The Apple Watch: What's the point?

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This article appeared in the June 2017 issue of CRN magazine.

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The Apple Watch: What's the point?

COMMENT  |  I had cause recently to find myself in an Apple Store with time on my hands. I have to admit, I don’t find the Apple Store experience to be as delightful as I’m supposed to. I’m more of a “leave me alone while I browse the shelves” sort of shopper, and Apple Stores aren’t places where you’re left alone, nor do they have many shelves — just what fits on the perimeter walls around the minimalist showroom floor.

In that showroom, I noticed something kind of interesting. There were customers inspecting the latest and greatest of Apple’s offerings at almost every table in the place – particularly those housing the iPhones – but two tables were conspicuously empty. You can probably guess that these two tables contained the various models and configurations of the Apple Watch.

I was in the store for more than an hour, at lunchtime on a weekday in a busy suburban shopping centre, and in that time I saw two people look at the Apple Watch tables. One of them only looked long enough to recognise what they were and move on.

Now, I’m not saying that this is indicative of a widespread indifference to the product Apple launched with such fanfare and expectation not two years ago. But if I were saying that, it would be hard to argue.

Smartwatch sales are down. They’re down for everybody, sure, but they’re down for Apple in a big way. Apple overwhelmingly dominates the category, but that’s hardly an impressive boast. It’s like being the most popular brand of toothpaste-flavoured bubblegum... Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. But it’s bad.

When the iPhone was introduced, there was an obvious case for purchasing one. The market wanted a wearable device that did what the iPhone did and no-one had got it right yet, so Apple stepped in. Likewise with the iPad — it wasn’t the first tablet computer by a long shot, but it fixed what everyone else was getting wrong. It filled a need.

The raison d’être for the Apple Watch seems to have been something like, “Smartwatches are becoming a thing, but none of them are much good. When Apple does one, the category will really take off!”

That’s not actually enough. I’m yet to see a compelling reason to own a smartwatch of any brand, Apple included, beyond the fleeting prestige of having one. To that end, in retrospect, Apple did itself no favours in the prestige department by launching the Apple Watch with obscenely super-premium configurations that cost more than $10,000. That kind of ostentation doesn’t play well with the masses, so even the vastly more affordable versions were tainted as symbols of obnoxious wealth.

Of course, all is not lost. As Apple must know, the success of its other products is underpinned not only by what Apple puts into them, but by their utility as platforms. Or, as the philosopher Ballmer once so eloquently put it: “Developers, developers, developers, developers!” The man just had such a gift for expression, didn’t he?

To make the Apple Watch a compelling product, someone needs to make it do something useful – something that can’t be done as well by other things. There are many applications available for the Apple Watch right now, but the vast majority of them are extensions of iPhone apps that offer a subset of functionality without having to grab your phone.
That’s nice enough, but... meh. Others are “proof of concept” projects to see if you can do such-and-such on a screen that small. Even if you can, who cares?

If Apple is serious about the Watch as a platform, it should be creating incentives for developers to come up with the killer app: the compelling thing that the Apple Watch can do better than anything else, not in spite of its size but because if it. 

I don’t know what that is; if I did, I’d go make it and get rich. Apple doesn’t know what it is either, or it too would have scurried off and built it by now. 

But Apple must believe that a killer app is out there somewhere, and should be searching for it in earnest. Because if Apple doesn’t believe it’s out there, what’s the point of the Apple Watch?  

Matthew JC Powell is a technology commentator, philosopher and father of two, in no particular order

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