A wearable for the rest of us

Now that the details of the Apple Watch have been revealed to the public, we can all stop looking at the rumour mill and start to think critically about Apple’s new device and the wearables industry as a whole.

The question I have is this: is chasing the high end of the wearables market a good idea? This is a question that I’m sure gets asked every time Apple releases a new product, but I think things are different this time.

Criticism from the industry

Obviously, not everything said about the Apple Watch was negative. Quite the contrary. There was a lot of praise about the design of the hardware, software, and the watch’s functionality. That being said, the Apple Watch doesn’t seem to evoke the “Ah ha” moment that previous products did.

I’m sure I echo others in saying that the combination of multi-stage taps and a rotating crown doesn’t feel particularly intuitive at first (Daniel Bader, Mobile Syrup)

That feeling of not knowing exactly where you are or what's going to happen is pretty disorienting for an Apple product (Nilay Patel, The Verge)

But if you want to actually find and select one of those apps, you'll need to swipe around and tap the one you want on the screen itself. That's a little easier said than done (Sean Hollister, Gizmodo)

On first use, the device felt a little confusing and clumsy. Sometimes it seemed to do one thing; at other times, just the opposite. (Stephen Pulvirent, Bloomberg)

You get the idea. Again, positive things were said, but I want to highlight the point many bloggers are trying to make, which is that the Apple Watch doesn’t seem to have the intuitiveness of other Apple devices.

What wearables could have been (and still could be)

There are many low power technologies that are not well suited for phones and tablets that would have a welcome home in wearables. If wearables are designed to provide glanceable information, push notifications, and of course the time, then it’s difficult to justify selling a $349 device ($449 for those of us living in Canada). There are so many ways to deliver this functionality for a lower price, and the obvious example is Pebble.

eInk technology fell out of favour when tablets started to take market share away from eReaders, but these displays are far from dead. They work really well on the Pebble (or any wearable) because of their very low power consumption and outdoor readability. Pebble’s value proposition is very strong; they offer an always-on device that has seven to ten days of continuous battery life. That’s pretty incredible. Even simple LED interfaces like those found in the late Nike Fuel Band and Fitbit are crude but effective.

Many of these sports wearables aren’t the prettiest, but I find it hard to believe that Apple couldn’t find a way to make an attractive yet inexpensive wristwatch that’s not only elegant, but also easy to use.

Why Apple is driving the market in the wrong direction

I am confident that the Apple Watch will outsell all its competitors, simply because Apple has the marketing and momentum that most companies lack. That being said, I would hate to see their “success” encourage other manufactures to also chase the high-end of the market.

I love elegant technology that’s also functional. Apple selling a high-priced fashion accessory seems to retreat on their goal, which is to make high-quality electronics that add value to our lives. I love the tweet by University of Michigan Economics Professor Justin Wolfers.

Obsolescence is a point that needs to addressed. Everything in the technology world becomes obsolete, eventually. But, I know iPhone 4s users who are quite happy and don't feel the need to upgrade. That phone came out in 2011, or 4 years ago. Somehow I doubt the Apple Watch will have that kind of staying power. If wearables are destined to be quickly replaced and upgraded, that's one more reason why the Apple Watch's entry price is off the mark.

The brilliance of the iPod, the iPhone, and even the iPad was that they were independent devices of such high-quality that it encouraged its users to at least consider other Apple products. The iPod and iPhone has often been the first Apple device for many users, and their utility and quality encouraged some of them to move to the Mac.

In contrast, the Apple Watch is only geared toward people who are already invested in the iPhone. Apple would be smart to extend this support to other devices, but I can’t see that happening. (iTunes on Windows is bad enough). It seems like they’ve said, “ok, we’re only going to sell to our richest iPhone customers.”  

Well, I don’t think that’s a sustainable strategy when entering into a new market, not to mention one that is even harder to justify than other “in-between” devices like the tablet.

What I would like to see

Instead of these fancy and glittery smartwatches that make middle class people feel rich, I would like to see very specific yet functional wearables that deliver a few things really well. How about a really sexy looking band (or watch, maybe like the Moto 360) that’s $99. Perhaps it has lots of watch faces. Maybe it has a weeks worth of battery. It would provide very elegant, but limited notifications and health info. Android Wear got this half right, and Pebble is even closer. Apple could have done this, or at least had a tiered system like they did with the iPod. Offer something at a low price, that’s limited, but does the job well. A good example was the iPod shuffle and Nano. Something to get people to try wearables without committing $349 to see if it’s useful.

My hope is that Apple's decision to move to the super high-end of the market will create opportunities for companies like Fibit, Pebble, and Android Wear manufacturers (and hopefully newcomers) to create inexpensive and quality wearables. I want something that so simple, it won’t require instructions. I want to be able to pair it with my phone and start receiving information immediately. I want something I already know how to use.

I want to see a wearable for the rest of us.