The meh response to the iWatch

The meh response to the iWatch

By Michael S. Malone '75, MBA '77

Photo courtesy Apple, Inc.
Having attacked everything else, Apple is going after the last screen left, but where’s the big innovation? Michael S. Malone ’75, MBA ’77, veteran chronicler of Silicon Valley, weighs in.

Apple’s rollout of its new Watch has earned the usual widespread coverage from the media. Yet one can’t help but sense a reaction more subdued than the fanfare that typically accompanies new products from the world’s most valuable company.

The company’s announcements have become global events thanks to Apple’s historic run of revolutionary new products in the first decade of the century. It stood to reason that the “iWatch”—Apple’s latest reinvention of a traditional and static industry—would enjoy the same anticipation, attention, and, ultimately, demand as the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Maybe soon the dedicated Macolytes will be camping outside Apple stores, hoping to be the first customers to emerge from the store waving white boxes at waiting news cameras.

Even then, though, something will be missing. Perhaps it is the absence of Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs, whose last, great product initiative before his death in 2011 was the Watch, along with a Death Star-inspired headquarters redesign. Current CEO Tim Cook is a much better businessman than his predecessor, and Apple now a much better run company. But Jobs was a marketing genius whose appearances at these announcements were sometimes more important than the products themselves. He cannot be replaced.

Another reason for the muted reaction—one best captured by the surprising number of meh responses on various websites—is that the iWatch isn’t as revolutionary as it pretends to be. It is elegant and has some nice features, notably its health-monitoring applications. But it also exhibits a kind of technological inevitability: Apple, having attacked everything else, is going after the last screen left—even if proves to be a screen too far. The iWatch offers the same capabilities as its larger siblings, the iPhone and iPad, only on a screen so small that even millennials will need reading glasses to see it.

But where’s the big innovation? Where are the 1,000 songs in your pocket that made the iPod? Or the touch screen that set apart the iPhone? Remember: The original Macintosh was a failure until desktop publishing came along.

Perhaps Apple is already working on such a selling point. It is not visible yet, which may explain why the company’s stock has fallen 5 percent from its record February price—a far different response than the rallies after earlier famous product announcements. But then again, perhaps the drop in stock price is a function of the company’s soaring success. It is harder to move the needle when your market cap puts you in the exclusive club of firms that have been worth more than 4 percent of the S&P 500. Apple has done it twice.

Still, the collective wariness may betray a certain “category” confusion. The Apple Watch is being presented as something radically new—but the notion of a “Silicon Valley watch” has a long and not very happy history. In the late 1970s, the semiconductor industry made the first run at the business with simple LED watches. It proved such a debacle that Intel co-founder Gordon Moore wore his company’s Microma timepiece for years simply to remind him “to stay out of the watch business.” As it happens, I was junior member of the public-relations team that introduced the infamous HP-O1 calculator watch—a masterpiece of industrial design that was nevertheless too bulky to be worn under a shirt cuff.

Like the Apple Watch, these products were prodigies of technological innovation. But their makers—some of the smartest businessmen ever—soon discovered that the watch business is not first about technology, but rather about exquisite design, cultural prestige, and enduring value. The new Watch certainly has the design, and anything new from Apple is going to have a powerful impact on modern society. The $17,000 gold version, which seems silly on first glance, may prove a master stroke in positioning the iWatch against traditional high-price competitors. Anybody walking into a Peet’s Coffee in Cupertino wearing a gold iWatch is going to get a lot of attention—which is, of course, the point.

But to suggest, as Apple has, that today’s owners will pass their Watches down to their grandchildren as cherished family heirlooms is absurd. People pass down Rolexes and Patek Philippes precisely because they aren’t subject to Moore’s Law; their hardware won’t be obsolete in three years because it has been obsolete for a hundred. But technology is why people will buy an iWatch—technology that will look like a Model T in 2020.

In the end, will Apple sell millions of Watches? Probably. There are enough people who buy everything with an Apple logo on it to hit that mark. But when you are the most valuable company in the world, it is no longer enough to hit triples, or even home runs. You need grand slams to stay on top. And when the reviews on your latest and greatest new product spend almost as much time on the hot new MacBook introduced at the same event, you’ve got to be concerned. Not to mention anxious to count the campers and camera crews waiting outside your stores on April 24, Apple Watch delivery day.

Mr. Malone writes regularly on technology for the Wall Street Journal, where this article first appeared under a different title on March 11, 2015.

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