I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

What if Apple Watch Edition pricing is boringly reasonable?

I’ve never seen a smartwatch that I’d wear except the Apple Watch. It’s not that I think the rest are all ugly — most are, some are less so. But they’ve all looked like too strong a combination of cheap,1 absurdly geeky,2 and chunky for my taste, even though I wear $40 jeans and a $10 black T-shirt every day. My outfit feels reasonably acceptable, but an exceptionally geeky watch doesn’t.

I cannot look past my fashion preferences for a smartwatch’s functionality benefits. Looking good to me and making me feel good about wearing it is a fundamental requirement. Watches are a combination of functionality and jewelry for most wearers, often with the jewelry side as a higher priority.

The biggest challenge Apple faced with the design of the Apple Watch has nothing to do with battery life or screen technology: How do you make a smartwatch that most people will want to wear?

Everyone draws that line differently. A lot of tech people will see the Pebble Time or Time Steel as within those lines, but I don’t think it stands a chance in the mass market, especially the upscale market. To me, it still looks like a relatively crude geekwatch, and to everyone else, it’s going to look like a bad Apple Watch knockoff.

Apple couldn’t release a product that didn’t appeal to the mass and upscale markets — they’re too high-profile. It would be seen as a colossal failure. People would call for Tim Cook to be fired and everyone would declare Apple’s impending death spiral, even more than usual.

Lots of writers and podcasters have speculated that Apple now fancies itself a high-fashion company and wants the insane profit margins that could result from that, with the solid-gold Apple Watch Edition as the leading example. Most credible guesses, considering the price of gold itself and the prices of other high-end gold watches, predict the Edition having about $1500 worth of gold and a retail price between $10,000–20,000.

What if Apple’s primary reason for offering the gold Apple Watch Edition isn’t absurd profit? Profit helps, of course. But I bet the primary reason is to get people using an Apple Watch who would only wear a gold watch.

The Sport, assuming it’s the cheapest at $350, looks about as nice as the Pebble Time Steel in photos. It’ll easily succeed, but I don’t think it’s for me — wearing a watch with a plastic band just won’t make me feel good, and I’m not crazy about the aluminum’s appearance in Apple’s photos.

I’ll probably get a stainless model with a leather or metal band. But they couldn’t just release the stainless one, because many people would consider it too expensive, heavy, or delicate for their use. They’d rather have a cheaper, lighter model that can take a beating without looking too bad.

Just as they probably need both the Sport and the stainless line, there’s a high end of the market — much of which is ignored by and unknown to the young white American men who dominate tech and tech media — who won’t want to wear a moderately priced stainless model. They want the gold one, and many of them will buy it.

But Apple can’t sell it to them at a truly ridiculous price without alienating their base. A $10,000–20,000 starting price would make the Edition relatively affordable compared to many gold watches but ludicrously out of reach for most iPhone owners, possibily alienating millions of Apple customers and tarnishing their image with all of the snobbery and exclusion that comes with the world of five-figure watches. At the same time, Apple needs to be careful not to fall on the wrong side of the Veblen effect by making the Edition too affordable, but I bet they’re looking to keep Veblen under control at a healthy level, not maximize its short-term profitability.

Apple’s letting the $10,000–20,000 guesses simmer in the press to set price expectations high, just as they stayed quiet when everyone thought the first iPad would cost $1000. Maybe it’s for the same reason: maybe the Edition won’t be completely unreasonably priced for a piece of electronic jewelry that will probably be completely obsolete in five years but happens to be encased in a thousand bucks worth of solid gold. Letting people believe it’ll cost so much will make the real price seem like a great deal when it’s announced.

I’m guessing the Edition is closer to $5,000: expensive and very profitable, but boringly reasonable for a solid-gold electronic gadget.

(This may all be proven comically wrong at next week’s event, like most of my predictions — seriously, my track record is terrible.)

  1. In this article, I mean “cheap” as both inexpensive and being of low build quality, made from low-quality materials, or looking crudely or poorly designed. Being inexpensive alone isn’t a problem if the quality is there. ↩︎

  2. In the Google Glass sense. ↩︎

The Future of the Dumbwatch

A common theory among existing watch manufacturers and watch owners, exemplified by TAG Heuer CEO Jean-Claude Biver, is that the Apple Watch not only won’t hurt the existing high-end watch market, but will probably even help it:

“Apple will get young people used to wearing a watch and later maybe they will want to buy themselves a real watch.” …

Biver added that the Apple Watch will ignite a mass interest in the watch market when it is released in 24 April, benefiting traditional watch brands in addition to those with smart devices.

It’s a pretty optimistic take. That’s via John Gruber, who added:

This is how watch collecting works. You get hooked, and start buying more watches. And then you choose between them based on your mood or the occasion.

That’s how watches have worked to date, but I think that time is over for a big chunk of the market.

People will keep buying dumbwatches, and people who don’t buy dumbwatches will buy the Apple Watch. The big question is whether the people who buy dumbwatches and the Apple Watch will continue wearing and buying dumbwatches for very long.

Apple Watch Buyers ? Other Watch Buyers

The Apple Watch isn’t just a watch, interchangeable like any other. It’s an entire mobile computing and communication platform, and a significant enhancement to the smartphone, which is probably the most successful, ubiquitous, and disruptive electronic device in history.

Once you’re accustomed to wearing one, going out for a night without your Apple Watch is going to feel like going out without your phone.

I suspect smartwatches will be a one-way move for most of their owners, and most people won’t wear two watches at once. The iPod didn’t make people appreciate portable music enough to buy a Discman for the weekends, and the iPhone didn’t ignite interest in flip-phones or PDAs.

Some people will always want to own and wear traditional watches, but they’ll only become more of a niche, not a growing market. People will buy whichever kind of smartwatch works with their phone platform — iPhone owners will get Apple Watches, and Android owners will get Pebbles or Android Wear watches — and then, most of them will be effectively removed from the traditional watch world from that point forward.

The dumbwatch industry’s best hopes are either their own successful lines of Android Wear watches, or praying that the overlap between their customers and smartwatch buyers doesn’t get very big.

Censoring myself for Apple

In his widely circulated “Fear of Apple” post, Eli Schiff accuses iOS developers of withholding criticism of Apple or censoring themselves to stay on Apple’s good side, prominently including and citing me.

I’ve heard from quite a few people who think my Functional High Ground article and my regretful follow-up indicate that I’m censoring myself for Apple’s benefit, afraid of getting on their bad side. This is a profound misinterpretation and misrepresentation of what I actually wrote and feel.

As anyone who’s read my site and listened to our podcast for a while would know, I criticize Apple all the time. A developer’s view of their computing platform and software distribution partner is like any developer’s view of their programming language of choice: if you don’t think there are any major shortcomings, you just don’t know it well enough yet.

No sensible developer should be worried about angering “Apple” by fairly expressing legitimate criticism.

There is no single “Apple” to anger, as the company comprises thousands of people across many different departments, all of whom can think for themselves. I’m sure some of them can’t take criticism well and may be vindictive — any large group of people will contain almost every personality type — but that’s not the attitude of any of the Apple people I’ve interacted with.

Quite the contrary, actually: every Apple employee I’ve spoken with has not only been receptive of criticism, but has practically begged for honest feedback from developers. The idea that you’d be penalized in the App Store for being critical of Apple on your blog is ridiculous and untrue.

Apple employees are also humans, Apple users, and often former or future independent app developers. Chances are very good that any criticism we have is also being criticized and debated inside Apple. Employees can only exert so much influence inside the company, and they need people like us to blog publicly about important issues to help convince the higher-ups to change policies or reallocate resources. One of the reasons I don’t expect to ever take a job at Apple is that I believe I can be more effective from the outside.

The reason I regretted publishing the Higher Ground post isn’t that I criticized Apple — it’s that I wrote it poorly by my standards, then my sloppy work spread like wildfire far beyond anything I’d ever written, with my name used to fuel a hamfisted and misleading narrative about Apple that I don’t really believe. I thought I’d made that clear, but apparently not.

My words on this site sometimes, and unpredictably, have a sizable influence, which is both flattering and terrifying. If I write something critical, there’s a decent chance that the people whose work I’m criticizing will see what I wrote and be hurt or offended by it. That doesn’t make me afraid to criticize anyone, but it demands that I choose my words very carefully to ensure that I’m making a solid, fair argument.