Guest author Christian Cantrell is a developer, blogger and science fiction author.
The Apple Watch looks like an excellent product likely to yield record sales. But no matter how good it is, the device seems destined to become the most unpopular product in Apple’s line-up—one that will top the charts for returns, resale and abandonment.
Compared to the company’s other gadgets, the Apple Watch faces a some formidable hurdles. Fundamental issues—like battery life, complexity and the primary dilemma of convincing people they need a wrist gadget in the first place—represent challenges for all smartwatch makers. But when it comes to Apple, which built its reputation on simplicity and ease of use, consumer expectations quite reasonably soar.
Apple has always been extremely proud of its customer satisfaction scores, yet it’s entering a new product category that will make its usual standard almost impossible to maintain. That could be bad news for developers making long-term investments in the Apple Watch, and for a company accustomed to seemingly limitless success and growth.
Too Smart For Their Own Good
The fact that watches have been on their way out for a while presents a particular quandary for smartwatch companies.
Technology early adopters tend to skew younger, but in the 16-to-34 year-old demographic, nearly 60% have eschewed watches for phones as their primary timepieces. Millennials and Generation Zs have never known a disconnected lifestyle, and some will likely have difficulty adapting to something weighing down their arms. Even those of us who grew up wearing traditional Japanese or Swiss timepieces may find some unexpected challenges with smartwatches.
With regular wristwatches, people can check the time with a surreptitious glance. But the Apple Watch’s screen mostly remains off to conserve power—which, despite Apple’s assertions, cements the device as a smartwatch first and a timepiece second. To engage, users must lift their arms or press a button—gestures which may seem intuitive at first, but will lead to the distraction and irritation of errant activations.
To be fair, others—like Android Wear devices—also suffer from this problem. (Pebble addressed it with an always-on e-paper display; its latest, Pebble Time, just added color to the screen.) But for many users, the Apple Watch will be the very first device they strap to their wrists, so these downsides (along with much higher expectations) will be a much bigger problem for it.
Another key issue: Apple lists an 18-hour battery. In the real world, that likely translates into about 14 hours—especially when the device is new and people want to show it off as much as possible.
That’s not just a very different proposition than the years-long battery life of traditional wristwatches. It’s also lackluster as far as smartwatches go. Typically, most get a day to a day-and-a-half—some even go as long as a week. At least Apple offers a “Power Reserve” mode, which keeps basic timekeeping for up to three days. That’s probably where many Apple Watches will spend a good portion of their time.
For Whom The Watch Ticks
The watch’s complexity will also challenge some early customers.
Instead of the app grids and folders iOS users are accustomed to, early adopters will face clusters of tappable dots that are, at first, easy to miss with your finger. You can use the “digital crown” (i.e., the scroll wheel) to magnify them, but it’s not obvious, intuitive or convenient. Users also have to acclimate to new inputs and interactions, including long-look notifications, glances, apps, taps, force presses, and when to use the digital crown button versus the side button.
Some users will deal with the learning curve, but others used to Apple’s typical simplicity will likely find the watch overly confusing.
Fitness tracking, one of the watch’s featured selling points, may spur another collection of deserters. The Apple Watch offers sapphire-laden sensors for presumably more accurate tracking, but that can’t change one immutable fact: Fitness just doesn’t appeal to everyone.
Even if it did, it has problems retaining users in the long-term. According to a study by Endeavor Partners, as many as one third of the participants who bought a fitness tracker lost interest within six months, and “more than half of U.S. consumers who have owned a modern activity tracker no longer use it.”
Notifications, another marquee smartwatch feature, also present more problems than solutions.
Personally, I’ve reached “peak notification.” I keep my phone in “do not disturb” mode the majority of the time. Instead of allowing in constant distractions, I pull my phone out when it’s convenient—like when I’m waiting in line or in between tasks. I’m likely not alone.
Consider it a mental health safeguard: As time goes on, we better understand the detrimental effects of constant disruption on our productivity, and how bright screens affect our sleep. Given that, expect more people to look for ways to reduce the barrage of notifications, rather than make them more accessible.
Personal, But Not Essential
Apple’s new wearable may be the company’s most “personal” device, as CEO Tim Cook puts it, but it’s not essential. That may be its biggest challenge. At a $350 starting price, it’s a costly item that nobody really needs, but which demands time and energy to maintain.
Unlike necessary tools like smartphones and laptops, the watch’s appeal might have to subsist on novelty for a while, making it more of an extravagance. In that way, it’s similar to the iPad, another Apple device that skeptics call redundant. But the tablet has one advantage that the watch doesn’t: You can use it casually and intermittently.
I know several people who longer pick up their iPads regularly, but who still use them occasionally at home or for watching movies while traveling. This justifies their continued ownership, although not the purchase of new models. (These are the very people whose behavior resulted in declining iPad sales.)
Prospects for the Apple Watch prospects may be worse. There is no way to just casually use this or any other smartwatch. You are either all in—wearing it every day and charging it every night—or it will end up in your drawer, back at the Apple Store or for sale on eBay.
That’s not to say Apple didn’t design an excellent smartwatch, one that might actually be the best one around. The build quality alone earns high marks, with options in aluminum, stainless steel and gold. Most will choose between the first two, with prices between $350 to $600.
But even the lower end of this range still exceeds what most competing smartwatches cost. If someone doesn’t get continued use out of their Apple Watch, that financial investment may loom even larger and discourage future upgrades.
I still plan on pre-ordering an Apple Watch along with millions of other people. But I can’t be at all sure how long I’ll stick with it.
Photos and product images courtesy of Apple