Who’s watching?

So the much-hyped Apple product launch event came and went. A couple of new (bigger) phones, a payment system and a new album from a bunch of has-beens. Oh, and a watch.

Apple Watch. Not iWatch because someone else bear them to that brand. A new “form factor-defining” product from Cupertino?

Now let’s be clear here, I didn’t think the iPad was going to change the world. In fact, given recent sales figures I’m still not entirely sure. What about wrist-based computing? It’s going to be interesting…

On the one hand, if anyone is going to make smart watches work, you’d be foolish to not bet on Apple. iPod, iPhone and iPad have all been dramatic commercial successes. They don’t always hit, though: Apple TV seems to get forgotten, and for good reason.

But smart watches are not new form factors that are purely competing with older computing forms. The wrist is a piece of body-estate with plenty of existing cultural value and significance.

We don’t need traditional watches. Many people have stopped wearing them as their core function, telling the time, is replicated in so many places in our multi-device world. But at the top end of the market, people aren’t wearing watches to tell the time. Watches are jewellery that are telling others about the owner.

And here is one of the two challenges that I see for smart watches generally, and for the Apple Watch in particular. Much of Apple’s schtick is around stylish, desirable objects, not technology. How will they compete against some of the most luxurious brands in the world in the battle for the wrist? An expensive watch isn’t a beige box.

And whilst you could argue that expensive watch-wearers aren’t the target market, they have been for the successful products that have gone before. Can the Apple Watch succeed in being an aspirational product without being on the wrists of the Tag Heuer set?

The other cultural factor at play with smart watches is the significance of looking at a watch. If you’re with someone, a glance at your wrist sends a message. Often “you are boring me”. That’s a lot to unlearn.

Now that might look like a tiny, insignificant thing. But it’s exactly those kind of tiny things that can prevent or hold back the adoption technology for years. We’ve have video conferencing, for example, for years. I’m certain that it’s the psychological factors (people generally don’t like seeing themselves on screen; conferencing usually has many that eyelines are wrong with participants looking slightly off-camera that makes them appear untrustworthy) and not the technology per se that have held it back.

Apple Watch is a neat bit of kit. It’s not clear what you would use it for, but that was the same with many new technologies. The big questions for me are whether Apple can overcome these cultural issues to make the product more than a brief interlude before the next significant form factor comes along.

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