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What’s The Apple Watch For? You Figure It Out

Apple’s happy to tell you about how its watch looks, works, and is manufactured, but hasn’t laid out the need it serves.

What’s The Apple Watch For? You Figure It Out
[Photo: Flickr user Q]

In 2010, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPad–Apple’s last new product category before the debut of the Apple Watch–he first set up the product by publicly pondering what had been the middle space between the smartphone and laptop. In doing so, he asked whether there was a need for a device that did a few things better than either of them. Surprise, there was, with books, email, movies, web browsing, and games leading the way. It wasn’t that some combination of smartphone or laptop couldn’t handle these things. It was that the iPad was optimized for them.

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Apple previously spent more time on rationale and differentiation.Photo: Still from Apple 2010 Keynote

The way the iPad was introduced helped set expectations for a device whose purpose many questioned. Five years later, Apple has talked a lot about what the Apple Watch does–activity tracking, notifications, maps, and novel non-verbal communications, mostly. It has also shared a good number of videos celebrating not only its design but the many watch and strap combinations. It’s even provided a rare and welcome peek at its envy-inducing production process. But all of this hasn’t provided a raison d’être for the company’s wrist-worn fusion of steel, sapphire, and silicon.

There could be several reasons why Apple hasn’t gone to great lengths to explain who its watch is for or even what big-picture need it serves.

It’s self-evident. The closest analog equivalent to the modern tablet is a magic sheet of paper that can display any kind of content. Given that the iPad was introduced during the netbook fad, Apple may have felt the iPad needed to be explained. The Apple Watch, though, includes what it is right in the name. It is, like its forebears, a piece of jewelry, and provides useful information you can digest in a glance–in the same spirit as how watches have always let you quickly check the time.

It’s tough to predict. Jobs was right about the tasks at which the iPad excelled. Its uses, however, went well beyond a few isolated things. The number of iPad apps in the five years since the tablet’s introduction has swelled from 3,000 to more than 725,000.Many of the top apps are, indeed, games, just as they are for the smartphone. However, there have been others–Skype, Facebook, Pandora, Dropbox, and Twitter, for example. When Microsoft released its free Office apps for the iPad, they shot straight to the top of its download charts. And of course there have been many highly specialized apps for the iPad.

This time it’s personal. Apple has noted many times how personal a device the Apple Watch is, a claim it has stood behind by releasing an unprecedented number of models and accessories at launch. The Apple Watch targets a broader array of price points than any product in Apple history, and the fitness-focused enthusiast snapping up a $349 Sport model for classy heart-rate monitoring may have an entirely different purchase motivation than the $10,000 Edition buyer primarily considering it as high-tech jewelry. Besides, its success with the iPad gives Apple the confidence to know its strong developer network will follow it to new platforms–giving the watch a path to an array of uses that even Apple can’t predict.

Competitors have paved the way. Coming into the market with not the first but the most transformative product is an Apple badge of honor. Apple did not release the first app-centric watch. When the first Pebble smartwatch was released, I wrote about how its app selection set the rules of the road for smartwatches in terms of their basic capabilities. To be sure, Apple Watch is a more capable device than the original Pebble or even the Pebble Time, but is attracting many of the same kinds of apps, at least as a baseline.

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The new Pebble Time carries forward the basic smartwatch premise of the category pioneer.

Early adopters haven’t waited around for Apple to spell out why they need an Apple Watch before placing their pre-orders: The watch is now sold out into June. But the first reviews have painted a picture of a device that is capable of many conveniences yet has some ergonomic and functional shortcomings or at least curiosities. For example, Apple revolutionized the smartphone market with a one-button phone, the functionality of which has evolved over the years. Yet the Apple Watch needs both its “digital crown” and a separate button, throwing off its symmetry.

For those customers who bought in to the iPad’s promise, the tablet acclimated itself into lifestyles in sometimes unforeseen ways. Five years after the iPad’s introduction, though, it seems to be settling in as a nice-to-have versus a need-to-have device for many. The Apple Watch’s features and designs will, of course, evolve over time. If Apple’s history is precedent, its opening price point will drop. But while Apple is the one manufacturing the product, each customer may have to manufacture a rationale for buying it.

About the author

Ross Rubin is founder and principal analyst at Reticle Research and founder and editor of Backerjack, a site that tracks crowdfunded products. He has been covering consumer technology and innovation for two decades.

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