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The Apple Watch is an overpriced gadget and an underwhelming luxury product

Yes, you want it. But do you want it to the tune of $350?
Yes, you want it. But do you want it to the tune of $350?
Getty Images

Steve Jobs famously said that "people don't know what they want until you show it to them." And no one is better than Apple at making us want things we didn't know we wanted. Today, the company is going to try to make us want new watches.

But the Apple Watch faces an extra hurdle that the iPod and iPad didn't, and the company knows it. As Reuters reported, CEO Tim Cook summed up the challenge as follows: "We've never sold anything as a company that people could try on before."

Reuters presents it as a question of whether the watch is a fashion statement or a gadget. But the problem is that the device seems likely to fail on both counts. Viewed as a gadget, the device is just too expensive given its limited functionality. Yet it's going to be an uphill battle to sell a square, bulky touchscreen device as a fashion statement. In trying to be both a gadget and a luxury item, it's at high risk of falling in the no-man's land between the two.

Apple watch displays

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It's useful...but is it $350 useful?

Apple has its work cut out for it. The watch starts out at $350 for a Watch Sport — not stratospherically expensive, but by no means cheap ... and even the midrange watch starts at $550. It also requires an iPhone for most of its functions. That means the prime Apple Watch audience isn't just going to be iPhone users (or people willing to go out and buy an iPhone purely for the watch), but iPhone users who will buy wearables and find the watch attractive and want to splurge.

Right now, sales estimates for the watch are scattershot, as Business Insider reports, ranging from 10 million up to 60 million. No one seems to know exactly who will be buying the thing.

One challenge will be convincing people to buy this new gadget when it doesn't quite feel so new — that is, when they already have lesser versions of it on their wrists. But getting people to buy the Apple Watch will require a bit more convincing, in large part because it doesn't quite feel so new.

"As they compare the Apple Watch and their current Swatch, Fitbit, or mobile app, many are concluding that it doesn’t solve an unmet need," wrote market research firm Forrester Research in a November report on the watch. They added, "The iPhone 6 is the immediate must-have, while the Apple Watch is an eventual 'might-have.'"

A lower price point might make people think differently about what sort of computer they want strapped to their wrists. But if customers perceive the watch is simply a few of their existing products mashed into one, lining up for an Apple Watch (particularly at $350 and up) might not seem all that necessary. And that $350 is just for the lowest-end Watch Sport. The more professional-looking Watch, with its metal or leather bands, will start at $550.

Of course, it's impossible to know just how useful a gadget is until people have it and put it to use. The watch may have features we don't know about yet that prove so indispensable people find they can't live without it. Techcrunch, for example, went so far as to suggest that wearing the watch will give people more time in their lives — time they'd normally spend poking at an iPhone. Indeed, the watch does some cool things, like sending messages and tracking heartbeats. So maybe many people just don't know they want it yet. But right now, it's hard to see how the Apple Watch's feature set — which largely consists of allowing you to look at your wrist instead of your phone — could justify its price tag of $350 or more.

Apple watch self cover

(Self magazine)

The fashion sell is the tough sell

Yes, Apple is known for its design chops (see Apple design guru Jony Ive's tech-celebrity status for proof). But never before has Apple created a product that people will display on their wrists all day long.

This puts the watch in a different category from Apple's other products that hide in purses and pockets. Even if the watch is as beautiful and well-functioning as Apple can make it, it's still going to look the way it looks. The question is whether people will like it. And if people don't want a light-up, square watch on their wrists, they won't wear it.

Apple may find women to be tougher customers than men. Watches are the one type of jewelry men commonly wear, while women accessorize in lots of other ways, as Euromonitor writes in a recent report on the watch market.

"Women are less likely to be interested in luxury watches, as wearing jewelry is part of the gender norm," they write. "On the other hand, men are more likely to be interested in purchasing luxury watches, because wearing jewelry outside of wedding bands is less the norm. A luxury watch can be a man’s one fashion statement."

Not all of Apple's watches are exactly "luxury" watches (though the gold-cased Apple Watch Edition, which could cost several thousand dollars, certainly fits this bill), but $350 is still $350. Getting people (women or men) to put money down for it will mean convincing them that this is a piece of jewelry they want to flaunt — even if they don't quite think of it as jewelry.

Not only that, but as Euromonitor also notes, women prefer smaller watches than men do. Apple does have two sizes, but the smaller Apple Watch is still 38 millimeters — not exactly delicate enough for those who want something that looks more like a bracelet and less like a timepiece (especially a square, digital timepiece). For proof, look at the watch on the Self magazine cover or at Apple's 12-page advertising spread in Vogue; you can make the case that the watch looks good, but doesn't exactly look like it could blend in.

Apple clearly knows it has to make not just the tech case for the Apple Watch (which it barely even needs to do, given the tech news and blogosphere's obsessive coverage of all things Apple) but also the fashion case. Making sure the product is highly visible not just in Macworld and TechCrunch but in fashion publications, like the Self cover and Vogue spread (not to mention Vogue's Ive profile), could go a long way toward making people see the watch as attractive...but never before has that attractiveness bar been set so high for Apple. So maybe many people just don't know they want it yet. But right now, it's hard to see how the Apple Watch's feature set could justify its price tag of $350 or more.