Why the Apple Watch Introduction Was So Different, and Other Event Observations

There’s been quite a bit of skepticism about the Apple Watch since the unveiling event. Much of this centers around the way it was introduced. Ben Thompson neatly sums up the key issues as:

  • There was no focus on the “jobs to be done” of the Apple Watch - why does the Watch need to exist?
  • The Apple Watch seems to do “too much” - it should have focused on two or three use cases that it could do better than any other device

I believe both of these points are valid, but directly related to one another and to the market Apple is trying to address.

In a subsequent discussion, Thompson argues with himself over the “too much” criticism, eventually coming to believe the Apple Watch is the iPhone to the iPod-iPhone evolution. In other words, Apple skipped the iPod iteration of the wearable and jumped straight to the iPhone. I think this is spot-on, but I think he misses the key reason why. Thompson believes Apple did this because they could. I think they did this because they had to.

During the event, Apple repeatedly positioned the Apple Watch as a fashion item and their “most personal device yet.” This is the key to understanding the introduction.

Before talking about Apple’s wearable, let’s start with a different wearable: Clothing.

Consider SCOTTeVEST. It was introduced primarily as clothing with a utilitarian purpose, namely carrying more gear around easily. The clothes may be fashionable, but no one buys SCOTTeVEST products primarily for their fashion; they buy them for their utility.

Let’s now look at a Gucci suit. This is a pure fashion item. People do not consider the utility of a Gucci suit when making a purchase; the utility is entirely secondary. No one asks why a Gucci suit exists. It has a very different, self-evident job to be done.

SCOTTeVEST is positioned as a utilitarian item. Gucci suits are positioned as fashion items.

This, I believe, explains both of the objections to the introduction. Had Apple focused on the jobs to be done, it would have been positioning the Apple Watch as primarily a utilitarian item. This is also why Apple didn’t start with an intermediate product. Had Apple introduced a wearable under a different name that only did two or three tasks, it again becomes a utilitarian item. Even a subsequent rebranding to Watch couldn’t shake that initial impression of Apple wearables.

Further, this ability to do much more than expected is required for the device to be the most “personal” product yet. The industrial design will only get Apple so far. While the Apple Watch already has far more appearance options than any other Apple product ever, it’s still a fraction of the options available in the wider watch market. To make it truly personal, the functionality needs to be unique. Each person will want something different from an Apple Watch and the device will need to support it. If the wearable only does the same two or three things for everyone, it isn't all that personal. Further, by offering the promise of doing nearly anything from the start, the utility again becomes a secondary concern: Worry about the fashion and trust that it will do what you want.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. That impression fundamentally shapes how consumers view a product. Apple wants the first impression of the Watch to be that of a fashion item. That means utility needs to take subordinate place to design, and extreme personalization is required. It’s a fashion item that happens to be a technology product that can do just about anything I want. From this perspective, Apple’s introduction makes much more sense.

Other random thoughts from the event:

  • I would be extremely surprised if Apple didn’t allow third-party watch faces for the personalization reasons I outlined above. This would be a massive mindset shift for Apple. They’ve never before allowed anyone else to replace the key user experience of a product. It’s effectively the same as granting third parties the ability to build new lock screens on the iPhone. Inconceivable in that context, but a necessity for the Watch.
  • The Apple Watch OS looks visually like the next generation of the iOS 7 aesthetic. I hope some of that design language makes its way back to iOS.
  • Speaking of the iPhone, I’ve had the 6 (not the Plus) for four full days now, and I’m still not convinced on the size. It’s larger than the initial reviews led me to believe, and I still haven’t found a way to use it one-handed comfortably. I know that isn’t a priority for everyone (perhaps not even most), but in the last four days, I’ve become acutely aware of how much I use my phone one-handed. I had to buy one to test my app, but I’m starting to hope Apple makes a smaller new iPhone in the future. It feels like this form factor but with a 4.2” screen would’ve been ideal. Check back in a month to see if I've changed my mind.
  • Keeping the entry-level iPhones at 16 GB while bumping the remaining configurations was a stroke of genius. It will help the ASP of the phone line. I’ve purchased the 32 GB model for a long time and intended to again. Had the entry level model been 32 GB, I would’ve saved myself $100. Since it’s instead only 16 GB, I stuck with the mid-size offering.
  • An interesting effect to watch: I now wonder if I’ll be “stuck” with “needing” the 64 GB model from here on out. I fear I’ll get used to the extra space and be very reluctant to give it up. To be clear, I don’t believe this was Apple’s intent (though if next year’s models still start at 16 GB and only goes up to 32 GB a year later…).
  • When introducing Apple Pay, Apple stated their goal was to replace the wallet and they needed to “start” with the credit card. Curious, since I thought Apple started with Passbook. Given they now have a solution for loyalty, gift and credit cards, I wonder what’s left? Licenses?
  • Inexplicably, I saw some online giving “scarf guy” grief. I only wish I had a personal style I was so secure in that I’d wear it in an Apple keynote.
  • It feels like Apple events have become increasingly video heavy. Given the keynotes are real-time marketing events these days, I understand why. Still, it feels like the events have lost something with so much pre-produced content.

Finally, at the end, Apple stated the pillars the company was built on: Mac, iPhone, iPad, and now Apple Watch. I find it telling that iPad was called out specifically. Despite some recent hand-wringing from outside, it’s clear Apple feels it is still a key product with a bright future.

Notable by its absence is the iPod. This isn’t surprising, especially considering the iPod Classic was discontinued after the event. Still, I think this is the moment where we can definitively say the iPod Era ended. It felt like a big moment to me given how much the iPod meant to Apple.

Also interesting, and which I’ve heard no one else remark on, is the absence of Beats in any form. No mention of the streaming service or the headphone line as a key pillar. For anyone still wondering, it seems like Apple just clearly stated the Beats acquisition was really a talent acquisition that happened to bring along a really profitable business that will pay for itself.