Will the Apple Watch take off?

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Apple Watch

Apple Watch

Smart watches are supposed to give the watch industry a much-needed fillip.  Watches are far from obsolete and many people still wear them as accessories and fashion items. But in terms of utility, having mobile phone serves the purpose of telling time.

Smart watches like Pebble and Samsung Gear have generated some interest but not much, which is why the announcement of the Apple Watch has many people paying attention. Apple has a great track record of revolutionizing every sector it’s gone into: laptops, music players, music download services, phones and tablets.  Can it do the same with smart watches?

Although it’s been officially announced, there weren’t many details revealed just yet. What we know is that it will be available in the first quarter of next year and the starting price will be US$349. We also know there will be tree different categories of the Apple Watch, with different price points. What the mid-range and high-end watches will go for is anybody’s guess.

The more important question though, is whether the device can stand on its own or whether it’s more of an accessory for the iPhone. This is a critical point because all the other smartwatches out there need to tether to a phone for them to be truly useful.

From what’s been released, we know that the Apple Watch will need a compatible iPhone (5 and above) to access Wi-Fi and GPS signals. So how useful will it be when there’s no iPhone nearby? That is not so clear yet.

We do know that it can be a music player even without the iPhone. It can store music and can deliver music via Bluetooth to a wireless earphone. That makes it useful to wear when jogging. But if you want to use it as a fitness monitor, you’d need GPS and that only works with an iPhone nearby. So, you’ll need to carry your iPhone with you too when you jog. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel as useful as a standalone device anymore.

Apple did give some hints on cool ways the device can be used. For example, via Apple Passbook, you can use your watch to carry an electronic boarding pass for a plane. And via Apple Pay, you can also do cashless transactions. It’s worth noting though that Apple Pay works only when the watch is paired with an iPhone.

Other cool examples of its uses include the ability to unlock your Starwood hotel room and the ability to help find your BMW car in a crowded parking lot. But how many people stay at Starwood hotels and own BMWs?

There really needs to be a lot of everyday functions that the Apple Watch can do, and ideally without it having to be tethered to an iPhone. Otherwise, its potential customer base will be really limited. Not everybody wants a watch that only works with a phone (and an iPhone 5 and above at that, it doesn’t even work with iPhone 4).

Other standard challenges it will face will be the same as what other smartwatch manufacturers have to contend with, notably screen size and battery life.

The harsh reality is that no matter how user-friendly or intuitive the interface is, the screen size is still going to be small. This will limit the device’s usability. Say you want to scroll through Facebook postings via an app on the watch. Wouldn’t it make more sense to do so on your phone?

Although Apple didn’t officially state the Apple Watch’s battery life, indications are that it will have to be charged at least once a day (and probably more if you use it frequently). We already have our phones that need constant charging. Will we tolerate having another device that also requires us to carry a power bank around everywhere we go?

What Apple’s definitely got going for it though is the fact that watches are really a fashion product more than a tech gadget, and as such, there will be people who are prepared to buy it as a fashion statement. The Apple Watch could very well turn out to be a status symbol.

But for the Apple Watch to be a commercial success, it obviously has to sell to more people than just the fashion conscious. The reality is that many people these days have stopped wearing watches. I’m one of them. I haven’t worn a watch in years. Apple will have to convince someone like me to fork over at least US$349 to start wearing a watch again. That’s not going to be easy.

Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.

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