apple Watch is to be successful, it needs to entice its target market: current iPhone owners.

As an iPhone accessory, the Watch fits right into the existing Apple ecosystem. The Apple Watch will not only display time, calendar, caller ID and other data residing on your phone, it can also be used to control AppleTV; act as a viewfinder and a remote trigger for iPhone and iPad photos; allow you to check on airline flights; and control home devices and lighting with HomeKit accessories.

Since Watch supports ApplePay, it can also be used to purchase items at supported ApplePay locations. (The Apple Watch keynote also featured a demo showing hotel doors being unlocked with a wave of the wrist.) Photos that are Favorited on your Mac, iPhone, or iPad automatically transfer to the Watch, so those moments are always with you. And when getting directions using Apple's Maps app, the Watch will "tap" you using the built-in haptic system to keep you on the correct path.

Considering what the Apple Watch does while on your wrist -- and as developers get involved, there'll be even more compelling uses -- most buyers will find something to justify the purchase.

The Watch also supports Handoff, technology introduced in iOS 8 on iPhones and iPads, and Yosemite on the Mac last fall. This means you can start an action on the Watch -- like reading an email or message alert -- and then continue that action on the iPhone, iPad, or Mac, right where you left off on the Watch.

The wow factor is simply this: Apple made the Watch stylish, fun and useful, and it has created a device that's even more personal than your smartphone. Over the long term, whether it ends up in a drawer, abandoned, depends on how well all of this technology is implemented. Given Apple's success with both the iPhone and the iPad, I'd say the odds are good this is another device that will succeed.

Like other products from the company, the Apple Watch will evoke a visceral tech lust in a generation that had mostly given up on wearables. And it helps that the immediate audience involves Apple customers already within the OS X/iOS ecosystem of apps, products, media, and services.

No doubt there will be some tradeoffs with the first generation. But this a wearable that will continue to gain traction over time as features, battery life and technologies improve. On a larger scale, it's likely the Apple Watch will do to the watch market what the iPhone did to the smartphone industry.

With the Apple Watch, Apple's engineers have made watches interesting again for a generation that had largely given up on them. Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the rollout last September that Apple had set out to make the very best watch there is; it's safe to say that given what Apple has shown so far, a whole new generation now expects a watch to do more than just give you the time of day.

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