Nobody Can Predict the Success of Apple’s Watch Yet

It’s interesting to read all the coverage Apple got for its watch announcement, and the amazing amount of analysis and predictions that came out shortly after the launch event.

Critics went after everything, from style, form and function. Others lauded its design, potential capabilities and eventual usefulness.

Part of this discrepancy in views is due to the fact that while Apple did show us the watch and give us some early details about what it would do, the company didn’t actually give us a lot of details about things like costs, storage, future apps and security features that could help people develop a more informed view of the product.

Since it doesn’t come out until sometime in early 2015, there’s a lot of time for speculation. And even though we have some solid details we can use to try and draw some conclusions about its potential success, I would like to suggest that to actually try to predict the future success of the Apple Watch today would just be folly. We only have the bits and pieces that Apple wanted to share; it’s not enough to really determine how this product will fare when it finally reaches the market next year.

Why Unveil It So Early?

Apple Unveils iPhone 6

Many people thought it was odd for Apple to introduce a product like the Apple Watch months before it will ever come to market. For one, it gives competitors a lot of time to try and create something similar that can compete with the Apple Watch when it ships. It also gives the media, detractors and a whole host of folks plenty of time to try and guess what Apple’s really doing and whether it’ll actually have any serious impact on Apple’s bottom line. Given Apple’s penchant for secrecy, one would think that it would have been smarter for the company to hold off announcing the watch until a day or two before it would actually ship.

For those of us who follow Apple very closely, this move, while unique, was a necessary for a couple of reasons. First, this is a brand new category for Apple and the watch market is very complex. Apple actually needs real feedback from people in the watch, entertainment, fashion and tech worlds in order to help refine the final product.

However, there’s another critical reason that the watch was unveiled months before it’s supposed to come to market, and it’s one of the major reasons why it’s impossible to actually predict its success at this time in Apple’s history.

Much More Than Hardware

The proper way to actually view the new Apple Watch is to see it as a platform that includes more than just hardware. It has to have apps and services designed for the new, smaller-screen form factor. This actually follows Apple’s overall formula for success.

Before the company introduced the iPod, it spent two years working with the music industry in order to have media content available for use on the iPod when it shipped. The same thing happened with the iPhone. Apple had to create a special SDK (software development kit) so the developer community could create apps for the new smartphone. While Apple did have its own apps and some special partner apps at launch, the software community moved rapidly to create apps and services for the new iPhone, which ultimately is why people actually buy an iPhone these days.

This similar approach was used when Apple introduced the iPad. At launch, the company had some of its own apps and a couple from partners — and in this case, it could use iPhone apps, although they had to be upscaled up for the iPad’s larger screen. But the software community soon created native iPad apps, and Apple’s tablet took off. In the end, with all three of these products, it’s all about providing customers with hardware, a rich operating system, apps and services.

Waiting for the Killer App

This will be the same case with the Apple Watch. We need a lot more info about what it can do, how it works and, of course, the ultimate value proposition of what it will deliver those who buy it. But the really important unknown factors lie in the types of apps that can be created for such a small screen, and if any “killer” apps emerge that take it from a “nice to have” device to an “everyone needs one” type of product.

The best example of a killer app came from the birth of the PC era. Apple introduced the Apple II computer in 1977, but at the time, it was viewed only as a hobbyist machine. Then in 1979, a program was created that ran on the Apple II called VisiCalc, which was the first spreadsheet. It literally became the killer app that brought the Apple II out of the hobbyist category and into the world of business computing. A they say, the rest is history.

The second killer apps were the word processors that came out about the same time, followed by a product called Lotus 1-2-3 that included a spreadsheet, graphical charts and a database. This was the first killer app for the IBM PC when it came out in 1983, launching the true PC era we know today.

The importance of apps was driven home to me when the iPhone was first launched. When Apple SVP Phil Schiller first showed it to me, he put his iPhone on the coffee table in front of me and asked me what I saw? I told him I saw a blank piece of glass in a metal case. He said that was exactly what Apple wanted me to see until I turned it on. The magic would come from the apps on the device itself. While the hardware is important, he stressed that it would be the apps that make the iPhone dance and sing.

After the launch of the iPhone, I talked to Steve Jobs and asked him if he was certain he had a hit on his hand with the iPhone. He told me he was pretty sure the iPhone would be important, but went on to say that it would be the apps that third-party vendors create that would ultimately make it successful. He also told me that the exciting thing for him was that Apple had developed an SDK to create apps for the iPhone and that he couldn’t wait to see what software developers created.

This really is the formula for the success of any device like this. A company can create a great piece of hardware, but the magic comes from the software community. Who will create the “killer” app or apps that make the device appealing to everyone?

While we only have part of the story about the Apple Watch from Apple, I suspect that even when it launches, we won’t really be able to judge its ultimate success at first. However, I am betting that Apple gets strong support from the software community, who will create a host of apps that may appeal to people from all walks of life. That will ultimately determine the success or failure of Apples new watch.

Written by Tim Bajarin on September 29, 2014 for Time

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