Over the weekend, rumors were flying that Apple has begun significantly ramping up hiring for a future launch of the oft-rumored, much-hyped “iWatch.” While some have predicted an iWatch as early as the end of this year, the rumor mill is now grinding out 2014 as the year for the iWatch launch. At the same time, just about everyone else in the tech world — including, most recently, Samsung and Microsoft — seems to be preparing their own plans for a smart watch debut soon. Is it possible, though, that the iWatch (and its competitors) will turn out to be one of the most-hyped, least-desired tech products ever?
Within the consumer tech world, there is some kind of groupthink going on that Apple has figured out how to create the perfect wearable tech product to wow consumers. Apple fans expect that the iWatch is going to be the company’s next great consumer device, becoming the innovation successor to the iPod, iPhone and iPad. A slow motion camera on the iPhone may be cool, but not nearly as cool as an iWatch.
That said, Apple doesn’t always get it right when it comes to launching innovative, new products (anyone remember the Newton?). And, lest you forget, Apple isn’t even the clear front-runner when it comes to the whole iWatch craze, with companies such as Samsung running neck-and-neck with Apple. In fact, some people, like Swatch CEO Nick Hayek, don’t find anything particularly revolutionary about a smart watch that doubles as a fashion accessory. The basis for the current iWatch craze really goes back to the Pebble smart watch – a 2012 Kickstarter project that became a $10 million crowdfunding sensation. Before that, we never even thought we needed a cool digital device attached to our wrist like a Casio from yesteryear.
And even if Apple launches an iWatch in 2014, there are very real risks associated with what appears to be a speedy timetable. With the Pebble now available in a Best Buy near you, Apple could end up rushing a product to market — going too fast and launching too soon. In a review of all the smart watches out there in the marketplace (both rumored and actual), Christopher Mims of Quartz found they shared a universal characteristic – they were all terrible. The battery life was terrible, the design aesthetic was terrible, and the functionality was terrible. Would you want to charge your watch every day just to get the current time and a few text messages?
Assuming the iWatch is indeed in the making, Apple isn’t just chasing a fad — the company appears to have changed its product innovation strategy entirely. It’s now all about filling unmet market niches. In other words, who in the world doesn’t have an iPhone or iPad and how can we get them one? What that means, however, is that the iWatch could very well be little more than a “cheaper iPhone” or a “really cheap iPad.” The iWatch, then, would not be a watch – that’s the red herring – it would be a smaller, cheaper, less capable iPhone, and who wants that?
Maybe Apple will end up amazing us again – it’s hard to argue with one of the most valuable and most innovative companies in the world. Maybe the hire of Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve will turn out to be a brilliant move, resulting in a beautifully designed iWatch showing up on the wrists of supermodels on fashion runways around the world. Maybe a bunch of aging Baby Boomers will pick up the iWatch as a novelty, eager to play “secret agent” and relive their days of playing James Bond as youngsters. But take a look at today’s kids – do any of them wear wristwatches? If there’s something on their wrists these days, it’s probably a fitness wristband.
As a result, it’s far more likely that the first iteration of smart watches will be like the first iteration of any classic consumer tech gadget – kinda cool, a novelty, but hardly the makings of a B-school or design school case study. It took a company like Apple to “think different”, to radically imagine what was possible, to create a category-killer like the iPad. Rushing to market with a Pebble knock-off seems more like a way for Apple to make the quarterly number than a way to redefine the future. Here’s hoping that’s not the plan.