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Apple is tacitly admitting that its high hopes for the Apple Watch have failed

Apple Holds Press Event To Introduce New iPhone
Apple CEO Tim Cook in San Francisco on Wednesday.
Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

When Apple unveiled the original Apple Watch 18 months ago, it was supposed to be a device for everyone. Rich people and celebrities would get the gold-plated "Watch Edition," with prices starting at $10,000. Middlebrow watch enthusiasts would pay more than $1,000 for a stainless steel version. More frugal users and fitness buffs would get the $349 Apple Watch Sport.

People would see notifications of incoming emails and text messages. They’d be reminded of upcoming appointments. They’d be able to summon Uber rides and check in for upcoming flights. They’d use it for health and fitness tracking. You’d send your partner cutesy messages and even real-time updates on your heartbeat.

The Apple Watch was going to be a status symbol, a productivity tool, a toy, and a fitness tracker — all rolled into one. Everyone from busy CEOs to busy stay-at-home parents would want one. Gradually, almost everyone would realize they needed one, and the Apple Watch could eventually become as big as the iPhone.

At a San Francisco event today, Apple rolled out a very different, and much more modest, vision for the smartwatch. It’s still possible to buy a $1,299 Apple Watch with a stainless steel case and a leather band if you really want one. But the pitch overwhelmingly focused on selling the Apple Watch as an affordable gadget for runners, swimmers, and hikers who want to track their health and their progress while working out.

Apple hasn’t released sales figures, so we don’t know for sure what motivated this shift. But it’s not hard to read between the lines here. Apple is tacitly admitting that the Apple Watch isn’t going to be a product for everyone, and that its best chance to grow the product is to focus narrowly on the needs of fitness buffs.

Almost everything in today’s Apple Watch presentation focused on fitness

Wednesday was a big day for the Apple Watch, with a new version of the product, called Series 2, and a major overhaul of its WatchOS. The OS’s new features and major apps included the ability to put "activity rings" — essentially circular progress bars for activities like walking and working out — on your watch face so you can see them and feel bad every time you check what time it is. The presentation also briefly discussed a new lineup of bands and finishes for the high-end models.

But the focus was squarely on the fitness applications designed for the new entry-level $369 model. Apple showed off a feature called activity sharing that lets you compare progress toward workout goals with family and friends. People can also share their heartbeats and send friends smack-talk messages about their fitness triumphs.

Apple also announced a new program to help users in wheelchairs work out. It introduced an app called Breathe that, as the name suggests, helps users with breathing and meditation. There was an in-depth look at Pokémon Go for the Apple Watch, with a focus on the ways the game has encouraged people to get out of the house and move around.

A video about the design of the new Apple Watch emphasized a new watertight construction that made it suitable to wear while swimming — you can use the Watch to time laps and track progress toward swimming goals.

Most importantly, the new Apple Watch comes with a built-in GPS chip. That’s significant because it allows the Apple Watch to accurately measure a runner’s progress without the aid of a separate smartphone. That’s been a major sticking point for runners who would like to leave their smartphones at home when they go running.

Apple also showed off a new hiking app that makes use of the GPS chip. The app has maps of hiking trails, monitors the hiker’s progress, and notifies her if she strays off the trail.

Finally, Apple announced a new line of Nike-branded fitness watches that ask, "Are we running today," every time you glance down at the watch face. As a non-fitness buff, that sounds a little bit terrifying, but Apple clearly believes there’s a big market of people who want to be scolded by their wrist.

The Apple Watch may not be a watch for everyone

The Apple Watch was Apple’s biggest stab at a revolutionary new product since the iPhone. It was Apple’s best chance to create a product that, like the iPhone, became truly ubiquitous.

The basic argument for Apple Watch optimism was simple: Every decade or two, progress in chip technologies allows the creation of devices that are dramatically smaller, lighter, and cheaper than the ones that came before. In the 1970s, the PC started to disrupt washing machine–size minicomputers. In the 1990s, cellphones began to disrupt the PC. Now, the argument went, wearable devices would disrupt the smartphone, creating another huge, lucrative market.

It’s too early to say that vision is wrong, of course. It took a decade for the first mass-market cellphones to evolve into the iPhone. But Apple, at least, seems to be scaling back its ambitions for the Apple Watch. It now sees it less as a mass-market computing platform for everyone — like the PC and smartphone — and more as a special-purpose device for fitness enthusiasts.

This is still a pretty big niche! As my colleague Libby Nelson points out, there are millions of runners in America and many more around the world. So the Apple Watch could make Apple a great deal of money.

But there’s no sign that smartwatches are the next great computing platform — a gadget so compelling that everyone feels like they need one. Instead, they increasingly look like a gadget useful enough that runners, swimmers, hikers, and bikers might want one.

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