Mar 092015
 
Lots of apps for Apple's watch, but even their icons are almost too small to see, let alone to choose between.

Lots of apps for Apple’s watch, but even their icons are almost too small to see, let alone to choose between – even in this larger than life size picture.

In contrast to Apple’s historically obsessive secrecy about new products, details of its Watch have been steadily leaked out over the last six months, leaving little for its official launch event today except answers to questions such as when the watch will be available for sale/purchase, and how much the crazy-expensive versions will cost (we already knew a basic version would be $349).

Perhaps that was the reason that the first 52 minutes of their launch event covered other products being released, and only 40 minutes subsequently for the watch release.

Far from being the main focus of the event, it almost seems the Watch release was an afterthought, and some of the other devices released, like an impressive new MacBook that shows Apple can still comfortably occupy a leading role ahead of other computer designers, or a wonderful medical research tool that adds a new layer of public altruism to the company (as well as a new reason to buy their devices!), seem to be of much greater overall importance.  They also announced a price drop to their Apple TV device and a new possibly Apple-only streaming service with HBO.

Smart watches in their modern form – devices that link to/through your smartphone to act as an extension of the phone – have been available in modern form since 2012, and have met with only limited success – probably because, try as we eager-adopters might, it is a struggle to see any actual practical value or benefit associated with such devices.  As background in anticipation of Apple’s watch release, we wrote about smart watches and what they do/don’t do a couple of days ago.

So, now that the last remaining wraps have been removed, what do we know about Apple’s Watch?  Should you race out to buy one?  In a sense, the release was timely – I had to spend ten minutes, find a magnifying glass and also the 25 page manual before being able to remember/work out how to switch my current watch to daylight saving time yesterday.  A watch that would do this automatically is currently a very appealing concept!

Apps for the Watch

One of Apple’s strengths is matching great hardware with a wonderful array of apps to run on it.  What would an iPhone or iPad be without the apps on it?

Apple has been mounting a full court press to get a dazzling variety of appealing watch apps developed and ready to go in time for their watch release.  But they showcased fewer of them today than we’d have expected, and conceded there were only about 40 of them currently available for their watch, while promising thousands more would appear over the next some months.

Some apps had a mild ‘gee whiz’ flavor and impressed with what could be done with a tiny display, but (with the possible exception of the fitness apps) if you look at these apps and how they try and squeeze something onto the tiny watch display, the unanswered question, every time, is ‘how/why is this better than doing it on the phone that I have to have with me in order for the watch to work, anyway?’.  (Remember that the watch is merely an extension of the phone, not a separate standalone device, and needs to stay close to the phone to be linked to it.)

So, for example, you can see gate information for your departing flight, or a summary of today’s weather.  But, isn’t it preferable to get full flight information on your iPhone, or a full weather report and forecast?

You can potentially use the watch to unlock a hotel room door, but couldn’t that be as easily done with a phone as a watch?  The same for making an electronic payment – the watch will do it, but your phone will also.

And the first app that Apple showed at the release today – the ability to send your heartbeat to a friend.  Assuming your friend has a matching watch, is a doctor, and you’re suffering a medical emergency, well, maybe that is valuable.  But, for the 99.999% of the rest of the time, this is useful, exactly, how?

To our disappointment, there was a total lack of any ‘must have’ new type of app, and the apps that were featured all looked more like gimmicks than introducing new capabilities.  New ways of doing the same things – yes.  But ways of doing new things?  No.  Better ways of doing the same things?  Also no.

Apple has sort of conceded the transitory (some might say trivial) nature of the information you’ll get on your phone by noting that its battery life claim assumes very short interactions with the watch – little more than brief glances.  Assuming this minimal amount of usage (which seems a fair assumption, because there’s precious little you could do with the watch that requires more than a glance) Apple says the battery will last 18 hours; in other words, you’ll need to charge it every night.

Battery Life

There has been a lot of speculation about the battery life of the device.  Apple avoided disclosing what it projected the battery life would be during any of its partial reveals prior to today, and the glib 18 hour statement was initially offered without any explanation of what type of usage would be supported during the 18 hours of life.

Subsequent to the launch event that have revealed some more about the battery life.  They are saying that the 18 hours assumes that you’ll spend no more than 90 time checks (5 an hour), receive no more than 90 notifications of all types, use various apps for up to 45 minutes, and play music for 30 minutes.

Basically, that means less than 90 minutes of use during the 18 hours.

Apple also disclosed that if you were to use the watch to make/receive a phone call, you’d get up to three hours of battery life – that’s a lot (and who in their right mind would want to use the watch as their phone anyway) but that also means after the 3 hours of phone use there’d be no remaining battery life for standby or other purposes.

This battery life is at the low end of acceptable, and less than some competing Android based watches offer.  Details here.

The Moto 360 watch at least looks like a decent watch.

The Moto 360 at least looks like a valuable watch.

The Watch as a Fashion Statement

So, if the watch fails on the basis of doing new and useful things, that leaves it more as a fashion statement than a functional device.  It was telling that the release of the watch started off by talking about its finish and its ability to change the display image on the watch face.  These are not functional things, they are fashion things.

Apple is straddling a difficult compromise between appealing to gadget lovers and appealing to high fashion.  As part of its appeal to the fashion sector, it is launching its promotional activities with a 12-page insert in the March issue of Vogue rather than in any type of tech magazine.

This is probably very sensible.  Apple products have always had an element of ‘fashion statement’ about them, and a significant number of Apple enthusiasts will automatically buy this watch, just because it is a new Apple product.  On the other hand, we fully expect many of these watch purchases will see the watch end up in a dresser drawer rather than on the owner’s wrist.

Talking about on one’s wrist, there’s another small concern as well when a watch trespasses into expensive high fashion territory.  You may have read the stories about how muggers would focus on people with iPhones and steal them; what do you think they’ll do when they see people with much more costly watches on their wrists?

One last comment about the fashion element.  Is it just us, or are these watches semi-clunky?  Compare their rectangular shape to the Moto 360, for example, and doesn’t the circular dial on the Moto 360 give the watch a much more pleasing overall shape and style?

We’ll readily concede that their $17,000 high end watch looks lovely.  But their $350 low end watch looks like a cheap $35 Swatch, and with a nasty watch band on it.  At least the Moto 360 (priced at around $200 – $300 on Amazon) looks like it is worth what you pay for it.

Another very attractive smart watch – maybe even nicer than the Moto 360 – is the LG G Watch R – priced around $300 at Amazon and elsewhere.

Here’s an interesting article that looks at the watch more as a collectible item (or, in the writer’s opinion, not a collectible item – he explains why it fails to have any interest for high end watch collectors).

The timeless elegance and classic beauty of a Rolex.

The timeless elegance and classic beauty of a Rolex.

Today’s Treasure – But Tomorrow’s Trash?

Assuming purchasers of such things actually care about this, part of the ‘value’ of a high end watch is its longevity, both in functional and in fashion terms.  You’re making just as much a personal statement, no matter if the watch is brand new or a family heirloom, and few people would know or care which it was.  If you put a 50 year old Rolex Submariner watch alongside a modern day one, could you see any immediate and obvious difference, and (if you could) would you know which was the newer and which was the older – probably not.

But now think about high tech equipment.  The first portable phones, the first flip phones, the first smart phones – all of these had an aura of success about them and were fashionable to be seen with.  But would you feel the same pride, displaying an original iPhone today as you felt when it first came out in June 2007?  There’s no doubt that it was in part a fashion statement at the time, just like modern iPhones are today.  But there’s also no doubt that high tech devices using rapidly evolving technology quickly become technologically obsolete, and lose their fashion status in synch with their loss of technological edge.

So that $1,000 – $17,000 watch you buy next month will probably be half obsolete in a year, three quarters obsolete in two years, and a thing of distant memory in three years.  Its value will likely drop almost as quickly.

While we’re sure that some of the ‘One percent’ of society won’t mind this, we expect most people will, and the people who unthinkingly buy their expensive fashion statement today might be dismayed to discover, in a year or two, it is no longer any sort of fashion statement at all – quite the opposite, it will have become unfashionable.  Will such people happily turn around and buy a new Apple watch every year or two?

Maybe they will.  A woman who spends $1000 on a dress that she wears only a dozen or so times would presumably think nothing of spending a similar amount on a watch and getting the same amount of public display from it.

Pricing and Availability

There are three different collections of watches.  As has long been known, the entry level ‘Apple Watch Sport’ watches will be priced at $349 (for the smaller display) or $399 for the larger display.  They look cheap and unappealing (in our opinion).

The midlevel watches are priced from $549 – $1049 for the smaller display and $50 more for the larger display, and start to look slightly more classy.  The premium level ‘Apple Watch Edition’ watches will start at $10,000 and currently the most expensive model is shown at $17,000.

The only difference between the $349 watch and the $17,000 watch, apart from the two different face sizes, is the packaging.  There are no functional differences at all.

If you want to upgrade or replace your watchband, you have a range of bands to choose from, but you can only buy Apple bands (at least at present) – the watches have been designed to not accept standard bands.  They cost anywhere from ‘only’ $50 up to $450.  Yes, a replacement band can cost more than the Apple Watch you’re connecting it to.  That has to be beyond ridiculous by any measure, particularly when you look at moderately similar stainless steel bands such as this one which costs a more reasonable $9.70 on Amazon.

Talking about ridiculous pricing, there is a curious paradox embodied in the watch.  In general terms, most of us would end up paying more to buy an Apple watch, with its tiny screen, short lived battery, and very minimal functionality, than we would to buy a large screened iPhone that does just about everything we could ever need of a portable electronic device.

By that measure, it is impossibly difficult to see the value in the watch.

The watch can be pre-ordered from 10 April, and deliveries follow two weeks later on 24 April.

Will the Watch be a Success or Failure?

It is a very bold and brave person who chooses to bet against a new Apple product.  Its iPod, iPhone and iPad have been a perfect trifecta of wins, even though all had a fair measure of naysayers at the time of their original releases.

Our feeling is that the brand appeal of any new Apple product will be sufficient as to see a substantial number of these watches sold, and the fashion appeal, as illogical as it may seem (and when has fashion ever been a slave to logic?) will see a surprising number of high end watches sold as well.

But will the first rush of sales result in ongoing sales?  And, perhaps most of all, will the people who buy their watches end up using them every day?  Our guess is that many of these watches will end up stuffed away in a drawer somewhere, seldom used, and ignored.

On the other hand, what we do expect is that watches in general are now unstoppably evolving to becoming smart watches, in a manner rather akin to how watches evolved from being mechanical to being quartz controlled electronic watches back in the 1970s.  Here’s an interesting article about how even some of the most traditional Swiss watch manufacturers are moving to add smart features to their new watches.

The key things which are needed, to make the smart watch product category a success, are better battery life, greater affordability, and some type of truly useful application.  We can realistically anticipate the evolution of the first two issues over the next few years, but have no idea about when or if we’ll see an answer to the third of these requirements.

We also feel, for sure, that the increased focus on the concept of smart watches will see many people look at the idea of a smart watch either for the first time or more carefully for a second time.  Perhaps they might then decide to get a Moto 360 or other brand of smart watch – something that has a much more appealing value equation and functionality to it than an Apple watch.

Summary

To be fair, there can be no doubt that Apple has put a lot of thought into its watch product, and has done about all that can be done to make such a device as useful as possible, as well as straddling the line and promoting it as a high priced fashion statement too.

We are studiously avoiding a pronouncement on its value as a fashion accessory.  We’ll concede that for the fitness/exercise enthusiasts, the watch is probably a good thing.  But as a functional productivity enhancer?  We just don’t see it.

Are we buying one ourselves?  No.  At least, not yet.  But we might now go out and buy a Moto 360 or an LG G Watch R – at least, we will as soon as it can pair with our iPhone.

  2 Responses to “Apple’s Watch : Function or Fashion?”

  1. Agree. At this stage, many improvements in a year or two – so costly for a 2 yr life. Smartphone are used for much more, so 2 yr life more reasonable.

  2. […] :  You can now read our analysis of the Apple Watch release, here.  It failed to come up with any ‘must have’ applications or reasons for […]

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