The great thing about any new launch, particularly when it’s creating a brand new category, is that no one knows for sure whether the individual product, or the overall category, is going to catch the public imagination and fly, or sink like a stone.
Look at the iPad, the iPhone, the iPod, or if you want to go back further, to a time when Apple didn’t rule the tech world, Sony’s Walkman. With hindsight of course, it was obvious that all of these products were going to catch the public’s imagination and be a huge success. (It wasn’t, of course, but then hindsight is a wonderful thing.)
In the case of the Apple Watch, of course, Apple is not creating a new category, given that lots of other device-makers have been selling smart watches for some time. But it might as well be, given the hype that accompanies Apple’s entry into a product category, or its creation of a new one. Many people, for example, probably imagine that Apple created the tablet category with the launch of the iPad in 2010, but as seasoned tech-watchers will know, Microsoft (and others, but mainly Microsoft) had been trying to popularise the idea of the tablet computer, without success, for years before.
In the wake of Mobile World Congress, the consensus is that smart watches have so far failed to catch on. Even after seeing the Apple Watch unveiled last night, the analyst Ovum, concluded in a note issued soon after the launch that: “If anyone can create a buzz around a new product then it is Apple, but when it comes to smart watches it will have its work cut out.” That was from Ovum’s principal analyst, consumer services and payments, Eden Zoller.
Her colleague, Ronan de Renesse, lead analyst, consumer technology, was even more sceptical. He said: “Apple will have to go beyond just a great design and materials if it wishes to take the Apple Watch to the mass market and convince iPhone users who don’t wear a watch to wear one. While the iPhone and the iPad redefined their respective device segments when they launched, the Apple Watch will not play that role.”
Sigh of relief
Another analyst, Forrester, concludes that the Apple Watch does not have enough in the way of features to strike fear into the heart of the competition. “Competing smartwatch makers have to be breathing a sigh of relief,” says Forrester principal analyst, James McQuivey. “Samsung and Motorola don't have to worry that Apple has leapfrogged them in many functional ways - the Moto 360, for example, already does most of what Apple showed today.” Before the competition gets too complacent, however, McQuivey adds: “Yet, Apple will outsell all the rest of them combined in 2015.”
The key to the relative success McQuivey predicts for the Apple Watch is: “its emphasis on fashion, at a variety of levels, including all the way up to the luxury level.” This is a reference to the gold-plated Apple Watch edition, which will sell for £13,500. All of a sudden, last year’s appointment of former Burberry boss Angela Ahrendts as Apple’s senior vice president of retail and online sales makes even more sense than it might have done before.
McQuivey’s final point is an interesting one – that the sector that should feel most nervous about the launch of the Apple Watch is the top end of the luxury watch market. “Not because today's Rolex buyer is going to buy an Apple Watch Edition for thousands of dollars,” he says, “but because tomorrow's Rolex buyer may never materialize, having been thoroughly trained to believe watches should be as useful as they are beautiful.”
That may turn out in a few years to be one of the most prescient, or misguided, predictions about the impact of the Apple Watch from any quarter. As I said earlier, we literally have no idea, just as we had no idea whether the iPad would be a hit, whatever anyone who tries to tell you otherwise might say five years and millions of sales after the launch.
On the one hand, as Apple CEO Tim Cook said at last night’s launch: “I’ve been wanting to make calls from my wrist since I was five years old.” As a middle-aged kid myself, and one who has been having a lot of fun over the past couple of weeks with a $30 smart watch that is not in the same league as the Apple Watch, it’s not hard to imagine that a lot of other kids, aged from 5 up to about 75, will agree with him.
On the other, when I ribbed one of my teenage daughters just this morning, asking her if the iPhone every self-regarding teenager has is actually capable of making and taking calls, she answered thus: “Why would anyone bother calling someone when you can text them, texting’s much easier.”
Which is why predicting the future success or failure of anything that relies on something as fickle as human behaviour is so close to impossible. That said, given its track record in creating desire for things people want but don’t really need, if I was a betting man, my money would be on the Apple Watch becoming as ubiquitous in a few years as the iPhone is now. I just hope I don't live to regret putting that on the record.