As I detail in my book The Apple Revolution, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s he wanted to launch a new product line. Before he eventually settled on a little thing called the iPod, he first considered launching a palmtop personal data assistant (PDA). It was in this capacity that he attempted to buy the Palm Pilot product line from 3Com – a move that would have allowed him to skip a large part of the development process en route to launch.
Eventually the deal broke and Jobs moved on to other things. As he later recalled, “I won’t lie, we thought about [building a PDA] a lot. But I started asking myself, ‘How useful are they really? How many people at a given meeting show up with one?”
The iPod, on the other hand, was filling a niche that clearly needed filling; not a matter of summoning a mass-market for a product there had never previously been a mass market for. As Jobs put it, “I don’t think early cultures had [pocket] organisers, but I do know they had music.”
Leap forward more than a decade and a similar argument could be had about smartwatches. Watches themselves are, of course, more ingrained into the cultural DNA than personal data assistants. However, in the same way that the best functions of PDAs have wound up being incorporated into smartphones, couldn’t the same thing be argued of watches?
SmartWatches ARE Stupid, Says Apple’s Old Design Cheif
In a recent interview, Hartmut Esslinger, Apple’s first design boss, expressed some rather unflattering comments about “Apple’s next big thing” – otherwise known as the Apple Watch:
Over at Hodinkee, a watch expert –– i.e. a man with a passion for timepieces –– got to grips with the Apple Watch at Apple’s big event earlier this week. The article itself makes for an excellent read, so be sure to check it out – the pictures are gorgeous too. Did the Apple Watch impress this watchman? Yes and no, seemingly. Here are some takeaway points from the piece that offer some excellent food for thought on the Apple Watch and smartwatches in general.
“The Apple Watch is an incredible piece of engineering, no doubt. It is still not as cool as a mechanical watch, to real people. This might change with time, but my feeling is that not any time soon will a digital wristwatch, no matter what it’s capable of, be considered “cool.” I am talking pure aesthetics, and 100 perfect superficial judgement here, but at the end of the day, I don’t see people that love beautiful things wearing this with any great regularity.”
“Imagine a man who grew up in the middle class, went to a decent school, got an okay job, lives in a nice apartment in some metropolitan town, maybe drives a German car and occasionally splurges on something nice for himself. Do you see him wearing the Apple Watch? I don’t. The average well-to-do person buys an iPhone 6 because it’s the absolute best offering in the category in both form and function. I’m not sure the same can be said about Apple Watch because things like my Patek Philippe 3940G exist, and they always will.”
This isn’t to say that a good piece of technology can’t change consumer habits, of course. Before the tablet came into (popular) being, I used a laptop for most of my Web surfing behaviour in the evening. Before the Walkman made listening to music in public a private experience, people made do without a soundtrack to their lives (or, if they were really cool, carried a boombox).
In the same way that we’ve become used to the added functionality of a smartphone, few people will object to the “re-training” it will take to glance at their wrist instead of digging into their pocket to check messages or take voice memos if the technology is exciting and transformative enough.
But the keyword here is “if”.
Because at the moment I don’t think that it is — and I’m not alone in this view. Earlier this year, analyst house ABI Research forecast the size of the nascent smartwatch market as 1.2 million units for 2013. While this might seem a decent number, it’s worth noting that it is less than a third of the total number of netbooks (a dying concept as it is) which will ship during that same time frame, and 100 times less than the number of iPhones that Apple will sell.
The smartwatch’s case wasn’t helped much by the initial lukewarm reactions afforded to Samsung’s recently-launched Galaxy Gear. Despite being practically a microcomputer strapped the wrist (in the same way the smartphone was a computer squeezed into the form factor of a mobile phone), it failed to do what it said on the tin: offer a compelling piece of tech that would make us look at our phones less (as if staring at your wrist while sitting in a meeting is infinitely more polite!), while still providing a comforting — and increasingly necessary — link to the digital world.
Bridging Tech & Fashion: A Smartwatch That Blends In?
Samsung even took the time to officially comment on lukewarm reception its Galaxy Gear received in a recent interview with Re/Code. “They are in their infancy right now where battery life is really a challenge,” said Samsung’s Design America studio chief Dennis Miloseski. And a smartwatch isn’t like a phone or a tablet; it has to play by different rules. Fashion plays a big part. How do you make one device appeal to a wide demographic of people? It’s tricky, according to Miloseski. Very tricky, indeed.
Miloseski said it is one thing to have a big phone that you can stash in your pocket, but by definition, wearables are omnipresent. “When I have something on my body, it is a part of me. It is a part of my wardrobe.”
When Wired’s Christina Bonnington wrote that the Gear is essentially a “$300 smartphone accessory” it is difficult to think of faint praise more damning.
Android Wear was designed to change all this and make wearables devices not only unified in terms of their capabilities and software, but also useful. But here’s the thing: Android Wear is just the canvas, a means of levelling the playing field and providing a unified set of rules that can be used by developers to create apps, games and content for the myriad of wearables produced by Google’s hardware partners. What Android Wear didn’t do is introduce KILLER features; that’s the job of developers. And here in lies the paradox because without a killer feature no one will buy into the Android Wear concept and that in time will result in devices like the Samsung Gear Live and LG G Watch going the way of the original Samsung Galaxy Gear –– i.e. an early grave.
But even putting the Gear aside for one moment, it would be one thing if this were a case of a single product not living up to the hype, rather than a technology that is fundamentally flawed at its root.
Like 3D technology in cinemas, smartwatches are a concept that have been periodically trotted out by companies for the past forty years, without ever really catching on. In the 1970s — around the time the personal computer was first taking off — Casio, Citizen and several other Japanese electronics manufacturers first developed calculator watches.
Despite an initial burst of interest, these rapidly fizzled — before being revived a decade later when Casio developed digital watches that included dictionaries, blood pressure sensors, touch screens and, yes, even gesture controls. Again, progress was put on ice by disappointing sales.
Instead the most popular low-cost watch model became the chunky G-Shock, whose only real capabilities are its durability and weatherproofing. Meanwhile the largest market segment for watches around the world became the luxury models costing between $1,000 and $5,000. This puts the smartwatch in a slightly uncomfortable position: too expensive for the average consumer (particularly if they view it as a costly smartphone app) and, frankly, too cheap for the high-flying business-folk who are unlikely to ditch their Rolexes and Patek Philippes for a Motorola Motoactv, a Sony Smartwatch, or even (when it arrives) an Apple Watch.
The obvious counterargument to all of this is, of course, the one that explains why I use Steve Jobs as the opening illustration for this story. Personal organisers might not have been up to snuff in the early part of the new millenium, but were portable music players really any better? The iPod looked cool, but it also had limited space compared to rival models, no wireless and — at an initial price of $399 — seemed excessively expensive for an MP3 player. Clearly arguing against the iPod as a viable consumer product puts me on the wrong side of history.
The point I’m trying to make here is that it took someone with Jobs’ vision to see that the iPod could become the ubiquitous consumer product it became, while rival music players disappeared into the digital ether. There is every chance that the Apple Watch could do the same. Few tech fans want to see innovation stifled without reason and, for all its potential creepiness and ethical concerns, there is a lot to be excited about when it comes to wearable computing.
All I’m saying is that if we’re going to get excited about smartwatches this time and ignore what happened in the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s, something radically different needs to occur.
Could this RADICAL difference be the Apple Watch?