With the beginning of 2015, many tech analyst are salivating at the potential for the new Apple Watch release. Since the release of the original iPod back in 2001, each subsequent new device released by Apple has been a resounding success. Loyal Apply buyers happily lineup at Apple storefronts in droves to get a crack at their most recent releases. But are we getting to a point where consumers are becoming too overwhelmed with technology? At what point will consumers say enough devices is enough?
The original iPod succeeded for a number of reasons, but primarily because it did one thing very well; play digital music. Combined with the iTunes player and market, it quickly gained traction and grounded itself as the de facto MP3 player. And it did it with a recipe of simple, well build hardware. The iPod did little more than play music, with a monochrome screen, a navigation wheel, and not much more. Competitors featured color screens with more functionality, but lacked the minimalistic design and neglected the core function of . . . playing music. Since the iPod what we’ve seen is a convergence of technology rather than widespread diversification. The updated classic “iPod” has since been discontinued, succeeded by a line of iPod touches and iPhones. When the iPhone was released, it combined the functionality of a smart phone with iTunes and the corresponding music store to effectively make the iPod redundant for anyone who owned one. The iPhone was essentially an iPod, PDA, and phone wrapped into one supported by the walled-off ecosystem of iOS and the iTunes music/app store. Later the iPad showed even more device convergence, providing much the functionality of a PC in a smaller package. People could type out emails, browse the web, and play games much as they would have with laptop PCs, and popular add-on keyboards helped with touch screen drawbacks. However both devices continue to be popular and successful (despite recent declines in iPad sales).
Each subsequent device released by apple was a revolutionary product vastly improving on previous technology by at least an order of magnitude. So will the Apple Watch continue this trend? The Apple Watch contains vastly more functionality than its mechanical or quartz counterparts, right? It brings new functionality to a centuries-old device, however attempts in the past to improve on the humble watch have left a trail of failures. Granted, these implementations were not as advanced and many had serious design flaws, but we see a similar trend with each:
- Lack of battery life
- Rapid technological obsolescence
- Mass fashion appeal
- Compatibility with external systems
These are all hurdles tech devices must overcome, but when marketing a tertiary technology device like a smart watch these challenges are compounded. Who wants to charge yet another device at the end of the day, along with their phone, tablet, and laptop? And with the frightening pace of Apple releases, who will buy a watch with the knowledge that in half a decade (or sooner) their purchase will be essentially useless? High end watch purchases typically fall into the category of buying jewelry, which is expected to have a much longer lifespan and not precipitously lose its value. Typically these are heirloom products meant to be personalized and last a lifetime. The Apple Watch has attempted to address these issues by adding a level of customization to fit the taste of each customer. But these derivatives can only go so far. The appeal of the device will have a limited audience of Apple customers who are willing to give up their current timepiece.
The Apple Watch is just one example of a recent re-popularized trend of connecting everything to the internet, the so called “internet of things”. This is the idea that everyday “dumb” devices will connect themselves to the internet making our lives easier, and the Apple Watch falls squarely into this category. However the fact is these devices are not new. The technology to, say, connect your fridge to the internet has been around for awhile. LG introduced the first internet fridge back in 2000, more than 14 years ago! The technology never caught on and today we’re stuck with our old dumb fridges, unable to automatically order more milk when we run dry. Yet technology experts are still heralding a new age where everything will be connected to the internet, even your kettle. Keep in mind, when consumers make a purchase of an internet-connected device, they’re also buying the service to make it work. The new-fangled “cloud” is often referenced, but in reality its just a thin veneer representing a proprietary service which might not be around in 5 years. Your smart fridge could end up an expensive dumb fridge in a few years time if LG decided they will only support the most recent models. Furthermore, buying such devices means the consumer has to first utilize their functionality and then take the time to learn the device before they become useful. Is it really easier to make a grocery list on your fridge rather than just writing it down? Do I really need to be notified on my smartphone when hot water is ready for my tea?
Additionally the industry has yet to standardize a protocol for all these devices to communicate with each other. The market is full of proprietary mechanisms of communication, devices utilize 802.XX, Bluetooth, and a host a host of others. Home automation is a mess, and with no clear market leader consumers are rightfully wary of investing thousands of dollars in their home to find out later the technology they bought went the way of the beta cassette. X10,a home automation protocol that has been around for the better part of nearly two decades, never gained widespread acceptance, even though it provides functionality many new start ups are claiming is novel today. Undoubtedly at some point a leader will emerge and technologies will standardize, but that outcome is still a very long way off.
So what about the Apple Watch? It remains to be seen how the first new device to be released under the guide of Tim Cook will fare. However its good to keep perspective on what the device actually is, and what its trying to replace. Even though it carries the Apple logo, it will still face the same challenges as its smart-watch predecessors. As we move towards more and more devices embedding themselves into everyday appliances, consumers are bound to begin to feel tech fatigue. The stress of having to keep everything plugged in and charged, updated with the latest software release, and knowing that in the not too distant future there will be a newer version making the device you have now obsolete. I doubt consumers will be willing to not only replace their phone every two years, but also every major appliance in their home. Although perhaps the prediction of a luddite, I don’t see the Apple Watch being the revolutionary device some prophesy it to be. I’ll stick with my non-digital timepiece, which does a great job of telling the time.