A year after its launch, it’s now clear that pretty much no one needs an Apple Watch

Leave them there.
Leave them there.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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I didn’t preorder the Apple Watch, or stand in line the day it came out. But I read every article about it, and when someone suggested that it would complement my “personal cloud,” I eventually felt compelled to buy one. I wear it every day, possibly out of determination to get something out of the $400 I spent on it, but when someone asks me if I think they should buy one, I usually tell them no.

The Apple Watch was released April 24, 2015. Nearly a year later, it’s become apparent that there really isn’t much of a need to get one.

The smartwatch was the first entirely new product that Apple had released in five years, the first launched under CEO Tim Cook’s oversight—as well the first product in decades launched by Apple without the direction of Steve Jobs behind it.

Some argued that it was the product that would give us insight into the future of Apple. A year later, that direction appears to be very boring. The short-term roadmap seems to be focused on iterations of existing products, and selling accessories, like new watchbands, for those products. But the Apple Watch is in itself an accessory, entirely tied to a person’s iPhone, and hasn’t shown that it can perform enough useful functions to make the average person think, yes, this is something that’s worth a few hundred dollars as it’s exciting and will help me in my life.

Every Apple product in the last 15 years or so has been two things: desirable and useful. They’ve made it easier for people to be creative, listen to a lot of music on the go, communicate with anyone in the world or find out any piece of information wherever they are.

The Apple Watch looks good, but from a desirability perspective, some argue that the most interesting thing about it has been the collaborations it has had with Hermès, rather than the watch itself. Even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, in a recent Reddit question-and-answer session, was inclined to agree:

I worry a little bit about – I mean I love my Apple Watch, but – it’s taken us into a jewelry market where you’re going to buy a watch between $500 or $1100 based on how important you think you are as a person. The only difference is the band in all those watches. Twenty watches from $500 to $1100. The band’s the only difference? Well this isn’t the company that Apple was originally, or the company that really changed the world a lot.

In terms of usability, the watch has proven a tough sell. US presidential hopeful and die-hard Apple fan Jeb Bush didn’t even know his Apple Watch could make and receive calls. The tiny screen doesn’t lend itself to complicated interactions, and third-party and native apps have struggled to show that they’re more useful than, say, just looking at the full-fledged apps on your phone.

I really like paying for things with my Apple Watch. The servers at the coffee shop that I’ve gone to every morning for the last year or so never remembered me from one day to the next. But then, when they got a new payments terminal that accepted Apple Pay, they started remembering me, and one server now refers to me as “the Apple Watch guy.” And that’s who I am now. No one would say that about someone whipping out a new iPhone or Macbook. Though if I started riding in every morning on a hoverboard, or started wearing VR goggles in-store, I’d probably get a new nickname.

Apple has always prided itself on ‘thinking different’, and has stood out by creating differentiated products. But different in the case of the Apple Watch right now just means “weird.” Apple probably doesn’t want a product where using one gets you referred to as “that guy.”

In an article for the New York Times this week, Kit Eaton showed off (paywall) some of his favorite apps for the Watch. There was a decent grocery-list-making app, a nice text-based game, and a sleep-tracking app. This was, presumably, the best he could find for a device that you have to charge every 18 hours or so, and costs about ten times more than a functional watch that does a better, quicker job of telling you the time.

The best iPad costs about $900 (including the keyboard and stylus), and the best iPhone starts at $650. But iPhone and iPad sales are either stagnating or declining. This may well change with the new iPad Pro, a potential laptop-killer for the average person, and whatever new iPhone Apple launches later this year. But Apple really needs a new, cheaper device to grow beyond the cycle of iPhone replacements. That was supposed to be the Apple Watch.

Apple hasn’t said how many watches it has sold—wasn’t immediately available to comment for this story—but estimates suggest upwards of 5 million have been sold to date. Apple sold nearly 75 million iPhones in the last quarter of 2015 alone, which leaves a lot of people who have iPhones and didn’t see the need to tack on a $300-or-more accessory to that purchase. Considering some estimates show that over 60% of US adults wear watches, there should have been a lot of room for growth.

One of the Watch’s saving graces is its activity-tracking abilities. I’ve found the heart-rate, step and exercise monitoring functions to be simpler, more useful, and more reliable, than other ecosystems—like Jawbone and Fitbit.  Still, many companies make far cheaper health-tracking devices.

Apple does seem to be making a push into healthcare that could point to a more useful future for the watch. At its most recent product launch event, Apple unveiled CareKit, a framework for developers to build apps that will help us keep better track of our vitals and health on a daily basis. Caitlin McGarry at Macworld believes it will end up revolutionizing healthcare, and will “bridge the gap between quantifying our health and actually doing something about it.”

Although the initial apps and structure are for the iPhone, Apple could add the Watch into this. Healthcare could well end up being the thing that gives the Watch a reason to be.

Reports are trickling out that the next version of the Apple Watch will be released this June, and will be 40% thinner than the current models. It’s unclear if it will also be 40% more useful, but it’s worth remembering that the first iPod, iPhone and iPad were also relatively clunky devices, that—especially for the iPod and iPad—were not met with unanimous praise.

Does Apple have anything else up its sleeve that could hit that sub-$500 price to attract new customers? There’s rumblings of virtual reality headsets, but VR devices currently hitting the market cost about $600 and upwards (before you include the thousand-dollar computer to run them). VR sets aren’t likely going to be the company’s Next Big Thing. I don’t have any solutions, but perhaps in the long run, the Watch will end up being a sleeper hit.

In reality—as is the case with all watches—only time will tell.