UK: The Return Of The Watch…Or Is It?

Last Updated: 22 April 2015
Article by Arun Verma

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

Getting déjà vu?

Apple recently launched the Apple Watch, leading many onlookers to question whether we could be witnessing history repeating itself. The company who "defined music players, tablets and all-in-one computers", has now set its sight on smartwatches. 

With 38 models that can open hotel doors, check song titles, make touchless payments and receive phone calls, Apple hope that their latest innovation will change the way we live our lives...again.

Analysts have queried whether this could be the rebirth of a market which has yet to truly take flight, with the top 10 manufacturers selling roughly 4.8 million pieces in Q4 2014. Samsung, the market leaders, sold 1.2m pieces, with crowd-sourced Pebble (700,000) and Fitbit (600,000) following behind.

The sudden enhanced media focus has led many, including myself, to ponder the potential for market growth, and applicability to everyday life. Does a smartwatch really make sense?

It's clear that there is a market there, yet the true size of it is still unknown.

The achievements of Pebble, are a case-in-point. The makers of Pebble relied on Kickstarter contributions, essentially crowdsourcing, to produce their first smartwatch, which sold over 1m units.

The Pebble team are back again, sourcing funds for their latest creation, Pebble Time, with over 72,945 backers, and close to $19m having been pledged already. The advantage of Pebble, is its interaction with a variety of devices (iPhone, Samsung, and Android), the ability to send voice notes, and a superior battery life (up to 7 days).

So, is the onset of Apple's forays into the market a good thing?

Swatch's chief executive labelled the arrival of Apple on the scene as a "huge opportunity for us and the Swiss watch industry", while Pebble CTO Andrew Witte also proclaimed that he was "really excited" that Apple was entering the space, as it would "drive awareness and get the message out to a wider audience".

And, it isn't just Apple who are joining the party. Montblanc have launched an e-strap watch, with a mechanical watch and an interchangeable strap, containing a Bluetooth connected device. Guess, Fossil and others have also announced ventures into this space. All this means that despite Samsung's recent announcement that it would "pause" smartwatch development for a period, the market is starting to warm up, as businesses eye a potential gap in the market, and a growing intrigue among consumers.

So, okay, I think we can agree on one thing; there must be a market for such devices, or perhaps more pertinently, a gap in the market for such devices, with several large companies, from a range of retail backgrounds, and with a wide range of customer demographics, dipping their toes into the water.

But, this leads us altogether into another set of questions, including, is the Apple Watch worth it?

A poll revealed that 41% of consumers were interested in the Apple Watch, while an equal number were equally turned off by the idea. One only has to look on social media to note the vast array of reactions that emanated from consumers, journalists, and analysts.

Economist Joseph Brusuelas said the concept was "ill-conceived and ill considered", yet a Business Insider reporter left the Apple event saying the demo "strikes me exactly like how I decided to buy an iPhone. No single thing convinced me. It was a bunch of little stuff, all added up".

On the one hand, one analyst's view was that Apple will sell millions because of their "loyal super-fans who will buy almost any Apple product", yet the WSJ have asked "where's the big innovation?"

What do I think? I'm not quite sure, to be honest, and I don't think anyone else is either. While there are some voices praising and dissenting against the Watch, I believe the vast majority are simply watching on with interest, to see what will happen next. We have seen revolutions in the way we listen to music, talk to our friends, act on social media, and even consume content, and you wouldn't bet against the same thing happening to financial, security, health and identity data.

The answer to whether smartwatches will be truly worth it, lie at the heart of a more philosophical debate, about the true nature of watches. As ludicrous as this sentence may sound, think to yourself, what should your watch actually do? What is its purpose?

With smartwatches, Apple can apply the same "polish that made iPods, iPads and iMacs explode in popularity", but for this to happen, we need to see a shift in user's environments, making them 'smartwatch compatible', as well as a shift in social norms surrounding conspicuous use of expensive watches.

Despite the fact that the reasons to wear a watch have "become fewer and fewer" over the last 10 years, people continue to invest in timepieces, which get passed down from generation to generation, as family heirlooms.

However, for those who do purchase watches, the majority don't replace their watch at the same rate they replace their smartphone. And that could be a challenge for retailers. If consumers spend thousands of pounds on a watch, they will seek lasting value, just as you would expect from a Rolex or Cartier.

This then presents the watch in a completely different environment to the iPhone, and one more akin to the iPad and original iPod. Apple need to convince us that not only do we need a smartwatch, but that we need an expensive one to boot.

And there, is the crux of the issue. What does the watch represent now? Is it there for the pure convenience of telling the time? Or does it mean more to us?

The answer to that question, could go a long way to helping us decipher whether the new wave of smartwatches will be a success, or failure.

All we can do, is watch this space. 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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