It's Time for the Watch

"Apple decided to make a watch and then set out to discover what it might be good for..."  - Wired

With one sentence, Wired perfectly described the Apple Watch, Apple's first product designed specifically to have a purpose dependent on the user. Today it is a watch. Tomorrow it will be something else. Next year it may be completely different. After years of development, the next phase of Apple Watch has arrived with preorders beginning on Friday. Just as was the case when the product was introduced in September, many are overthinking the watch, turning Apple's refrain about making great products into a complex business theory that risks missing the obvious keys to success. By overthinking the watch and ignoring the clues we received over the past few years, it is too easy to miss what Apple Watch actually is: freedom to do different things with technology.  

iPod Nano

Phil Schiller announcing new clock faces for iPod nano in 2011.

While it is hard for any outsider to pinpoint when the idea for Apple Watch first started to percolate, according to Apple executives, the project had its official beginning in late 2011, soon after Steve Jobs' death. However, it was clear at a much earlier time that Apple was at least thinking about a watch.

Back in 2010, Apple shipped an "instantly wearable" new iPod nano that had a multi-touch user interface. Possibly due to some inclination that people may use it as a time piece, Apple included a few watch faces. Steve Jobs even said one of Apple's board members was going to clip it on an arm band as a watch (which got chuckles from the audience). Soon enough, people began to use the device as a wrist watch. Apple embraced the trend and in 2011 went so far as to create new clock faces. It was fun and cool. There were limiting factors for a more advanced gadget at that time, including a new user interface and better battery, but that didn't matter. Apple was a different company in 2010, having just launched the iPad and iPhone 4. Simply put, Apple had more important things to focus on than a watch, but the idea was there. There was something about the wrist.  

Tim Cook Gave Us Clues

One of the key questions after Tim Cook became CEO was if Apple would be able to come up with new product categories. The question took on renewed vigor given a few years of evolutionary iPhone and iPad updates. While product secrecy continues to be a very important intangible asset for Apple, the company has historically given a few clues as to areas of interest, and Cook was no different judging by his public appearances in the years leading up to the Watch launch. 

2012: Tim Cook at D10 conference. "I think there's some cool things that can be done [with wearables] and I think it's an interesting area...The book hasn't been written on that yet. If it's just a cool thing to know, it will fade, but if it can really drive someone to act differently, to behave differently, then I think it can be pretty cool, and so I think the verdict is out. It will largely be determined by how much innovation is in that area. I think there are some good companies that are working on this." 

2013 : Tim Cook at D11 conference. "I think wearables is incredibly interesting, and I think it could be a profound area for technology...there's lots of things to solve in this space, but it's an area where it's ripe for exploration. It's ripe for for us to get excited about...I see it as something, as another very key branch of the tree...I'm interested in a great product...The wrist is interesting." 

The Apple Watch Sales Pitch

Tim Cook introducing the three main marketing tentpole features for Apple Watch: a timepiece, communication device, and health/fitness tracker.

As 2014 began, it was becoming increasingly likely that Apple was indeed up to something with a wearable, if nothing else due to the fact that so many other companies were coming out with subpar smart watches. Each device had severe limitations lacking fashion or personalization cues.

In September 2014, Tim Cook introduced the Apple Watch with the following sales pitch: a personal device that could be used to tell time, communicate with people, and track one's health and fitness.

In the preceding weeks and month, the official Apple Watch marketing campaign took shape with the main refrain remaining largely the same, focused on the three primary use case tentpoles. In addition, it gave more insight as to the overall design process behind the Watch and Apple's product-first culture. 

2014: Tim Cook during interview with Charlie Rose. "The Apple Watch is the most personal device we've ever created. I think it takes us into a whole different area. We had an intense team working on this for three years...As the product came to fruition it became not only the timepiece that you would expect, but a device that can do many different things include really a whole new way of communicating and connecting with people and also it has a health and fitness component that we think could be profound." 

2014: Jony Ive at Vanity Fair. "One of the advantages of being part of the design team that's been around for a long time is that we haven't the luxury and opportunity to develop out process, and so one of the things we do is we meet religiously as the creative team three or four times a week...I'm still so excited about just the nature of the process. I feel so absurdly lucky to be part of a creative process where you know on one day, on Tuesday, there's no idea. We don't know what we are going to do. There's nothing. And then on Wednesday, there's an idea that was created and invariably the idea is a thought that becomes a conversation, and so that we design to start with is to talk and it's fairly exclusive..involves a few people...and a remarkable thing happens in the process, and it's the point in the process where there is the greatest change and it's when we give form to an abstract idea."

2015: Tim Cook at Goldman Sachs Technology Conference. "We want to change the way you live your life. And just like this iPad has changed the way you work, and hopefully the way you live, and the iPhone has done that. We see the Apple Watch doing that...There's just an enormous number of things that it will do, and I think you're going to find it something that you're going to think, 'Wow, I can't live without this anymore!'"

2015: Jony Ive in The New Yorker: "We always thought that glasses were not a smart move, from a point of view that people would not really want to wear them. They were intrusive, instead of pushing technology to the background, as we've always believed...We always thought it would flop, and, you know, so far it has...[Apple Watch] isn't obnoxious. This isn't building a barrier between you and me..."

2015: Alan Dye in Wired: "There was a sense that technology was going to move onto the body...We felt like the natural place, the place that had historical relevance and significance, was the wrist."

The prevailing message illustrated in the above comments was that Apple looked at the wrist as something special with the primary idea of a watch that could change your life serving as the start of everything. More refined use cases and ideas around watch bands came at a later time.  

 Apple's New Marketing Strategy

Judging from Apple's Watch marketing strategy over the past seven months, it is clear that Apple is taking a new route. The Katie Cotton era of public relations is over. With most new things, there are risks, and I suspect we are seeing one of those risks play out as some company observers are having trouble with an Apple that gives out so much information. If Steve Jobs represented a firewall for Apple marketing, Apple's primary risk now is not filtering the message enough. 

Apple's new marketing strategy has relied heavily on positioning Jony Ive as leader of an industrial design team that uses collaboration to create products. Photo: Vogue

Apple is relying on a new marketing strategy because it no longer has the showman that introduced the iPod, iPhone, and iPad to the world. Instead, Apple is forming the narrative around a range of individuals involved with product development, led by Jony Ive and Tim Cook. Apple likely feels it has reached a point where its size and social awareness make it difficult for just one person to control the entire marketing campaign, and management is right. Apple is different today. The news cycle is ever more busy and filled with noise. While it is critical to make sure that the narrative stays on point and coalesces, Apple's strategy is fundamentally the same: get people to want to use the product. To accomplish that goal, Apple is relying on a shock and awe type of public relations strategy to elevate Apple Watch awareness to extreme levels.

It's All about the Product

One theme that management has taken very seriously with Apple Watch marketing is that Apple strives to make great products, and that is the primary theme Apple has tried to showcase with its marketing by using interviews and various high-profile write-ups. I suspect many technology observers have simply gotten used to Apple executives repeating the refrain, ignoring what that phrase really means.  One secret to Apple's success is keeping product development behind closed doors, leaving the final, well-polished product to be seen in a retail store.  While much strategy is involved in determining what products to work on or what industries to get involved in, strategy alone will lead to failure. At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, nothing else matters, even if the strategy is on point.

When David Pierce talked about Apple deciding to produce a watch first and then thinking of use cases second in his Wired piece, he correctly described Apple's product-first strategy. One theme that has become apparent in mobile is that a product's use case changes over time. It is much more important to focus on the big picture first, positioning a product that can take advantage of major computing themes, not something that checks off a few use cases on a list. 

  1. Apple wants to make a product that has the potential to change the way we live our lives. Management is interested in owning the core technologies that underlie such a product. Management has commented that much time, and anxiety, is spent on this part of the equation.
  2. The wearable space had become interesting, not because of smart watches, but due to fitness bands. Meanwhile, phones were becoming more powerful as time went on, to the point of being able to replace laptops and desktops for some. Was there room for a simpler device able to turn the complex into the simple?
  3. Judging from decades of watch use, and now fitness bands, it was clear the wrist contained some value. However, watches were not able to unlock that value due to their lack of utility. It was reported that Jony started to research the history of the watch, including the reasons the wrist was so valuable. The focus was first on the device itself. 
  4. With the idea in mind (don't forget about lessons learned from the iPod nano), it was then time to develop use cases for a device destined for the wrist. With a workable user interface, there can be attention given to what can be done with the device. Taking a look at the iPhone and iPad, it's clear the initial use cases designed for a device aren't even that important. Instead, the technical capabilities (and the runways of such technologies) are much more important. 

In the future, the watch may begin to take on more iPhone functions, or it may not. The much more important goal for Apple is to make sure that each new model is better than the previous one. Looking at the iPad, although sales momentum has stalled, Apple is still concerned with shipping the best iPad each year. Market dynamics may not always work in an Apple's product favor, but management hopes to be the reason such market changes impact its product line. 

Too Busy Finding a Story

One problem that is becoming a theme in the ever-increasing news cycle is overthinking things by needing to add a new twist or take. While such overarching theories may make for an interesting weekly column or Medium post, in reality, I suspect the truth is much more simple and rudimentary.

Looking back at the iPad and iPhone, many have developed elaborate stories around those products in order to address the mystery. In reality, they were simply great products that relied on a revolutionary multi-touch user interface. After launching at a too-high price (and different business model based on mobile revenue sharing) and without an app store, it took Apple and the iPhone three years and additional features and changes before hitting mass-market awareness. However, the legend was that Apple foresaw the coming mobile app revolution. Stories are told to provide answers to the unknown. The problem occurs when those answers are fabricated. Apple is launching the watch as a fun, personalized iPhone accessory with different use cases dependent on the user. If one doesn't leave the complicated stories and theories at the door, it will be difficult to see the Apple Watch for what is and, more importantly, isn't. 

Judging Success

Apple's goal is to make a great product. With Apple Watch, success will be straightforward. Will people want to use it?  A few days ago, I asked on Twitter what will be Watch's likely "-gate" controversy, similar to iPhone 6 and "Bendgate." As expected, I got responses ranging from waterproofing issues to scratching and rashes. One of the more serious public relations problems that could impact the watch is drawer-gate or nightstand-gate. If people forget to wear the Watch, not seeing a point in putting it on for their run, the trip to the grocery store, or to attend parent teacher night, the device won't be able to impact someone's life. One of the reasons the iPhone has done so well, including having a strong upgrade cycle, is that it is literally on us all day, every day. If people enjoy wearing Apple Watch, the product will be a success. 


The Apple Watch is the first Apple product designed from the beginning to be worn and have a purpose dependent on the user. For some, it is the best way to listen to music on a run. For others, it is a revolutionary way to communicate with the kids or keep track of appointments. This is the primary reason why so many people are struggling to understand the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. 

We don't know what the Apple Watch will become as we have never experienced personalized technology worn on the body. Personalization doesn't just mean getting to choose between a white or blue wristband, but having a product mean something different and special to each user. 

The Apple Watch is an attempt at giving users freedom to do various things with technology suited to their lifestyles. It has been three years since Apple came up with the idea for a cool device for the wrist. On Friday, the era of personalized technology will enter the next phase as Apple Watch pre-orders signal the start of something new.

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