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The Key to Apple Watch Success: Getting Enough Right the First Time

By Chris Maxcer
Jul 28, 2015 5:00 AM PT
apple-watch

I still find wry joy in all the "Apple Watch Tanks" headlines from early July. There are some great gems, like "Apple Watch is a FLOP: Sales of the gadget have fallen by 90 percent since April, report claims" or "Analyst: Apple Watch selling worse than thought."

Trouble is, the reports and estimates were based on a tiny slice of reality -- the writers and editors looking for a big headline did the rest.

Heck, although TechNewsWorld's sister site, the E-Commerce Times, went with the simple "Apple Watch Sales Sink"... it also took the time to report a more nuanced story by asking the opinion of a well-connected analyst who might have a better read on the situation.

"We're aware of Apple's orders through the end of the year, and we're seeing no drop at all," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies.

We're seeing no drop at all, he said.

In fact, after Apple's earnings call with analysts last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed that Apple Watch sales were higher in June than in April or May. So, how is it that sales are tanking?

Obviously, Apple isn't revealing exact sales figures -- and you could argue that Cook is lying during a financial report, which would suggest the guy is OK with breaking the law and risking jail over something that easily could be audited by the feds. Even if you're no fan of Cook, I think the odds he's telling the truth are about 100-to-0.

Back Up the Truck: Why Do You Care?

Because of my job, there never was any question whether I would buy an Apple Watch. I'm clearly an Apple tech enthusiast, overall -- and yet my original review of the Apple Watch wasn't exactly a glowing recommendation for others to buy one.

Like most other reviewers at the time, I came to the conclusion that the Apple Watch wasn't nearly as awesome as many tech watchers and users wanted it to be. Very good? Yes? Instantly life-changing? Not really.

So why do I care the Apple Watch brouhaha now? I have to wonder why there was such a sense of glee in the headlines in early July. The headlines were chasing views, just like always, and there is usually some company looking to use its data to reveal some controversial or unexpected result.

More to the point, I'm curious about how the Apple Watch will shake out -- if it really will become not only a breakout product for Cook and Apple, but a breakout category as well.

After all, everyone wants to wear more computer gadgets, right? Everyone wants a watch and a heart rate sensor, right? The assumption is that wearable tech will become huge -- that when the gadgets that have been looking for reasons to exist finally get refined enough, they will succeed at getting consumers to open their wallets.

Trouble is, sales from a company as large as Apple -- and with so many loyal customers -- won't exactly reveal whether the Apple Watch is truly a hit or not. Just because I have high customer satisfaction with my MacBook Pro doesn't mean that I wouldn't appreciate a MacBook Pro that could fold back on itself, have a touchscreen, and let me run iOS apps, too.

Apple has far more information at its disposal to gauge interest, though, and in last week's earnings call, Cook revealed not only that the sell-through of the Apple Watch was higher than the iPad and iPod in the first few months, but also that he believed it was going to be a hot gift this holiday season.

What Might Be Going On Here?

The Apple Watch is pretty good, and it's going to get better with " target="_blank">watchOS 2, but truly skyrocketing sales, aka real success in Apple terms, means that many non-watch wearers will need to become watch wearers.

Isn't that the real question? How many people actually will want to turn into watch wearers, so much so that they're willing to spend several hundred dollars to do it?

Right now, the Apple Watch replicates a lot of things that you already can get from your iPhone. Ten years ago, I saw a lot of people wearing watches. This year, I see hardly anyone wearing watches. They aren't asking themselves which smartwatch they should buy -- at best, they're asking themselves if they want to wear a watch at all.

That's a big hurdle, but the iPod wasn't exactly a necessary gadget when it launched -- nor was the iPad. Both were expensive, and yet both found insane consumer success.

It seems to me that the common assumption is that as generations of tech gadgets finally get better and better, the major flaws get ironed out -- and once that happens, the product finally gets the features it needs to become popular enough for mass market success.

Turns out, I don't think the refinements are nearly as critical as tech fans seem to think. I know -- I've been guilty of yapping about missing features and refusing to buy products until certain problems are fixed. So then how can (finally) getting native apps on the Apple Watch and better battery life not be utterly critical to its success?

I think the work has to get done before that -- that it's much harder to refine a product into mass market success than it is to get enough right the first time to start building consumer love. Then it's the consumer love that does most of the heavy lifting on the way to skyrocketing sales.

Consider this: The first iPods were not that amazing -- they were heavy and clunky. Even today, how many people commonly listen to 1,000 songs? It was the core ease of use, the form factor, and the iconic white design that led to consumer love. They were expensive. Many things sucked -- but they were much better than what came before. Necessary? Not really. People love music, but there were much cheaper ways to get portable music.

The same goes for the iPad. It was heavy. It had no physical keyboard. It seemed fragile. There weren't that many great apps. It was expensive. Still, it generated many little points of appreciation -- the way it responded to touch, the bright screen, the ease of use. The iPad didn't take off because Apple finally got it thinner, lighter, and gave it a sharper screen.

No, I think something else is going on here -- and we're going to see it through the Apple Watch now, too.

What the Heck Is Going On?

If the early adopters of the Apple Watch are anything like me, this is what I think is going on: The Apple Watch is becoming part of our habit circles, and it's becoming a habit because it is randomly delighting us in bunches of tiny ways. Most of them never would add up to anything remotely creating real justification for a US$400 wristputer that needs an iPhone brain in your pocket to work.

Still, it's good enough that it's changing my perspective. I stopped wearing a watch eight or 10 years ago -- I forget exactly. Having a mobile phone made it redundant and a silly purchase. It's not like I need or care about a fashion piece. Now, though, after just a few months, every now and then I almost feel naked when I don't have my Apple Watch.

Sometimes I'll forget that I'm not wearing it and raise my wrist to use it. I still wish I could choose from more faces. I still wish the battery was strong enough to display the watch face 24/7. However, raising my wrist to activate it is now second nature -- like using a touchscreen is now second nature.

And it's not that bad.

That said, falling in love with a gadget isn't about getting used to it -- and it's not even about using it for some amazing health-oriented purpose. Why I firmly believe that the Apple Watch will take off in sales and have a great holiday selling season -- like Cook says -- has little to do with the fashion of the watch, the bands, native apps or price.

It has to do with the timer. Yup, the built in timer app. Not literally -- metaphorically.

A few weeks ago, I was cooking something with my hands and they were a saucy mess. I needed to set a timer. So on a whim I raised my wrist and said, "Hey Siri, set the timer for nine minutes." And boom, Siri set a timer for nine minutes. When the minutes were up, my Apple Watch vibrated.

Kind of handy -- no big deal -- but then I started using it more for cooking -- and for other little reminders. For work-related sprints. I even started using it while I was walking, carrying things where I had no easy access to my iPhone. Now, this sounds stupid and unimportant, but I think it's the opposite -- it marks the beginning of positive feedback loops that start carrying weight.

Sure, knowing that my resting heart rate is 59 beats per minute when I'm sitting on my butt at my desk is interesting, but hardly important to me. Not having the timer on my wrist, though? Not having the ability to ask Siri to set it?

A few days ago, I did not wear my Apple Watch but I wanted to use Siri to set a timer. No big deal, right? Wrong. It is a big deal because it was the first time I felt true irritation at not having my Apple Watch on my wrist.

So I started paying more attention. Were there other uses that were not particularly important that I nonetheless felt more appreciation than a guy ought to?

Turns out there were. I like getting text messages on my wrist -- not because I want to interact with them much. Rather, I like to know when important ones come in that matter. If I'm checking out at the grocery store at 9:30 p.m., I don't care who's texting me -- unless it turns out that it's a request for beer. Then it suddenly matters, right then.

This is important, because the payoff to having the Apple Watch is suddenly huge in that small moment of time. And these are the silly little things that build habits, mind share, and physical connections to devices. Many people already feel naked, lost and twitchy when they are without their smartphones. It's going to happen with the Apple Watch, too.

The first iPhone and smartphone owners didn't have products that did much more than dumber phones. You could call. Tell time. Send texts. They were utterly unnecessary -- until one day they were necessary. However, I don't think it happened because the screens got bigger, the battery life got better, or they gained more apps. They sold more because they created lots of little -- and seemingly dumb -- positive feedback loops that turned users into aficionados.

Those aficionados wanted to share their experience with friends and family. They bought iPods and iPads as gifts. Every small win with a device creates a connection to the user. It's why we're addicted to so many apps, games, feeds. Small moments of delight.

The Apple Watch is bringing small moments of delight, and these are creating a generation of Apple Watch enthusiasts... who will then fan the fires of adoption that will lead to much bigger sales numbers.

So why haven't other smartwatches, for example, already taken off? Why does Apple get these wins? Because they have better retail outlets? Because they have so many customers? A little, sure.

Ultimately, I believe Apple has experienced such great success because the company worked so damn hard to get it right the first time -- to create enough pieces of delight to practically guarantee that success will tip its way.


TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com or check out @WickedCoolBite on Twitter.


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