The tech industry has watched smartwatch after smartwatch go down in flames (along with most other “wearables”). Yet it never seems to dampen the enthusiasm for the next attempt, the one that we’re sure will captivate consumers.
That’s led to plenty of news sources christening 2015 the “Year of the Wearable.” One commentator in particular, Business Insider’s Jay Yarow, believes the upcoming Apple Watch will be the device to finally jumpstart (we might say defibrillate) the wearable market. And Jay has a very interesting argument.
Jay doesn’t pretend for a second that the Apple Watch is the new can’t-live-without-it gadget. He admits there’s nothing innovative about the device:
“Apple’s watch appears, at least based on what it does, to be just like all the other smartwatches. It does notifications, some mapping, some messaging, and some health stuff.”
So why would it succeed?
His answer is fashion. Apple’s products are durable, sleek and stylish. Previous wearables have been clunky and cheap-looking. And no one, Jay argues, wears watches because they need to tell the time. We wear them because they make great expensive jewelry. The Apple Watch will be the next great trend in wristwear.
Or will it? We agree that the Apple Watch looks great, and Apple has already started marketing it in fashion outlets. Most likely, the Apple Watch will see higher sales than previous wearables for all the reasons Jay says. But will it actually be a hit? As in, a must-have item? We don’t think so, for four reasons:
- Functionality gap. In order for a tech innovation to succeed on a large scale, it has to cross a functionality gap—even if it’s one we didn’t know we had. Smartwatches do a few useful things, but nothing a phone can’t do (and everyone already has a phone). Even smartphones only became popular because they did so much that cell phones couldn’t do, and cell phones became popular because they offered more functionality than a landline. As Jay points out, tech products are usually designed and marketed around utility. What he’s missing is that it isn’t just tech marketers that think that way. Consumers do, too.
- Lack of demand. While watches can be considered a style choice and an enduring fashion accessory, wearing them has declined in the age of smartphones. It’s not as if people are clamoring for stuff to put on their wrists, then disappointed with lackluster wearables; even Jay describes how wearing a high end watch felt “weird” and took getting used to.
- Usability. It’s not at all clear that a watch is a convenient format for a smart device. In theory it makes it “hands free” but really it just means you can only use one hand to interact with it—it’s stick on the wrist of the other one. The display probably can’t turn from horizontal to vertical when you tilt it. And how easy will it be to use such a tiny touchscreen?
- Competition. If the Apple Watch is the most stylish addition to the smartwatch field, that only makes it the king of a very small market. It’s still a newcomer to the fashion scene, which is crowded by designers who’ve been making elegant, chic watches for generations. Good marketing can help Apple break into that market, and there’s no doubt that Apple Watch-as-jewelry could be a hit fad. But, unlike the tablet or smartphone markets that Apple essentially created out of thin air, the fashion accessory market is far from untapped. Competition is fierce.
If Apple really wanted to position its wearable as a fashion accessory, the smartest thing it could do is just license the technology to existing fashion designers. Historically, no one has bought watches based on how great the sprockets are. They buy them based on how great they look. So there should be hundreds of different smart watches powered by Apple inside, by every label from from Gap to Gucci. Same functionality, same screen, totally unique style.
For now Apple seems to be hedging its bets, treating its watch sometimes as a gadget and sometimes as bling. That approach might outsell past smart watches, but we wouldn’t throw away the smartphone just yet.
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