An Awesome iWatch Is Apple's Greatest Challenge
Feb 7, 2014 5:00 AM PT
There are two words I try to avoid connecting: "greatest" and "challenge." Clearly I've failed. I try to avoid this phrase because it reeks of hyperbole -- and yet here I am, typing it out in association with Apple's utterly mythical "iWatch."
Still, the more I look ahead, the more I realize that Apple's greatest challenge might be convincing a world that it can produce an iWatch that matters.
3 Key Reasons
Consider the abandonment of the watch. As cellphones became more and more ubiquitous, users realized that they told time very well. In fact, by connecting to cellular service towers, they automatically adjusted themselves for daylight savings time.
Better yet, as we traveled into different time zones, mobile phones adjusted. Watches lost their portable monopoly on time. People who wear watches tend to have a serious need for a wrist-handy clock, use their watch for adventure sports -- or more likely, style.
The second issue is mass market demand. Is there a vast consumer need for a smartwatch that will connect to your smartphone and show you messages and notifications? That will shoot video and let you read email? That will answer or launch a voice call? That will track your sleep and remind you to wear a rain jacket?
No. Not right now. Might that change? Of course, but only if a tangible need -- at the very least, a perceived need -- rises into global consciousness.
In 2014, demand just doesn't seem to be all that strong, despite a handful of smartwatches that have been trying to get a party going.
iWatch to Crash the Party?
Apple is most definitely late to that party. The Pebble line lit up the eyes of geeks, starting with a screamingly successful crowdsourced funding effort.
Apple's smartphone archnemesis Samsung delivered the Galaxy Gear (with a Gear 2 version looming soon); Sony delivered its SmartWatch 2; and upstarts like i'm Watch are producing some interesting options.
Meanwhile, Apple partner Nike has the popular fitness tracker bracelet, the Nike FuelBand.
There's other competition in the burgeoning health-band space, too. The most recent one to cross my path is Jawbone's UP24, which tracks how you sleep, move and even eat -- and through its smartphone-connected apps, presumably help you lead a healthier, more insightful life.
Apple has entered market segments before, redefining them with design, quality, ecosystems (stores, developer tools), and visionary leaps forward in technology and manufacturing. Can it deliver a brand new product that depends on style in addition to niche-like desire?
Apple Knows Style
Apple's design missteps, particularly under the steady hand of Jony Ive, have been few and far between. The first iPhone still looks good. A Tangerine iMac looks out of place in a flat-screen world, but the smooth curvy translucent lines? Still nice.
The point is, most Apple products are items that can stand on their own, appreciated as discrete objects -- and none of them need to be worn.
Fact is, day-to-day watches need to match a human's personality and identity, first and foremost. A secondary concern is the style and whether they are right for the occasion -- dressed up or dressed down, color, texture, waterproof or durable?
None of these challenges are impossible to meet, but they're hard. Maybe that's why Apple seems to be working away in its Cupertino bat cave, trying to make an iWatch more functional, powerful and useful than anything else out there -- which brings up a new point: Even if Apple's iWatch won't shoot out a spidery cable a hero could swing from, each new product that enters the smartwatch space raises the stakes for Apple. Why? There's more competition Apple needs to best -- or ignore in favor of a brilliant focus that will induce palm-to-forehead why-didn't-I-see-that-before slaps.
Even as competitors create better and better wearable bands, they're busy undermining the space through ideas that solve problems that don't exist... and terrible marketing. There's a Samsung video about a guy who woos a girl while skiing -- with his Galaxy Gear watch -- that is so freakishly bad that it makes me want to avoid all smartwatches lest I catch the disease depicted in the commercial. The disease? A strain of pure idiocy.
Meanwhile, what's Apple really doing? Apparently working like crazy. The company has hired numerous experts over the last year, presumably to help with the iWatch development, including a chief medical officer, biosensor engineers, a Nike design director, and most recently the rumor that Apple hired a sleep expert from Philips Research.
Plus, curved glass rumors persist -- not to mention a furious effort to produce sapphire glass. While a patent points to the obvious iPhone usage for super-strong glass, it might be even more important for a scratch-prone wearable device.
Other rumors have pointed to home automation uses for an "iWearable" device, but smartphones are already unlocking doors, running thermostats from afar, and dimming lights. The point is, the iWatch is potentially launching into a fast-moving environment.
Why Not the Apple TV?
So why isn't the Apple TV Apple's greatest challenge for the near future? It's iterative. There is less reputation at stake. Less innovation cred to be lost. But the iWatch? A stumble will open up the guts of Apple and indicate a fading company, capable of evolutionary design... but maybe not revolutionary products. Lots of Apple geeks are hoping this isn't the case.
As for me, I'm mostly curious. I haven't worn a watch in 10 years, much less needed an exercise band to tell me I've been busy. I'm Apple's best and worst customer rolled up into one guy: Will I want one?