So Far, the Apple Watch Rates a Firm “Meh”

I haven’t tried on, tried out, or even seen the new Apple Watch on anything besides—appropriately enough—a screen. Those who have tried it, generally walked away impressed, calling it the best smartwatch out there.

But it’s still an open question whether consumers want a high-tech timepiece; so far, the track record is mixed. As timepiece blog Hodinkee put it: “Apple has become a market leader in a category no one asked for.” In a way, Apple not only has to make the case for what it’s offering, but for the entire category.

From my vantage point, what we saw wasn’t a home run—which was disappointing, as we’re used to Apple hitting home runs. It still may be a home run sales wise, given Apple’s track record and marketing budget. And even a flop for Apple might be a huge hit for a jewelry company.

So here are my initial impressions, which may be revised if I actually buy and use one (which I’m not currently planning on).

First, the positive: Apple has put a lot of thought into making this device fashionable and customizable, offering a variety of straps, faces, and designs. Competitors’ smartwatches have been criticized for their ugly designs; Apple doesn’t want to fall into that trap. It recently hired Marc Newson, an experienced industrial (and watch) designer, and because of the variety of different colors, straps, and casings, even if everyone at a party wears an Apple Watch, it’s possible no one will have the same watch. One blogger estimates Apple is coming out of the gate with 108 permutations. It may not be able to design a watch for every taste. But it sure wants to try. (See some sample styles here.)

The problems are mostly technical: The watch doesn’t work on its own but requires an iPhone for most features (and not just any iPhone; my four-year-old model won’t work). It has been reported that it must be charged daily—and I’ve had my fill of Apple devices with short battery life. And it’s not cheap. It starts at $349, pricier than most of its rivals—and that gets you the version with the rubber straps.  

The people at Apple are shrewd marketers, but when its CEO rattled off all the capabilities of his new wonder device, he may have made the classic mistake of touting features, not benefits. Will the health apps mean fewer trips to the doctor? How does paying for things with a watch improve my life? It may be cool that you can send someone a representation of your heartbeat or tweet from your wrist. But is that worth $349? (And is it really that life changing to tweet from your wrist?) 

I also found the presentation overwhelming—and not in a good way. I cringed imagining the new gestures I’d have to learn, all the time I’d have to spend researching and downloading and testing and mastering new apps, and all the technical difficulties I’ll have to cope with when the device inevitably doesn’t work as it should. Dealing with computers and phones already consumes way too much of my life. 

Many years ago, a friend said he didn’t wear a watch—and he was talking about an old-school wristwatch—because it’s like “your parents on your wrist.” A smartwatch is all that, and throw in your boss, your friends, and anyone else you can think of. 

That’s true for a smartphone as well, but at least you can stuff that in your pocket and sometimes ignore it. Most people don’t, of course; the average person checks their phone more than 100 times a day. One of the prime benefits of a smartwatch, users say, is it frees you from the tyranny of constantly checking your phone.

And yet this doesn’t seem that liberating. The Apple Watch moves the wired world from our pockets to our wrists, making it even more a part of our being. Instead of thinking how this device will improve my life, I kept imagining how it would further clutter it.  

Speaking of which… 

This is one scary sentence: “My colleague Dawn Chmielewski says she likes seeing her message notifications on a wristwatch while she’s driving, which is less dangerous than looking at the phone.”

While it’s good this woman is engaging in a less dangerous activity than one that claims 4,500 lives a year, drivers should not be checking any device. In fact, just like iPhones have an airplane mode, I hope smartwatches adopt a “driving mode” that shuts it down, except for emergency calls, until the wearer leaves the car. That may save more lives than all the health apps.

The industry’s big question is what will this mean for watch sales—and unfortunately for Switzerland, it can only stand on the sidelines and see how these products fare in the market.

Life will go on if this flops. If it succeeds? We could see a “two-wrist world,” where fans don two watches—the first, a smart device; the second, an old-school timepiece that represents fashion and prestige and everything watches now stand for. (On Rolex forums, they’re discussing what model they would wear with an Apple Watch.)

What’s more likely is that the big watchmakers will produce their own smart devices. Mechanical timepieces will be produced for a dedicated but smaller group of collectors.

There will always be aficionados who treasure and wear analog watches. Some are beautiful, valuable, expertly made devices. Their fan base is loyal and devoted. But this could shake things up. Many music buffs still swear by LPs, and their sales are on the upswing. But LP sales remain a fraction of what they were. 

A smartwatch may or may not be a smart move for Apple. But we seem to be entering a new era in which consumers expect watches to be more than just fashion or status symbols.

Until all this sorts itself out, this could be an anxious time for the watch business. But crisis creates opportunity, and if manufacturers play this right, they could be big beneficiaries. When analysts argue against a smart timepiece, they point out that young people don’t wear watches. So as we discuss whether Apple will hurt the watch business, Silicon Valley is worried the outdated image of the watch business will hurt Apple. 

Right now, according to a 2011 survey, only 25 percent of 16- to 34-year-olds wear watches, half the percentage of the 55-and-up crowd. If that trend continues, the watch business may face a grim future regardless. The Apple Watch could exacerbate that problem. It may also provide a solution. 

JCK News Director