We’ve been hearing about smartwatches for a few years now, and despite splashy product launches from Pebble, Motorola, Sony, and Samsung, they just haven’t taken off. Can Apple do better? Or is the Apple Watch destined to fail along with all of the other bulky, clunky high-tech watches?
Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.
Rick: Think back to 2006. You know, right around the time you turned 50. Most cell phones were just that, while a handful of glorified PDAs were learning to make calls. The “smartphone” was really just a meh-phone — and then Apple got into the game. The iPhone showed everyone what this product could be, and in very short order the category changed forever. This history will repeat itself next year with the introduction of the Apple Watch, a game-changer in every sense of the word. I can hear your lame, illogical howls of protest coming, but trust me when I say this is the one. Apple will make the smartwatch a household — a wristhold — item.
Dave: I know the history of smartphones, but thank you for walking me through it again. Just because Apple was able to see the threads of a fairly obvious product and weaved together the best bits of the Handspring Visor, Nokia smartphones, and its existing iPod, that doesn’t mean it’ll be so easy to strike gold a second time. Embedding a computer into a wristwatch is tricky business. Most existing options — from Dick Tracy to Inspector Gadget to Microsoft’s SPOT watch to whatever abominations have come from Sony and Samsung — show that there’s a fine line between useful and horrifying. You can’t simply assert Apple will get it right; that’s just fanboyism.
Rick: I love how people throw out that epithet whenever someone praises a product. By your definition, you’re a Pebble fanboy, Sonos fanboy, and, for some reason, Will Smith fanboy. Did I say I loved the Apple Watch or even that I’d buy one? No, I said it’s a game-changer. And here’s why: fanboys. Apple has a massive installed base of slobbering iEverything lovers who will buy whatever Apple makes, regardless of how much it costs or whether there’s a better alternative. Consequently, Apple will sell gazillions of Apple Watches. Presto: new market. But I do also think this wrist-thinker comes way closer to meeting the ideal than any product that’s come before it. On paper, anyway.
Dave: So yes, Apple has a track record of becoming the market leader after not being first to market — they come in from behind and synthesize good ideas to make something that everyone starts using. Know another company that you can describe exactly the same way? Microsoft. That’s literally their MO. Rather than focusing on the company, let’s talk about the watch itself. From what we saw, would you say that Apple’s hardware likely to take the world by storm? Will your uncle, grandma, and bus driver wear an Apple Watch in, say, 2 years?
Rick: Er, yes, it will take the world by storm, for exactly the reasons I cited above. Turn up your hearing aid, bus driver! As for whether the Apple Watch actually any good, I’m willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt: When was the last time they produced a truly bad product? The Digital Crown seems like a smart solution to the problem of navigating a watch interface, and I’m especially impressed that the face can recognize both taps and presses. Meanwhile, the Watch covers all the bases: notifications, fitness monitoring, even support for the new Apple Pay. Plus, some gloriously cool customizable watch faces, and no doubt zillions more to come. The only thing that’s really going to hurt is the price: “Starting at $349” is not a good sign.
Dave: I’m not arguing that Apple has savvy hardware designers and they have had an excellent track record in recent years. I’m asking you to look past the hero worship — don’t give them the benefit of the doubt and really look at what they’re offering. I see two huge red flags. The “starting at an average car payment and probably going up from there because we’re being really cagey about pricing right now,” and the lithium-ion elephant in the room: Battery life. The best we can hope for is to get through a single day. Even Apple, at its own press conference, emphasized charging it every night. You yourself have complained bitterly about smartwatches like the Pebble that require charging even once a week! Will vast armies of people agree to wear a watch that won’t work tomorrow if you forget to charge it each and every night?
Rick: I suppose, Borg-like, we will adapt. (Irony! Because, you know, all Apple users are drones?) It’s definitely not ideal. High price and frequent charging have been among my top complaints with the current crop of watches. But if you’re getting a device that’s genuinely useful, that works well and looks good, I guess you have to suck up the sucky battery. And, let’s face it, we charge our phones every night, so how is this any different? I actually really love the magnetic wristbands Apple showed off, as they’ll make it much easier to get the watch on and off. But I do NOT like the proprietary magnetic connector, because, good god, another cable. So let me ask you, guy-who-buys-everything-all-the-time, are you saying you won’t be getting an Apple Watch? Let’s see you put that on record!
Dave: Well, I didn’t say I wouldn’t be getting an Apple Watch. As you just said, I tend to buy all manner of gadgetry that ordinary consumers don’t. I have a Pebble smartwatch, one-wheeled gyroscopic skateboard, and an infrared camera for my iPhone. Will I get an Apple Watch as well? Of course! But will I recommend it to friends, family, and readers? Not if you have to charge it every single day, no. The comparison to a phone isn’t fair; you can charge your phone throughout the day, at your desk and in your car while continuing to use it. You can attach a battery case to your phone to extend its battery life on the go. You can’t do any of those things to a watch, so if it dies, it’s a paperweight strapped to your wrist.
Rick: Why would it die? Either you charged it overnight or you didn’t. Again, I think it’s the kind of thing people will have to integrate into their lifestyles. Will they be willing? That remains to be seen. The bigger question is whether the Apple Watch will fail like most of its predecessors. I say no. Whether it’s a killer product or not, the Apple juggernaut will catapult smartwatches into the mainstream, ultimately bringing more and better competition. You, sir, who apparently still think calculator watches are a neat idea, think all new things are bad and want the Watch off your lawn.
Dave: I’ve rarely been so badly (and intentionally) mis-characterized. Let’s just agree to check back in, say, six months, and see how the Apple Watch is doing. I predict that, yes, millions of people will buy one just because it has Apple’s logo on it. But I also predict that people will quickly lose interest when they forget to take the charging cable on vacation and have a dead watch for a week. Or get frustrated with Yet Another Thing To Plug In every night at bedtime. Unless Apple finds a way to get a week of battery life out of its Watch, I think this is going to be a short-lived revolution.
Who won? We’d love to hear from you. Weigh in with your opinion in the comments, or tweet @davejoh.
What other tech topics would you like to see Dave and Rick discuss? Send your ideas to Dave via Twitter @davejoh. And if you follow Dave, he promises to come to your home and explain something techy to your dad.
Photo credits: Apple, Pen Computing, OneWheel