Why the Apple Watch is a radical wearable tech shift

Apple Watch proves that customization is the key ingredient to making wearable tech more viable.

It’s lonely waiting around at an Apple store these days.

There are no long lines stretching around the block, no Apple store employees herding people through the displays, and no smiling patrons emerging from the glass cubes explaining how happy they are to have scored a new Apple Watch. Instead, the stores have transformed into something resembling a jeweler or maybe a Men’s Warehouse.

One of Apple’s key innovations that we will only come to understand over time is that the Cupertino tech giant is one of the first to tap into an interesting ethos, a trend of cultural preference. What we wear on our bodies should make a statement about our personality beyond the fact that we chose the black watch band for a Moto 360 over the one that’s bright pink. The Apple Watch is available in two sizes (38mm and 42mm) and multiple configurations, including a sport and luxury version.

Instead of waiting in line, you schedule a “try-on appointment” at the store. To purchase the device, you pretty much have to order it online. Apple sold 61 million iPhones last quarter, but Slice Intelligence claims Apple has sold only about 1.7 million watches so far and delivered about 376,000 of them over the weekend since the device became available on Friday.

What does that mean? Why is Apple controlling the launch so closely?

The reason is a bit confounding to those who follow the wearable tech industry. There’s really only a couple of versions of the Misfit watch and the Jawbone Up fitness bands. While you can change the display color of the Microsoft band, it comes in only one color. That would be black. Even the name is boring and lacks personality. It might as well be called the Microsoft Bland.

Apple is watching their sales closely. If more people are buying the Apple Watch Sport in 38mm with the blue band, they will ramp up production on that model. It’s a brilliant strategy. In fact, it’s the most brilliant innovation on the device overall, the one that could change the wearables industry. When you rake in $58B in cash in the fiscal quarter, as reported yesterday, you have the luxury of rolling out your product the way it should be done in a more gradual and methodical fashion.

I started picturing how other wearables could mimic this behavior. I tested the Narrative clip-on camera at CES 2014 once, recording photos as I walked around Las Vegas and awkwardly explaining what I was doing to strangers. The device comes in three colors and one size. What if it didn’t? What if a wearable camera came in multiple colors and sizes? What if you could purchase the Ansel Adams version made out of aluminum?

Fitness gadgets are even duller. Usually, there is one version in one size. Yet, there are dozens and dozens of ways to workout -- from stand-up paddling to lifting weights. Anyone who makes a fitness wearable really needs to think seriously about customizing for how people will actually use the device. The wearable tech market is set to explode, reaching $80B in revenue by 2020. Leave it to Apple to show how that will happen. It’s through heavy customization and personalization. It’s by tapping into a culture that demands and expects options, especially when it comes to what we wear.

The Apple fanboys (and girls) don’t really get this yet. There’s quite a bit of consternation right now over the fact that the watch is hard to obtain. It’s exclusive. Hello? That’s all by design. Whether this all leads to a better watch design is still up in the air. (Stay tuned for my full hands-on report soon after I've thoroughly tested the device.)

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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