Skip to navigationSkip to content

Ideas

Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

Apple CEO Tim Cook wears the Apple Watch and shows the iPhone 6 Plus during an Apple event at the Flint Center in Cupertino, California, September 9, 2014. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Reuters/Stephen Lam
Listen closely to what he says about battery life.

What comes after the first three million Apple Watches sold

Jean-Louis Gassée
By Jean-Louis Gassée

Editor, Monday Note

We’ll soon know what the Apple Watch is and what it can do. But it may take awhile to understand why Apple has gone to such lengths to hype the device.

Under Steve Jobs’ leadership, Apple 2.0 obsessed over the marriage of form and function. Starting with Jony Ive’s Bondi Blue iMac, Apple products stood out in a sea of beige and black boxes. But even so, fashion, the providential spawn of this fecund marriage, has always been a by-product—welcome, but not a first-order pursuit.

With the Apple Watch things have changed: Fashion is now a primary component, co-equal with silicon and software. The assertive, carefully planned, and richly resourced entrance into the world of the dernier cri is as notable as the device’s technical challenges (battery life, user interface, sensors…)

We saw fashion writers at the September unveiling. Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour attended the private event at Colette, one of Paris’ chicest stores on the ultra-chic rue Saint-Honoré. That these two fashion world divas—who don’t make paid appearances—“found the time” to drop by speaks to the depth and strength of Angela Ahrendts’ (ex-CEO of Burberry), Paul Deneve’s (ex-CEO of Yves Saint Laurent), and Ive’s various connections into a new world for Apple.

This recognition that  “fashion matters” has shown us something new: Apple appears to be buying its way onto the covers of fashion and lifestyle magazines. At a minimum, it’s a very coordinated marketing campaign. (Search for “Apple Watch magazine covers” and you get about 57.6 million results; this may be a pittance compared to the 559 million hits for a plain Apple Watch search, but it’s an impressive number, nonetheless.)

This is novel. Apple has a history of spending zero dollars advertising products it hasn’t delivered yet. Pre-launch rumors, whether erroneous or pinpoint accurate, are erogenous enough to enflame desire. On the first day of physical availability, customers happily line up at Apple stores around the world.

Before we address the question of Apple’s foray into the world of Vogue, let’s admit that none of it will work until we know what the Apple Watch actually is, how it will affect and infect customers’ brains and entrails. We’re impressed by the physical objects we see in pictures on the dedicated website, including some famous Marc Newson designs for bands and clips, but the “live” experience, its intellectual and emotional nature will have the final word. For this we’ll have to wait—but not for long.

The first three million watches will sell “instantly,” in a couple of weeks, maybe less. These first sales won’t matter as much as will their consequence, the all-powerful word of mouth.

Let’s consider one scenario: The eager purchaser explores the device and shows it off to friends—who will want the full tour. As a result, the battery is exhausted in much less than the presumed day, perhaps a couple of hours in the most enthusiastic hands.

Bloggers shout from the rooftops: Let’s add the Apple Watch to the list of failed Apple products.

If this were a real problem, such as Antennagate or Apple Maps, we’d see a reaction from Apple, whether in the form of contorted explanations and settlement checks, or a sincere apology from CEO Tim Cook—followed by management changes.

In the battery-exhausted-by-enthusiasm scenario, I don’t think Apple execs will wait and react. I expect them to be proactive. One law of good salesmanship is you don’t let the customer discover an important limitation–you proactively adjust expectations to forthcoming reality. (On that note, 9to5Mac has an good post on Apple Watch sales training for store employees. This old salesman agrees: Just help the purchase decision that’s already been made come to the surface.)

On Monday, when Cook and other Apple execs do the Apple Watch Launch 2.0, let’s listen to the battery-life proaction. With months of field-testing by a large number of insiders, chances are management has an accurate view of early-adopters’ reactions.

One caveat: insiders might be just a bit too competent and thus consciously or unconsciously avoid the traps “naive” users will fall into. I’m optimistic, the Maps fiasco hasn’t been forgotten.

When we look beyond the first few weeks, it’s tempting to adopt the mercenary position and just consider the numbers. For the first year of sales, projections range from eight million to 30 million units. Just for fun, I’ll use an iPhone-like average price, about $650. This adds up to revenue between $5 billion to $20 billion. That’s a wide range, from a minimally-noticeable contribution to the projected $250 billion companywide (again, an approximation), to an insignificant blip.

Now let’s step back a bit and think about the Apple Watch’s place in Apple’s business.

The play, at least initially, is for the Apple Watch to make iPhones more valuable. The first iteration doesn’t pretend to stand on its own, it depends on the iPhone in the customer’s purse or pocket. For example, navigation might look good on the watch, but it has no GPS and thus needs the iPhone for geolocation. No sin, at least not in my book: The Apple Watch is an innovative and fashionable device that makes the iPhone, Apple’s monster money machine, more pleasant and more valuable.

Second, user interface innovations (the crown, pressure sensors on the screen) will generate new apps, new ideas, new usage patterns that will be adopted by other Apple products.

Third, critics may deride the enthusiasm of Apple devotees and cast them as cultish zealots. But given this level of unforced devotion, why spend so much marketing effort on the Apple Watch, particularly when the articles that accompany the magazine covers do nothing to clarify what the product actually does?

Apple’s equal investment in both the technology and fashion of its watch may be glibly mocked, but I don’t think it’s so easily dismissed. I doubt Apple would go to such lengths for just one watch.

Afterthoughts:

One: John Kirk offers yet another of his literate, fun and relevant posts, this time, about Apple Watch, a cure for the pervasive malady of Premature Evaluation.

Two: Personally, if I had a choice between an Apple Watch and a new, even slimmer MacBook Air with a Retina screen and the latest Intel processor…I know which screen I’d look at the longest, which object I’d tinker with the most. But, of course, I want both.

Three: For perspective, see the March 24, 2014 “Wearables Fever” Monday Note.

You can read more of Monday Note’s coverage of technology and media here.

Subscribe to the Daily Brief, our morning email with news and insights you need to understand our changing world.