What makes a gadget worth wearing? Apple is betting it knows better than anyone, and today they’ll likely reveal the final details of the Apple Watch–the most anticipated piece of technology since, well, the last Apple device to hit the streets.
Apple is rarely a first mover in electronics. We’ve all grown used to the company walking into existing markets and redefining them: the original Macintosh, the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. When it decides to jump in a pool, it strives for an epic cannonball that sends waves throughout the rest of the industry.
Could this time be different? This is, after all, the first major new category Apple will stake out under the stewardship of Tim Cook. The Apple Watch is also unlike anything the company has ever tried before: It’s a device that relies almost as much on fashion as it does technology, with a price tag that some speculate may rise into the $10,000-dollar range when most competing devices cost between $100 and $250. Is this a pure hubris play from Cupertino?
Apple’s challenge to sell a look will be more intense than usual. The company has, of course, always focused on aesthetics for its devices–a source of common criticism from competitors and detractors (yet the delight of many consumers). Yet it has never relied so heavily on the buy-in of the fashion community. With models wearing the new smartwatch in magazines and high-end jewelers talking to Apple, clearly the company has its eyes trained on the world of haut-couture. Yet fashion is notoriously fickle; one day’s hot accessory is the next day’s unspeakable faux pas. Even for a company that’s often called elitist, Apple risks selling a device for the few rather than something with mainstream appeal.
Wherever there’s challenge, however, there’s also opportunity–and the wearables market has many. Despite the number of devices clamoring for space on your wrist and on your face, no company has cracked exactly what gives a wearable device mass appeal. Fitbit is perhaps the closest with 70 percent of the fitness-tracker market. Still, they own a niche and one that doesn’t necessarily place it in direct competition with the Apple Watch.
The most direct competitor would be Pebble, which offers what many think is the best smartwatch around. And though it’s made smartwatches since 2013, its products have evolved considerably in that time, and Best Buy continues to sell the devices, finding a truly mainstream market has eluded Pebble.
The startup also isn’t playing in the same league. By my calculations, Pebble has–as of this writing–pre-sold nearly 81,500 of its latest color-screened Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel smartwatches, bringing in $17 million in revenue. For the sake of comparison Apple, in its most recent quarter, sold 30,000 iPhones per hour and had revenue of $74 billion. Pebble is playing single-A ball; Apple is in the major leagues.
Look at it that way, and the wearables market doesn’t seem so different from the smartphone market before Apple entered. Remember what those devices looked like before the iPhone? Bulky, inconsistent plastic objects with frustratingly small screens and physical keyboards. Fast-forward eight years, and every smartphone looks more or less like an iPhone.
Maybe the Apple Watch will do to wearable devices what the iPod did to MP3 players. But it could just as well be an evolutionary cul-de-sac that ends up in a dustbin next to our PDAs or videophones, to eventually be incorporated into some other far more compelling piece of tech down the road.
Technology That Does Less
The biggest risk for the Apple Watch is the wearable device market as a whole. As of yet, people aren’t crying out for devices to wear on their wrists or faces. They seem futuristic, but perhaps too much–and are better relegated to a retro-future of flying cars and commuting to lunar colonies via rocket ship. The reaction from most of the average folks that I talk to about the Apple Watch is, “why do I need such a thing?”
Take my girlfriend, for example. To her the Apple Watch is just another technological distraction in a world already rife with them. She’s worried that instead of constantly pulling out my phone to check Twitter, reply to text messages, and triage emails, I’ll spend all my time staring at my wrist.
That’s not unjustified. I bought the first iPhone back in 2007, and my friends often joked that it might catch on fire if I didn’t take it out of my pocket, so often did I seem to have it in hand. Eight years later and we’re all glued to our screens, spending far less time engaged with the people around us.
If I have one hope for the Apple Watch, and for wearables in general, it’s that they will make us less dependent on technology. Wearables should dole out the information we want, when we need it, and in bite-size chunks. They shouldn’t further train us to be zombies who constantly stare at screens. The challenge, then, is to smartly and seamlessly integrate technology into daily life while keeping our eyes ahead instead of fixated on glowing slabs (be they phone-sized or watch-sized). If the Apple Watch can deliver on this, then their timing couldn’t be better.