On the wrist or in the hand - rise of the Wearable

 Is this the equivalent of the phone? Let me explain my reasoning and hopefully I'll get some opinions and feedback....

Is this the equivalent of the phone? Let me explain my reasoning and hopefully I'll get some opinions and feedback....

I remember seeing the first era of 'smart' phones, I remember the frustrations that came along with them - terrible battery (specifically for what would be termed a 'smartphone' - dumb/feature phones were measuring their battery life in days and in some cases, weeks), terrible interfaces, terrible speed, etc. - and then seeing the solution. It was the 1st iPhone and its new user interface concepts. The iPhone itself was  hugely deficient in many ways - no 3G, apps were webpages, etc. - I remember realising the rest of the mobile phone manufacturers were in deep trouble. Many major figures in the technology world dismissed it at the time as having no chance but those who truly understood user experience (and not just selling based off specs) knew that the writing was on the wall.

Of course, this did come to pass although slightly incorrect in that some of the manufacturers did manage to pivot enough to survive (e.g. HTC or Sony, although neither potentially for long going by recent accounts), or even prosper (e.g. Samsung who managed to become the Nokia of the latest smartphone era and dominating sales, but again are under significant pressure from both ends of the market - by Apple at the top-end especially after releasing their larger screen devices, and by new Asian companies at the low-end).


The History of the Watch

"The concept of the wristwatch goes back to the production of the very earliest watches in the 16th century. Elizabeth I of England received a wristwatch from Robert Dudley in 1571, described as an arm watch. From the beginning, wristwatches were almost exclusively worn by women, while men used pocketwatches up until the early 20th century. This was not just a matter of fashion or prejudice; watches of the time were notoriously prone to fouling from exposure to the elements, and could only reliably be kept safe from harm if carried securely in the pocket."

From the History of Watches on Wikipedia

It's a couple of weeks since Apple spent discussing the Apple Watch (along with another very intriguing new device). With the recent proliferation of wearables appearing amongst friends (both in and out of work), I've been watching with interest to see the reasoning behind buying such a device and trying to get my head around whether there's a true use for these or are they in the novelty/gimmick/niche area.

As watches go back 500-odd years however, it's worth reminding ourselves of how watches started in the shape of a handheld device, before progressively moving towards the wrist. We may not be at that stage just yet due to technical limitations but it's not hard to envision a point in time where a full smartphone capability will be able to be built into a wrist-watch sized device.......

Watches also have to include another certain aspect that isn't as much of a requirement when it comes to larger computing devices (although it could be argued that much of high-end laptops and phones at present are sold based off fashion and appeal): style. Something that is worn on the person must account for a person's taste and also be hugely considerate of size - e.g. women won't want to wear a massive watch - as well as also intangible aspects such as the material made - keep in mind that the material costs of buying a Gold Rolex watch for tens of thousands of euros is significantly less than that.


New Industry and Direction for Apple

Firstly, for a lot of reasons, this appears to be completely new territory for Apple in general. In previous times almost all the products they've introduced, and had massive success with, were to replace devices that were of a very poor standard. The first iMac in it's colourful translucent box made computers fun to look at and friendly. The first iPod took early-stage mp3 players and put it into a tiny, user-friendly form factor with a very clean design. The first iPhone brought a fresh new design to what were terrible devices prior, completely re-inventing the user experience, which papered over the other deficiencies that were of lesser importance to the consumer. The iPad was a massive improvement over almost all other previous attempts at tablets. In short, all of them took existing ideas, and products that actually existed, and took optimised them to a whole significantly higher level.

However, the watch is different in that it's moving into a space where there are countless fantastic designs and capabilities - hundreds of years of design experience evident across the range. Even Apple's designer has acknowledged as such:

However, it was not without some trepidation that he embarked on the watch. “It was different with the phone — all of us working on the first iPhone were driven by an absolute disdain for the cellphones we were using at the time. That’s not the case here. We’re a group of people who love our watches. So we’re working on something, yet have a high regard for what currently exists.”

Jonny Ive in a recent Financial Times interview

By all accounts, pricing for the Apple Watches will be a huge extreme also: €350 for the base model up to €17,000 for the top (John Gruber has a great 'fun' write-up here). In short, Apple is planning to sell this as a lifestyle tech/fashion watch design, not just as a fitness wearable and it's pricing shows. It also shows the quality of their planning to account for this intention in that they've been inviting both technical reporters, mainstream journalists (especially from major fashion magazines) and celebrities to the reveal events. It's important to keep this in mind as it is a distinct difference to what Google and its Android Wear is selling the devices as.

Going back to historical precedents with watches, the pricing is not particularly outlandish. Even if the argument is given that an Apple Watch will be out of date in a couple of years in comparison to your Rolex which can be handed down from generation to generation, for many (and especially in Asia with its hugely, and new, wealthy population), a present of this price is not out of the ordinary in many countries. Apple is taking the approach of designing a hugely fashionable device but also one that has significant capabilities that are even more powerful when part of its wider ecosystem.

Android Wear

Android Wear on the other hand is selling at the cheaper end of the market, albeit the most expensive models matching Apple's cheapest. They also give good feedback on how the devices are being used and some ideas of just what the Apple Watch is also targeting. I mentioned above about general comments from work colleagues and their use of the device: by all accounts the general consensus is that is reduces the amount of time spend looking at the phone. From my observations it does look like almost all of them have glanced at the wrist to see a notification and only now after another period of notifications, then had to reach for the phone. There's something less rude when in a group about glancing at the wrist instead of the phone (although as smartphones have become so common these days, this almost become the normal....). 

In short:

And that is the target market of the Apple Watch. Not “rich people” (though there’s a model specially for them), not “tech geeks” and not “Apple fanatics.” It’s people who want more time, and that is a very large target.
This, for some reason, is the thing that Apple has had a hard time articulating. This is the primary use case of the Watch. It’s not just that it’s a “notification center”; it’s that it allows you to act without any additional distraction.

From 'The Apple Watch is time, saved' on TechCrunch.


What Apple Watch brings that other devices haven't

It's important to note once again that I'm not as sure of this device's success as I was with the longer-term prospects I envisioned with the iPhone and what Android turned into eventually. However, it is important to consider what is different about the Apple Watch to understand what may help it sell to a wider audience than Android Wear has managed.

  1. Notifications: Like Android Wear, the Apple Watch provides standard notifications. It's not fully clear how much granular control will be here yet, but as highlighted in the TechCrunch article above, there is a definite benefit to time-savings by having the watch. By all accounts, the 'haptic feedback' of the Apple Watch is fantastic and subtle enough at this task.
  2. Size


Where will we go?

Going back to my thoughts at the beginning of this post on the changing of the guard when Apple released its game-changer iPhone and I also go back to the original image at the top of this article. Phones originally started out as larger cumbersome devices as the mechanics were reduced in size. In the earlier days, every use case was a pocket watch until size and capabilities reduced enough that gender differences and preferences dictated which would be chosen: on the wrist or in the pocket. Are we on the cusp of something similar here? At present the technology isn't fully ready as the wrist wearables don't have proper wireless capabilities built into them, for now depending on having a smartphone to connect to and provide much of the functionality. With apps getting updated at present to support the new Apple Watch (and it says something about interest that so many apps now exist already before the Watch has even been released), it gives a glimmer into just what the potential is. Thoughts?


Neal McQuaid