COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Thoughts on the new Apple Watch

I’ll wait to review the new Apple Watch once I get one to try, but here are some first impressions based on its introduction last week.

Needs an iPhone: The watch can be thought of as a remote control for your iPhone. It replicates many of the functions on the phone, but its value greatly diminishes if it’s not connected. While you can see who has texted or emailed you without removing the phone from your pocket or purse, reacting to those events will usually require using the phone.

Alerts are both good and bad: Expect to spend lots of time setting your alerts. While at first you might like being notified when messages and mail arrives, the interruptions will become annoying very quickly — both to yourself and others around you. I expect to see new apps that will try to automate this process.

More distracting than your iPhone: If you’ve been distracted by your phone, the watch will be much worse. A phone can be out of sight, and hence out of mind. But the watch will always be visible. It’s always been considered rude to glance at your watch while talking to others, but now that’s going to become much more common. Driving while checking your watch is equally dangerous as using your phone.

Not a health monitor: Apple has backed away from positioning the watch as a health monitor using a large number of built-in sensors. The company was smart not to go there because collecting all that information doesn’t offer much value, and you can do much of it with an app on your phone.

Instead, Apple has turned the tables and talked about how the information collected on your phone could advance health research. Brilliant marketing by making lemonade out of lemons.

Apple implied that the watch could detect a wide variety of exercise types, including biking and exercises. If this is true, they’d be the first to do that.

A fashion product? Apple is positioning the watch as a fashion statement as much as personal technology. While the cases are attractive, the watch is really the ultimate geek gadget; it’s a wrist computer, not jewelry. And every model from $349 to $17,000 is exactly the same, except for the case material.

The 18-karat gold version, which sells for up to $17,000 contains about $1000 worth of gold. Rarely has anyone been asked to pay so much to buy a version 1.0 of a new electronic product that in two years will be replaced with something new.

No killer app: There is no killer app yet available, something that alone could justify a purchase. For me, the best use might be the ability to screen my calls with a tap of the button, without removing the phone from my pocket.

Should Rolex worry? What will be the impact to the mechanical watch brands such as Rolex, Patek-Philippe, Omega, etc? As someone who’s collected watches and developed a great skill in buying high and selling low, conventional watches will continue to flourish. Based on functionality, the Apple Watch does more, but it lacks the emotion, the history, workmanship and complexities of mechanical watches. But the biggest disadvantage over conventional watches is the need to recharge the Apple Watch each night.

Big margins: The version of the watch that is likely to be the most popular, the stainless steel model with a strap, will likely cost Apple less than $125 but retail for $600, a better margin than iPhones.

Apple distortion field: Apple really goes overboard about touting every detail about their products, even the mundane. Two videos shown at the intro, narrated by Jony Ive, their VP of design, went into excruciating detail to describe why the aluminum and steel they use are each superior to ordinary aluminum and steel — so much that it seemed like a “Saturday Night Live” parody of itself. Still, the watches will scratch, particularly the aluminum version.

Ads on your watch? How long can Apple resist displaying ads on your wrist? It’s a fertile location for all sorts of commercial use. I imagine companies right now are plotting what freebies they can give us in exchange for sending an occasional ad.

In your face: In its latest software upgrade for the iPhone, a new app is installed that cannot be removed: a commercial with videos and an empty app store for the Apple Watch. Apple is taking no chances by informing all of its iPhone users about the product, but it’s bad form.

The verdict: My initial impression is that the Apple Watch is neither as great as some expected, nor as useless as its detractors make it out to be. It’s going to do many things we can’t yet imagine as developers create new apps. But, other than its slightly smaller size, its industrial design, and its user interface, it’s not all that different from the exiting Google and Pebble watches at significantly lower prices.

While the Apple Watch is the best looking and most reasonably-sized of all smart watches, ultimately it will succeed or fail based what it actually can do and how useful it is.

What it is: An electronic watch that wirelessly connects to an iPhone using Bluetooth. (Does not work with Android phones.) It’s available in two sizes (38mm and 42mm), three case materials (aluminum, stainless steel and 18k solid gold), and a choice of straps and bracelets costing $49 to $449. All models work exactly the same. Costs from $349 (aluminum) to well over $10,000. The most popular choice (stainless steel with a leather band) will cost about $600. Preorders begin April 10; on sale April 24.


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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