The rumors had swirled for months, and they materialized this week when Apple unveiled its first wearable device, the Apple Watch.
It’s, of course, much more than a timepiece—it’s a fitness tracker with an accelerometer and heart rate monitor to follow your workout. It offers a bevy of apps as well as the ability to receive calls when linked to an iPhone.
But analysts are divided over whether it will prove a breakthrough product that will take smartwatches and wearables mainstream.
For the Apple Watch to match the success of the iPhone, first launched in 2007, the product will have to offer unprecedented functionality and convenience, and the market will have to be ready.
Apple is a late-comer to the smartwatch and wearable market and joins established makers such as Samsung, Sony and Motorola.
It’s an increasingly crowded space, with players vying for the top spot despite questions about whether there is enough consumer demand for Dick Tracy-style wrist accessories. After all, fitness bands can cover fitness tracking functions, and smartphones can cover the rest.
“So far, it has been a male tech-nerd market,” Pascal Koenig, managing director of Zurich-based research firm Smartwatch Group, wrote in an email. “With an expected 30 million units to be sold in 2015 (out of 60 million smartwatches sold in 2015 overall), the Apple Watch will open a broader consumer market for the first time.”
That’s a very rosy prediction. The Watch will have to prove an absolute smash hit when it goes on sale next year starting at US$349.
“Apple does a lot of things very well, and generating lust for its devices is one of them,” Ramon Llamas, a mobile devices analyst at IDC, wrote in an email. “I still don’t see how the Apple Watch is a ‘need’ like the iPhone is. Still, leave it to Apple to take this more mainstream than what we’ve seen so far.”
While Llamas doesn’t see much in the Apple Watch that makes it stand out from rival products, other observers believe Apple has positioned the Watch as a new product category that will redefine the market, just as the iPhone did for smartphones.
“Most smartwatches to date have been experimental and have focused on one main area of functionality, either health/fitness or smartphone notifications, with secondary functions around mapping or communication,” IHS mobile analyst Ian Fogg wrote in an email. “Apple is aiming to combine pretty much all of those capabilities in a device no larger than the competition, even though competitive devices have struggled to keep the size down and battery life high with a more limited set of features.”
Fogg cautioned that there are unknowns about the Apple wearable, particularly its battery life and the degree of third-party app support that it will have, that make it difficult to predict whether it can take smartwatches mainstream.
“It will take a while to tell what’s really disruptive,” Richard Dasher, a Stanford University professor who studies innovation, said at a talk this week at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
A successful smartwatch with fitness functions could impact lower-end fitness bands in the same way that camera-equipped smartphones eroded consumer demand for compact digital cameras, Dasher said.
By the same token, traditional watchmakers could also take a hit.
“In a very good way, I think the watch market could be disrupted in the sense that watchmakers should seriously consider how to make a smartwatch, or at least partner with a company to design and manufacture one,” Llamas wrote.
“Apple Watch is the most personal device we’ve ever created,” CEO Tim Cook said during the launch event.
Only time will tell whether users want to get that close to the Cupertino company.