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Ahead of the Apple Watch Launch

Before I start, let me tell you that I still sometimes refer to Apple Watch as iWatch. I suppose old habits die hard, but it’s also true that the media assumed Apple hadn’t given up on the “i” prefix just yet, although it’s more than 16 years since the first iMac was introduced, so isn’t it time to do something different? But putting Apple in a name is a concept that’s even older.

No matter. Tim Cook says Apple Watch will arrive “on schedule” in April. Last year, the promise was “early 2015,” and April is very much at the tail end of what you call early. In any case, it’s clear it will arrive with a media event to jumpstart sales. This is not a product that’ll be announced with a mere press release, since it’s version 1.0, and lots of questions remain to be answered.

So you know that the price for the cheapest model will be $349, although I suppose Apple could surprise everyone and start at $299, though I wouldn’t expect it. Cheapening the price at launch would be a tacit admission that the original price was just too high, and that’s an open question. I man, the iPod did real well at $399 back in 2001, and it was a while before prices came down, largely by introducing a procession of low-end variants.

This time, Apple Watch comes in several styles, and when you add 18 karat gold to the mix, there’s a price to pay. Some are suggesting prices as high as $5,000 (or maybe $4,999?). I wouldn’t presume to take a guess, but clearly people with a bent for fashion, and plenty of disposable income, might jump at the opportunity to be the first in their neighborhood to own an Apple Watch.

Speaking of jumping, tech pundits are jumping over themselves attempting to guess how many of these smartwatches will be sold out of the starting gate. We know, for example, that Pebble claims to have sold one million smartwatches since they were first introduced, but that’s not terribly impressive considering the scales Apple routinely handles.

Once Apple Watch goes on sale, will people be snaking around the nearest Apple Store to get one or more of them? Will it be the iPhone intro party all over again, or will the sales volume be more subdued?

As the first version, Apple Watch will have some serious limitations that only time and technology are likely to resolve. First is battery life, so it’s fairly certain that you’ll have to recharge yours each day with extended use. Compare that to a regular watch that can operate for years before a battery transplant is necessary. Remember, too, that replacing the battery of an Apple Watch won’t be a user serviceable item, and could cost $50 or more. With a regular battery-powered watch the replacement can be had for maybe $6 at a Walmart store, and a couple of dollars less if you buy a kit and do it yourself.

Over time, with less power-hungry chips, and improvements in battery technology, maybe the recharge cycle can be extended to a few days or more.

The other limitation is the fact that Apple Watch is heavily dependent on an iPhone of recent vintage to do most things. It’s in that sense an extension of your iPhone, or an accessory device. If you leave your iPhone at home, or in the car, your Apple Watch suddenly becomes a whole lot less useful.

Now this iPhone-tethering is clearly required by current technology. You can’t put the guts of an iPhone into a tiny Apple Watch case and be assured of the full user experience as a standalone device. At least not today. But don’t forget that the first iPhone was severely limited. It wouldn’t even connect to a 3G network let alone 4G, LTE or whatever. There was no App Store.

So you can expect that the 2017 Apple Watch may get closer to device independence; I’m being conservative and I’d be amazed of a version 2.0 Apple Watch in 2016 achieved that goal. But I do believe that’s Apple’s end game, for otherwise this is a gadget that will have severe limitations going forward.

The other question is the expected replacement cycle. If someone is paying as much as several thousand dollars per copy, buying a new one every year or two wouldn’t seem terribly sensible. A watch is meant to last for years. My cheap Guess chronograph goes back to the early 2000s, and has required nothing more than the occasional battery transplant.

One possibility, mentioned by John Martellaro of The Mac Observer, is some sort of field upgrade program. So you could somehow unpack the internal module of an Apple Watch and exchange it for next year’s model for a “modest” fee. More than likely, if such a replacement program was in force, you’d have to send it to Apple or have your local Apple Store genius do it for you. Since an internal hardware replacement would involve the same hardware regardless of the fanciness of the case, maybe it would not present a serious charge. I’d guess maybe $200-250 or so if such a thing became possible.

A field-upgradeable Apple Watch sounds intriguing. But what about the iPhone or iPad? Maybe not so much, since a watch ought to be intended for long-term use, so Apple would be expected to keep the current form factor around for a while.

Lots of questions, and I would expect many of them will be answered at the next Apple media event. But it won’t happen on April Fool’s Day.