Watching the Watch-men: Apple’s new wearable lacks ‘killer’ app

by: on 16 March 2015

John Newbold from 383 argues it's utility over novelty that will make Apple's Watch fly off the shelves

"I don’t think CM Research’s prediction—that 30 million iPhone users around the world will buy the Apple Watch in the next 12 months—is particularly implausible."

John Newbold, co-founder, 383

No company is as good at launching consumer technology products as Apple. Samsung, Microsoft, Qualcomm – none of them seem to be capable of putting on events that come up to Apple’s mark. And that’s as true now as it was in the Steve Jobs era.

The events are so good, in fact, that they succeed in engaging the emotions of millions – and muddling the thinking of even the most hardened industry analysts. Witness this week’s Spring Forward extravaganza, which Apple held at the Yerba Buena Centre in California, and the optimism it created around the future of the Apple Watch.

Tim Cook re(unveiled) a good-looking smartwatch with a few apps (of which more later), a potentially restrictive battery life, and a big price tag (the media has predictably made much of the $17,000 high-fashion edition). Analysts are making wildly different sales estimates, but I don’t think CM Research’s prediction—that 30 million iPhone users around the world will buy the Apple Watch in the next 12 months—is particularly implausible.

Initial sales aside though, the longevity of the device will lie much less in Apple’s idea of what makes a great piece of hardware, and more in the imagination of the brands who can build useful experiences on top of the software.

Tim Cook made much of the playful modes of communication built into the Apple Watch – like sharing the rhythm of your heartbeat with someone to let them know you’re thinking of them (undoubtedly a neat idea, the evolution of the love note in the 21st Century), or creating a hand-drawn doodle for someone and sending it watch-to-watch. But it is utility, rather than novelty, which will determine whether this particular watch stays on the wrist.

Compared to other players on the market, Apple Watch undoubtedly looks to be one of the most capable devices (although the battery life will mean that users need to develop daily charging habits), but it will not be a useful device without great apps that complement the work that Apple has begun. Tim Cook’s presentation provided glimpses of interesting customer experiences – making payments, storing flight information or hailing a cab, all make sense. But overall for many the keynote lacked that ‘killer’ app demo that many industry watchers (and plenty of customers) will have been waiting for. We saw some 'glanceable utility’ - examples of apps where small bits of information or actions on the wrist, trump the screen in your pocket. But in my opinion we were also shown apps that didn’t seem necessary on a watch – apps you would still just pull your phone out of your pocket to use.

In terms of furthering Apple’s technology ecosystem the examples of Passbook and Apple Pay (still to hit the UK) making their way on to Apple Watch made total sense, but at the price point planned more clear water will be needed between the wrist and the pocket for the watch to really earn it’s keep.

I’d wager that at the moment the challenges of scaling down UIs for a much smaller screen and building some degree of differentiation between existing iOS phone apps has meant that really great examples of useful Apple Watch apps are a bit thin on the ground – a situation perpetuated by the fact that to date it’s been difficult for brands to test app prototypes in the real world, with real hardware.

At least it’s clear what brands have to do now: they must deliver useful customer experiences that are better than the alternative of simply pulling a phone from a pocket.

Apple may well have another hit on its hands, but at the moment it’s a sleeper one and investors will be hopeful that brands don’t hit snooze. 

By John Newbold, co-founder, 383