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.)