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The Apple Watch doesn't need techies to succeed

People queue at Dover Street Market in London as customers wait to purchase an Apple Watch on April 24, 2015, in London City.
People queue at Dover Street Market in London as customers wait to purchase an Apple Watch on April 24, 2015, in London City.
Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images

When I first talked to my editor, Laura, about the Apple Watch a few weeks ago, she was skeptical. She's worn an old-fashioned watch for years and thought a computing device wouldn't look good on her wrist. And she didn't understand the point of having a computer strapped to her arm.

But she's changed her mind. On Friday, she told me she'd visited the Apple Store to try on a watch, and was persuaded to buy one. Her story illustrates a lot about how the gadget world is changing. Technology companies used to rely on tech-savvy early adopters to buy new gadgets that hadn't reached the mainstream. But gadgets like the Apple Watch have become so mainstream that early adopters just don't matter very much any more.

Laura's rationale for buying the watch was simple. She was already in the market for an iPod Nano and a Fitbit. She was specifically interested in this Fitibit case from Tory Burch that looks like a piece of jewelry. The iPod costs $150 and the Tory Burch case costs $175 (plus $100 for the Fitbit inside), so together they cost more than the $350 Apple Watch Sport. Plus she gets the functionality of both devices and a bunch of other features, too. She was particularly excited about the possibility of making phone calls with her wrist.

She also found the watch more attractive than she expected. She likes several of the bands Apple is offering, and she's expecting to see an even broader range of options once third parties get into the watch-band market. If Tory will make Fitbits, why not Apple Watch bands?

Laura gushed about personalized experience of buying the watch. "I loved making an appointment to see the watch," she told me. "I loved everything about it. It was a really great experience."

It's interesting that the factors that persuaded Laura to buy an Apple Watch have little to do with the questions technology pundits usually focus on. She doesn't care very much about the watch's technical specs or what apps will be available on it. She's not buying the watch because she's expecting smartwatches to become a new computing paradigm. She's buying it because it will look good on her wrist and and perform a handful of specific functions — playing music and tracking her exercise — that are useful to her.

The debate in tech punditry is whether smartwatches will become a big new computing platform the way PCs and smartphones did. But Laura's story suggests the Apple Watch could be a huge hit even if that doesn't happen. Even with zero third-party apps, the built-in capabilities of the Apple Watch would offer a compelling value proposition to millions of people.

Gadget makers used to rely on early adopters to buy first-generation products that weren't yet useful enough to appeal to mainstream users. But that is becoming less and less necessary. Computing hardware has become so cheap and powerful that new platforms like the Apple Watch can appeal to mainstream users from the outset. We saw this with the iPad, which seemed underwhelming to tech pundits like me but proved to be a huge hit with ordinary consumers who just wanted a simpler way to perform basic computing tasks like web browsing and watching videos.

The Apple Watch appears to be reaching the same kind of customers — people who care about whether a gadget is useful, of course, but don't care at all about being part of the next big thing.