It’s become a grand tradition, on the eve of a new Apple product launch, to predict how well that product will sell. This is a particularly entertaining discussion given the relativity that must be applied; what would be considered a success at just about any other company would be categorized as failure at Apple. For example, as a fun thought experiment Henry Blodget took the rumors that Apple was developing its own car and ran us through the profit margins that such a venture could produce, and the best case scenario he came up with was an additional $2 billion in profit, which by any other standards would be a ginormous success, but in reality would only increase Apple’s profits by 5 percent — hardly worth the effort.
And so we must apply this same relativity to our predictions for the Apple Watch, which is set to be officially unveiled on March 9. That it will sell millions of units is a forgone conclusion. But will it have the universal appeal of the Mac, iPod, and iPhone, products that have propelled Apple beyond the category as a mere tech company into the stature of global behemoth?
I don’t think so. The blockbuster success of products like the Mac, iPod, and iPhone is due to the fact that Apple took a product we absolutely needed — thereby ensuring a near-universal consumer base — and enhanced it. In the case of the Mac, by the 1990s it was pretty commonly accepted that every working professional needed both a work and home computer, and so Apple merely needed to make a personal computer for which a consumer could justify paying a few hundred extra dollars. With the launch of the iPod, every single person owned a music player, whether it was a CD player or an inferior MP3 device, and the iPod, with its iTunes companion, made it extremely easy to download, store, and play music. The iPhone debuted at a point when nearly every single person owned a cell phone. In each of these cases, the consumer merely needed to justify paying a higher cost for a vastly enhanced product. You already needed a cell phone, so why not pay a little extra for one that connected to the internet and carried mobile computing capabilities?
Not so for the iPad. Though sales out of the gate were strong, they eventually plateaued and stagnated. That’s because the iPad didn’t replace an already existing tool. When you were at your desk you still used your laptop, which was superior in use to the iPad. And when you were away from your desk you used your iPhone and its good-enough features. There were actually very few use cases that existed in between the iPhone and the laptop, and so many of the iPad’s users were those with enough disposable income to purchase it as a luxury item, a product they could use while relaxing on the couch in the evening.
The Apple Watch rests within that same awkward middle ground between the iPhone and the laptop. Sure, we all need to tell time, but the iPhone does that well enough to where it’s not worth shelling out hundreds of additional dollars to make telling time slightly more convenient. At least with the iPad you could argue that it had features not available on an iPhone — the ability to read books and type documents — but the Apple Watch will have even less functionality than the iPhone.
Even worse, the Apple Watch will be useless for those who don’t own iPhones. At least the Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad were all products that worked well as standalone devices (iTunes originally only worked on Macs, but Jobs eventually gave in and expanded it to Windows). There are millions of consumers — like me — who own an iPhone yet use a PC for computing. The Apple Watch must be connected to an iPhone, thereby shutting out millions of PC and Android users.
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This isn’t to say that the watch won’t make a lot of money or that it was a bad move for Apple to create one. It’ll sell especially well right out of the gate when millions of Apple fanboys scramble to buy one. But part of what has made the iPhone and Macs such blockbuster products is that people feel obligated to buy new versions every few years. With the iPad, I’m sure many of the people who purchased first generation versions thought they’d use it often, but by the time the next generation came out they realized they weren’t getting much utility from it and so it wasn’t worth shelling out hundreds of dollars for a new one. I suspect the Apple Watch will experience the same curve.
Looked at this way, I’m surprised Apple didn’t choose instead to tackle another indispensable gadget — the TV. Not only it is a product nearly every American owns at least one of, but we’ve shown a propensity for paying a hell of a lot of money for them. With the rise of what many are calling a “golden age of scripted television,” perhaps Apple should have been prioritizing the Breaking Bad fan demographic over those who merely want to know what time it is.
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Image via Redmond Pie