The Apple Watch's identity crisis

It could take several iterations to get this product right

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Slice Intelligence reports that sales of the Apple Watch have plummeted 90% since it was introduced. Some people say that’s no big deal: Hot new Apple products often rack up astronomical sales in the first few days and then settle down to a more reasonable pace.

I have a different take. Steve Jobs may be gone, but his reality distortion field persists. The Apple Watch’s initial success was mainly if not entirely due to the Apple mystique. Most early buyers wanted to be the first kid on the block with an Apple Watch. Now we are seeing what ordinary gadget shoppers think. Apple Watch has yet to find its niche.

For starters, the Apple Watch suffers from an identity crisis. It looks like a wristwatch and is called a “watch,” but it acts like a remote control for the iPhone. Why position a smart device that does so much more than display the time as a watch? Most people no longer wear wristwatches. Today, everyone carries a phone that shows the time with incredible accuracy. Plus, the time is often displayed on the things around us: from ovens to automobile dashboards to desktop PCs. The idea of wearing a device on your wrist that first and foremost tells time is so last century. The misnamed Apple Watch is really our first glimpse at an entirely new product category.

Whatever the Apple Watch is, it’s not yet fully baked. Steve Jobs had an uncanny ability to create fundamentally new products that were instant successes. He made us forget that such successes are the exception rather than the rule. Usually, new products require years of trial-and-error development and testing before hitting stride. Without Jobs to guide it, the Apple Watch is just another cool product with the Apple logo and a high price tag. It’s going to require time, patience and determination to enhance and refine this product until its true value and purpose come into focus.

For now, the Apple Watch is more of a status symbol than a utilitarian product. That’s why the product comes in 38 different models, ranging in price from $350 to $17,000. Suffice it to say that $350 is a little high for an iPhone accessory — while $17,000 is just right for the man or woman who has everything.

Unlike the iPhone, the Apple Watch is not a product that you can’t live without. Everyone needs a mobile phone to stay in touch and access information. The Apple Watch’s main purpose, however, appears to be sparing iPhone owners from having to reach into their pockets or purses to pull out the device. That’s a small convenience, but it doesn’t justify the Apple Watch’s cost, the need to charge it nightly, and having to remember to put it on before leaving home. As things stand, the Apple Watch mainly appeals to diehard gadget geeks.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the Apple Watch was a big mistake. It is an impressive product that is packed with features. But it is clearly in its infancy. The Apple Watch’s ability to display messages and information, to collect data and report on the wearer’s health and fitness, and to facilitate mobile payments all suggest that Apple is on to something. It’s just that neither Apple nor anyone else is yet sure what that something is. The Apple Watch, if given the opportunity to fully evolve, could become an incredibly useful tool. Perhaps by gathering health data 24/7 from millions of people we will learn to detect health problems earlier and avert life-threatening incidents. Or perhaps the Apple Watch will display messages triggered by GPS and Bluetooth beacons making it the first augmented reality product “for the rest of us.”

Apple, this is your wake-up call. Now show us that you are in for the long haul to make the Apple Watch a product that most users can’t live without.

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