Who Will Buy the Apple Watch?

[This updated article was originally published in September 2014.]

By Paul O’Reilly

Yesterday’s event in San Francisco cleared up a lot of uncertainties about Apple’s brand new Watch but still left many people wondering whether there is a significant market for wearable technology that basically mimics a few select smartphone features.

The Watch will come in three different finishes – stainless steel, anodized aluminum and 18-karat gold – and a range of different wristbands and clasps will allow users to personalize their Watches to suit their own individual tastes and styles. This emphasis on style is an indication of how Apple intends to market its new product, and could also be the first hint that establishing the Watch as a must-have device might not be the slam dunk that most people think it will be.

When Tim Cook first introduced the Watch back in September of 2014, he took great pains to let everyone know that the device would actually tell the time. In fact, the description of the Watch as “an incredibly precise timepiece” is one of the first things you see when you delve into the functionality of the device on Apple’s web site.

This surely reflects the belief that if Apple is going to have success with the Watch, they are first and foremost going to have to sell it as a timepiece rather that a wearable computer, and that could present some problems.

When the iPod first came out, most people didn’t have an MP3 player. Apple reinvented the portable music player and made a strong case why everyone should own one. Apple pulled off a similar trick with the iPhone and the iPad. Not everyone was sold on cell phones and tablets but Apple showed us why we needed them and we dutifully fell into line.

The problem is everyone already has a watch.

Not only will Apple be asking you to buy a new device, they will be asking you to ditch the device you already own, and if that device is a Rolex, a Patek Philippe or a Cartier, then you might not want to play ball. OK, not everyone owns a luxury watch but plenty of people own a watch they are very comfortable with, and unless you’re going to wear two watches – surely a fashion no-no, even for geeks – then you’re going to stick with what you know and like.

But what about all the software, GPS mapping, and other apps? Well, you already have all those on another device that you take with you everywhere you go: your smartphone. Apple is now asking you to purchase another device that does almost exactly the same things as your smartphone does, only not quite as well.

Instead of swiping and tapping your smartphone with both hands to send an email, find out what’s showing at the local multiplex, or get directions to a restaurant, you now have to use just one hand and play with an awkward side wheel to do the same thing. And didn’t Apple concede that we prefer big screens with the introduction of the iPhone 6 Plus?

Of course, the Watch has a strong emphasis on health and fitness, which continues to be the single strongest selling point for wearable technology. Sensors in the back of the Watch will track your every move, suggesting fitness goals and monitoring performance. However, there are already lots of wearable fitness devices on the market and the user experience has been mixed. People tend to wear them a lot during the first few days and weeks, and then use tails off dramatically after that. For runners, cyclists and workout fanatics, the Watch is probably a dream come true but that is clearly not the only audience that Apple is targeting with its new device.

So who will buy the Watch? The answer, of course, is millions of people, but much will depend on the reaction of early adopters. While the Sport edition will cost $349, the regular Watch starts at $549 and goes all the way up to $1,049. That’s a lot of money to give you the same functionality that you already have on your smartphone.

If we learned anything over the years, it’s not to bet against Apple. Despite the most intense competition, their devices remain the gold standard in nearly all categories, continuously winning accolades for both design and functionality. But the Watch faces a different set of obstacles: a watch industry that doesn’t need reinventing and a tech-savvy customer base that may finally decide it has all the gadgets it needs.

Follow Paul on Twitter @TheTechDad

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