The iWatch: A Hard Sell

August 29th, 2014

So it does seem that Apple will launch the iWatch during that September 9th media event at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino, CA. Ahead of the event, Apple is reportedly assembling a two-story structure there, in secret, to accommodate a larger audience. The auditorium will supposedly accommodate three times as many people as previous events.

It’s notable that this is the very location where the late Steve Jobs unveiled the original Macintosh in 1984. So there may be some significance, and not just audience capacity, for holding a launch event there.

Besides, it’s not as if Apple hasn’t raised the hype about what is to come. Senior VP Eddy Cue has been speaking of the greatest Apple product intros ever this fall, and Tim Cook has continued to promise great things that include new products in new categories. It’s important to note that the promise is made as a plural not a singular, so the iWatch may be just the beginning.

Maybe some other surprises will be in store for us, but that might be pressing the buttons a little too hard.

The larger question about an iWatch is whether or not people will decide they actually need one. That’s how Apple won the digital music player market. Before the iPod arrived, the existing gear didn’t sell so well. Having tested some, I regarded them as abysmally slow and difficult to use. Of course, they almost always required USB 1.0, which had relatively slow throughput. Apple’s advantage — until USB 2.0 took over and the Windows platform embraced the iPod — was to use FireWire.

So the iPod became the perfect portable digital device for tens of millions of people, and it help build an audience for the iPhone and, later, the iPad.

Both the iPhone and the iPad were built in answer to the shortcomings of existing gear. Instead of making it an executive plaything, the iPhone was the indispensable device for people of all ages, technically inclined or otherwise. Despite the fact that tablets had gone nowhere except for a few vertical markets, the iPad was, again, accessible to anyone and met the needs for many people as an accessory device or an actual replacement for a Mac or PC.

That takes us to the smartwatch dilemma. Just how many people really need a watch anymore? My son, aged 28, relies on his iPhone when he needs to know the time. Sure, it’s more awkward than looking at one’s watch, but people have priorities. Some, such as Mrs. Steinberg, wear a watch as an item of jewelry, not something with which to tell the time. In Barbara’s case, it’s mostly because her watch isn’t terribly accurate, but it looks just great on her tiny wrist.

So Apple has to consider the people who may not be potential customers for a watch and how to change their minds. The other issue is the functionality of existing smartwatches, and one recent device, the Samsung Gear S, has a built in mobile phone with 3G support. Calling Dick Tracy!

Indeed, the Gear S doesn’t look bad at all at first glance. It presents the face of a decent traditional watch with a curved rectangular face. The two-inch SuperAMOLED screen, with a 360 x 480 resolution, seems rather large for a watch, and thus would fit into the traditional men’s category. Would there be a smaller women’s version? That appears to be something lacking in most current models, and I don’t make the comment with sexist intentions. We’re talking about something that would be regarded as not just a fancy gadget, but a piece of jewelry that appeals to a larger audience not normally attracted to tech gear.

Now it’s true that the Samsung joins a small number of smartwatches that, shorn of the electronic goodies, appears to actually resemble a watch. Similar to other Samsung products of this sort, it uses the Tizen OS, which is a Linux-based OS that appears similar to Android, but doesn’t support Google Android Wear. If this thing catches on, maybe Samsung will take a huge step away from Android in their smartphone lines. Certainly they wouldn’t have to pay patent royalties to Microsoft for every unit sold, and that is a matter of litigation between the two companies.

Of course, it’s not so difficult to envision a watch-like interface for a potential iWatch, and a number of design concepts from graphic artists have already appeared, along with several variations on the potential specs. It wouldn’t stretch one’s imagination to assume that there will be support for HealthKit and HomeKit, so you can monitor your physical condition and maybe operate your home appliances, including the thermostat. Maybe even the door locks.

Still, Apple has to confront a market where getting through will be difficult, and is crying for a better solution to really take off. It happened with other ill-served markets with the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

Can lighting strike yet another time? I suppose we’ll have a better idea as we approach September 9th, assuming alleged random supply chain leaks become less random. Indeed, one of the commentators who appears on my radio show suggests that Apple might be building the iWatch in the U.S., thus affording them better control of potential information leaks in the supply chain. Don’t think so? What about the Mac Pro?

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2 Responses to “The iWatch: A Hard Sell”

  1. dfs says:

    Here’s an idea for Apple. Don’t make a watch that’s essentially an accessory for an iPod Touch or iPhone or any kind of wearable computing device. It’s really difficult to see the usefulness of such a product, and, at least after the initial surge of interest has subsided, customer resistance against a watch that requires a battery recharge every two or three days is going to be huge. And how many of your potential purchasers are such dedicated athletes or such hypochondriacs that they are going to want to do stuff like monitor their pulse rate contintually?

    Instead, just concentrate on making a damned good watch. Make it solar powered so that the issue of battery recharging goes away forever. Make it radio-controlled, or better yet satellite-controlled: radio transmitters for atomic clocks are only available for the Continental US, Western Europe, China and Japan, leaving huge potential markets untapped, whereas satellite-driven watches do not have this limitation. That way, you can put out a wristwatch costing a few hundred bucks that, in terms of accuracy, can dramatically outperform the most expensive traditional wristwatch movements in the world. Using GPS, you could come up with some wizzy feature, such as a watch that automatically resets itself whenever the wearer moves to a new time zone.

    Nowadays many folks like watches with lots of bells and whistles – inset sub-dials, rotatable calibrated bezels etc. etc. (which are collectively called “complications” within the industry). What these all have in common is that they are small, fussy, confusing, and difficult to use. And they create a clutter that looks like hell. Very much like what cell phones were like prior to the advent of the iPhone when they tried to be all things to all people. Okay, make the main screen of the iWatch a simple clockface, and then for the benefit of users who want this kind of stuff, give them a watch with pageable screens, where each screen presents one specific kind of information in a clear and attractive way. Maybe even offer the individual user a selection of possible such screens which the watch could display. Oh, and make its hands genuinely visible in the dark. The stuff they use as a substitute for radium just doesn’t make it.

    Finally, make the watch a genuinely classy-looking accessory one would be proud to wear on one’s wrist. Don’t make it too large and clunky. Don’t just give us a cheap and toylike-looking rectangle of glossy plastic with a vinyl wristband. Make it a genuine piece of jewelry.

  2. StanTheMan says:

    I am experiencing growing doubts about whether Apple’s new wearable will be a watch. Perhaps it will be some other iPhone accessory. With recent rumors putting the price at about $400, an iWatch wouldn’t appeal much as jewelry to the older, affluent clientele who would presumably have the greatest interest in a health-oriented device.

    It’s possible that Apple leaked the iWatch rumor a couple of years ago to distract Samsung engineers and designers. If so, September 9 may not only delight and surprise us, but also give diehard Apple followers a big laugh.

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