Just before the holiday season, the Washington Post ran an article titled “How Apple Watch is killing wearable tech as a gift this Christmas.” It posited the idea that less people would opt to give wearable technology as a gift because Apple wasn’t releasing its own entry until 2015. “The truth,” wrote the author of the piece, “is that anyone who buys a wearable device this Christmas will be jumping onto the bandwagon before the most highly anticipated wearable of all hits the market.”
In our Apple-centric society, nothing is legitimized – even the explosively growing wearable technology category – until the world’s number-one brand weighs in. And so it did on September 9 in grand fashion with the reveal of the Apple Watch. Many things about it (Siri, a functional dial, touch controls, health features, communication capabilities) were revealed, and many things weren’t.
Since that unveiling, little else has been learned about the Apple Watch as its “Early 2015” release date creeps closer. And in the void, much is yet to be determined. Will the Apple Watch become the first massive wearable tech success? Will it stabilize the wobbly smartwatch market? And will it fundamentally alter the notion of what wearable technology can do?
Success or Failure?
While the iPhone has been a runaway smash (with well over 500 million sold since its inception), the ground-breaking smartphone only sold six million in its first year of existence. The very successful iPad sold nearly 15 million in its first year.
And expectations for the Apple Watch? While some entities predict 30 million and beyond sold in the watch’s first year, the majority of forecasters are in the 12-15 million range. Successful, sure, but if those numbers come to bear, Apple will have initially failed to convert a large majority of its iPhone users into Apple Watch wearers. A recent survey found that out of 1,000 iPhone users, only 7% plan to buy an Apple Watch.
“For the mass market, the Apple Watch isn’t going to become the defacto wearable,” says Dan Ledger, principal for Endeavour Partners, a consulting firm for emerging mobile technologies. “But there is going to be a non-insignificant subset of iPhone users who will be intrigued and delighted by the experience the Apple Watch is going to provide.”
So what could hold back the Apple Watch? To start, it’s a companion device to the iPhone. While that will appeal to iPhone users, it leaves out the roughly three-quarters of U.S. cell phone owners who don’t have Apple’s signature device.
Perhaps more important is the very nature of smartwatches. Manufacturers have cast them as downsized smartphones with much of the same functionality. Consumers have already become very comfortable using their smart phones anywhere and anytime. Why should they pay hundreds of dollars to have the same redundant experience on their wrist?
“What the smartwatch needs to do is to prove itself genuinely useful, and more useful than a smartphone at something,” says Will Seymour, brand officer for Future Foundation, a global trend monitoring agency. That could be any number of things, suggests Seymour: biosensing, keyless entry, or perhaps even social network interfacing that shares information such as your mood. But currently, practically no smartwatches have delivered that unique proposition. “Right now you’re just adopting these products on faith,” Seymour adds.
The Apple Watch is poised to deliver many things, from a refined design experience to a wrist device that takes advantage of Apple’s sprawling ecosystem of services. But can it provide that essential functionality to escape the smartphone’s sizable shadow? Ledger, among others, is skeptical. He says Apple’s product is light on the bionsensing capabilities where watches have the most potential. Other issues, like the possibility of having to charge it every night, will dissuade potential customers.
Millions of customers will enjoy their Apple Watches, but Ledger thinks that, like others, Apple will be unable to hit all three key marks: pleasant aesthetics, robust functionality and long battery life. “What’s going to be a challenge for Apple at the most fundamental level,” Ledger says, “is giving people a reason to put this on every day.”
Certainly its rivals don’t seem scared. Whereas Apple released the iPhone in 2007 to a relatively uncluttered market, this year’s Apple Watch finds a gaggle of competitors jockeying for position. And even if the Apple Watch is a qualified success, it will surely buoy the sales of competitors as smartwatches enter the daily lexicon. As it stands, consumer interest is limited but growing – a recent survey from USB found that just 12% of its global survey participants were interested in buying a smartwatch this year.
The Next Evolution
Clearly the smartwatch is still in its infancy. Seymour says that point will be accentuated as the Apple Watch and others leap into the mainstream, where the inherent problems of the category (battery life, design flaws, etc.) will come to bear.
So where does the smartwatch go from here? One step is a fashion makeover. Much like the Google Glass, smartwatches stand out as tech devices rather than style pieces – making its wearers noticed whether they want to or not. But there are products like the Withings Activité and other emerging timepieces that look like actual watches which just happen to have smart capabilities. That will attract more people – especially women, says Ledger, who don’t wear smartwatches because of their technophile aesthetics.
Also important is the phenomenon that the Future Foundation dubs “Casual Connectivity.” As Seymour explains it, our lives are increasingly interrupted by our devices with messages, notifications and more. Research from the Future Foundation finds that users crave simplicity from their smart devices, such as the ability to automatically weed out important events from non-important ones or deliver key information based on location and time. As Seymour explains it, we want our devices to know when we don’t want to be interrupted. “Rather than being something you pick up and look at every 30 seconds just in case you got a notification,” he says, “there’s something that gives you piece of mind that you don’t need to check on your accounts. For a lot of people, that’s what these products will need to do.”
It remains to be seen if the Apple Watch can deliver those next-step capabilities. Regardless, the tech giant thinks the time for smartwatches is now – just further proof that wearable technology is here to stay.