Is There a Case for an iWatch?

December 10th, 2013

Some potential Apple products are thought of as inevitable. Despite the lack of evidence of an Apple TV set, you may feel it will arrive one of these days simply because Steve Jobs developed some sort of amazing user interface that would, I suppose, revolutionize the living room. But remember that he didn’t actually say it would appear on a set rather than some other product.

Now there is no similar eureka moment for an Apple wearable device, which most call the iWatch. Such a beast continues to be viewed in the context of existing so-called smartwatches, meaning a watch with a squarish or rectangular LCD display, and a band. Period. Existing products, such as the Pebble, are considered today’s trendsetters for such gear, and other smartwatches appear to follow in its footsteps.

Now at $150, the Pebble would seem to be a pretty good deal. But it doesn’t work in a vacuum. For it to do its thing, you’ll have to mate it with your iOS or Android gear via Bluetooth. So it’s not a standalone device, but a wearable accessory offering a handful of basic functions. So if you’re busy and can’t fetch your smartphone from pocket or purse, the Pebble will alert you of important emails and text messages. You get a call, you’ll see the caller’s name on the Pebble’s 1.26-inch display. There will also be readouts for exercise and such, and there’s apparently a growing app ecosystem for the device.

When it comes to notifications, I can see the logic in a Pebble. If you’re at a business meeting, or watching a movie, it would be downright rude to take out your smartphone. But wearing a watch is perfectly normal, so if you see a tiny notice about something that requires a quick response, you can opt to walk towards the concession stand to follow up, or just ignore it.

I suppose, as accessories go, a smartwatch seems perfectly useful, although it’s far from what anyone would call a mass market success. So as of July 4, 2013, some 85,000 Pebbles have been sold. The pricy Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch may have done better, but it didn’t set the world afire either. The Pebble’s sales level is small potatoes for Apple, so the question is whether there is any potential.

Now when it comes to music players, none succeeded until the iPad, so is the iWatch capable of that level of success?

One obstacle is that many of you don’t wear watches anymore. You rely on your smartphones or another gadget with which to check the time, or you just don’t bother. I suppose I’m an old timer, since I’ve worn a watch since I was quite young, and I currently use a silver-colored Guess watch with a few additional buttons and doodads. It’s not so much a fashion accessory as a way to, well, keep track of the time.

If you’re going to consider a Pebble a standard-bearer, though, it has one fatal flaw, and that is its status as an accessory. Is that the approach Apple plans to take? Or would Apple consider making the mythical iWatch some sort of standalone device that combines a subset of smartphone functions, such as the ability to actually work as a phone, without requiring an iPhone or an iPad within Bluetooth range? Of course, with phone capability should come a Bluetooth headset. Maybe Dick Tracy didn’t mind bringing his watch to his face to talk to someone, but not in the real world.

Of course, packing the power of a smartphone into such a small form factor isn’t going to be cheap. Yes, Apple surely has the technology chops to make a great product that would blow away the competition and make smartwatches relevant.

But at what cost?

Right now, the cheapest iPhone, the 4s, is $450 unlocked. Compared to a full-fledged smartphone, an iWatch would be stripped down, and it’s a sure thing that a Retina display adds a healthy number to the manufacturing costs. So would Apple be able to deliver an iWatch for, say, $300 without a carrier contract? If so, wouldn’t that make it free with a contract? How can you argue with free?

Or would all that miniaturization make the first iWatch more expensive?

I would’t presume to want to do real estimates of manufacturing costs, or potential sales and profits. That’s Apple’s game, but you can rest assured there will not be an iWatch of any sort unless the numbers add up. There’s also that nagging question about demand. You know there would be a substantial built-in audience for an Apple TV set if it could be delivered at a price that represents only a slight premium over existing mid-priced units. The demand for a smartwatch has yet to be demonstrated.

You see, to a small company such as Pebble, selling 85,000 of anything has the potential of delivering decent profits. Apple needs to move tens of millions for an iWatch to leave hobby status and become a mainstream product.

Sure, early adopters would lap them up. Once initial demand is satisfied, can Apple deliver the proper combination of features, good looks and value to boost demand? And where would it come from? Would existing iPhone users get an iWatch as an accessory, or would it become Apple’s value smartphone for those who need to be notified of important messages, are concerned with physical fitness, or just need to make a few phone calls?

These are questions I wouldn’t presume to answer, although I wouldn’t say no if someone presented me with an iWatch that met the basic requirement of being capable of standalone operation. But I’m hardly a candidate for this sort of market research.

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3 Responses to “Is There a Case for an iWatch?”

  1. Don108 says:

    The problem with the current Pebble and Google smart watches, and even the old Microsoft smart watch, is the paucity of originality to make them in any way desirable. What does the Pebble do that a tablet or laptop don’t do? Even worse, the Google Gear won’t even work unless you also buy their latest tablet or expensive smartphone.

    For a smart watch to become successful in today’s market, it’s going to need some killer features that at this time have never publicly been mentioned. Is it a phone? Do you know how stupid you look talking into a watch? Is it a dumb terminal for a tablet that you have to carry around with you? That idea (part of the Google Gear design) is totally brain dead.

    I don’t know what the killer features of a successful smart watch will need to be, but if you’re comparing it to anything we currently have, you’re thinking in terms of 2010 rather than 2015.

  2. dfs says:

    The problem with the Smart Watch is that, despite whatever other wizzy features it may have, its primary function will always be a thing you strap on your wrist to tell the time, so you have to ask how well it works considered as a wristwatch. First and foremost, there’s the problem of battery life. The idea of a watch which requires recharging every couple of days (as I gather these things do) would take a LOT of getting used to. Then there’s the issue of legibility: all digital displays become impossible to use in certain lighting conditions, when sunlight washes out their image. Want to have to look around for the nearest available shade just to see what time it is? I have no idea how accurate these things are as timekeepers, but surely that’s a consideration. And finally there’s the question of style. Can you imagine a tux-clad James Bond showing up at a casino sporting a big brightly colored chunk of plastic held on by a shiny plastic band? Sorry, I don’t think so. And, speaking of that big brightly colored chunk, it looks like something just begging to catch on stuff and hit into things. Sure hope they’re rugged! What I personally would like is a reasonably stylish dress watch that combines solar power with atomic-watch accuracy. Unfortunately, none such seems to be available on the market.

  3. dfs says:

    I take it back, I found one. Now I just have to knock over a few convenience stores and I’ll be happy.

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