A funny thing happened on the way to the expected launch event for the Apple Watch on March 9 — a number of high-profile tech competitors have all launched competing versions of a smartwatch in just the past two weeks. And that’s in addition to all the smartwatches that already exist in the market, such as the Moto 360.
The new offering that everyone’s talking about, of course, is the Pebble Time, which has raised over $15.5 million on Kickstarter (including the first $1 million in less than one hour) to create a new smartwatch. The Pebble Time may appeal to a lower end of the smartwatch market than the Apple Watch, but there will soon be a new version that comes in beautiful gleaming steel.
There’s also Huawei (Who? What?), which became the breakout star of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona with a high-end smartwatch that’s being marketed the same way the Apple Watch is — as more of a fashion accessory than a new tech device. And there’s also LG, which now has a beautiful new LG Watch Urbane, also announced this month.
That’s what should concern you if you’re excited about the Apple Watch — the launch of the Apple Watch has been transformed into a hybrid tech-fashion event rather than a pure technology event, and that’s opened the door to several tech companies without the innovation pedigree of Apple to compete on a more level playing field.
The current 12-page Apple Watch spread in the March issue of “Vogue,” showcases all the reasons why the fashionistas of the world should be sporting an Apple Watch but there’s nary a word written about the technical specifications of the Apple Watch. Instead, there’s photo after gorgeous photo of too-die-for wristbands and curvaceous timepieces. There have even been suggestions that the high-end 18-karat gold Apple Watch will require local Apple Stores to implement jewelry industry practices, such as the use of safes.
That’s a problem: If you’re not competing on tech specs, but only on colors and fabrics and materials, that leaves the door open for more competitors.
Consider what’s happening now with Chinese competitor Huawei, which doesn’t exactly have a reputation for luxury and fashion. What the company did was recruit a watch designer who has worked for Fossil and Emporio Armani and put him to work on creating a smartwatch that you could wear either with a tuxedo or a T-shirt. The new Huawei Watch is meant to appeal to the CK/Armani crowd, and there could even be a version in 18- or 24-karat gold sometime in the future.
Stare at enough photos of these competing smartwatches (or at a photo of a Victoria’s Secret model wearing one of them), and it’s hard to tell them apart. Which smartwatch would you really want to wear on your wrist? Fashion is a much more capricious business than technology — you never really know what’s going to appeal to popular tastes each season.
On one hand, it’s possible to make the argument that the reason why the vocabulary of style and luxury is starting to define how we talk about smartwatches is because we’ve entered a new era of wearables. Any tech worn that close to the body is going to have more of an emphasis on design specs and aesthetics, because it’s just so intensely personal. On the other hand, the reason why we’re seeing smartwatches being marketed as fashion items is because everyone suspects, deep down, that the new smartwatches may not have enough breakthrough functionality on their own to make them attractive to users.
For that reason, Apple has been looking for a tech story about the Apple Watch that will stick in the media. One of the options being lobbied about — and one that chief executive Tim Cook suggested in a recent interview with The Telegraph — is that the Apple Watch will replace the humble key fob for your car. That’s an interesting argument, but how compelling of an argument is it really if you’re plunking down hundreds of dollars to get rid of a key fob? That may be a solution in search of a problem.
That’s critical, because the growing consensus is that there’s still not much of a market for the smartwatch. According to industry estimates, only 720,000 smartwatches powered by Google’s Android Wear shipped in 2014. And Pebble, as we know, has already signed up 62,000 backers for its new Kickstarter project – so that’s 62,000 more people who are not potential customers for the Apple Watch.
Certainly, it will be interesting to see what Apple has planned for March 9. It’s got to be more than just guys in sneakers and jeans and turtlenecks oohing and ahhing over gorgeous wristbands, curvaceous watch bodies and strikingly beautiful watch faces. If the Apple Watch is really going to jump-start the smartwatch market (the way the iPad jump-started the tablet market), you’d better be hoping that the Apple Watch is in vogue and not just in “Vogue.”