At the risk of sounding shallow, the fate of the new Apple Watch – and all smartwatches, for that matter – will likely depend less on how well it works than how it looks.
It's all about fashion, which as we all know, is uncertain, difficult to define and entirely dependent on one's perspective.
Apple has gone after a market that prizes technology that's simple and elegant, but this isn't necessarily the same thing as being chic – and a watch is most certainly a fashion accessory.
Conflicting reactions from style experts to the device's launch on Tuesday illustrate the issue. Some believe the watch, which will go on sale early next year for $349 U.S., will be a hit.
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“It looks really cool, but it’s also really functional,” says Tiyana Grulovic, fashion director for Flare magazine.
With six strap options, two different sizes and three styles – basic, sport and luxury – the square-shaped watch will appeal to a wide variety of buyers, she adds.
However, with a boxy-looking screen that is either 38 or 42 millimetres across (depending on the model), it’s still too big to be considered stylish, according to Afiya Francisco, editor at large at Real Style magazine.
“I don’t think it’s quite there yet,” she says. “It still looks like it’s more about function than form.”
Apple is the latest tech firm to enter the smartwatch market, where traditional time pieces merge with fitness tracking and phone notifications. Samsung, Sony and Motorola all have similar devices in the market, as do smaller companies such as Silicon Valley startup Pebble.
Opinions vary on the future of the smartwatch
Some technology analysts are bullish on the category as a whole because of the competition, which will result in rapid innovation. IDC, for example, expects the wearables market – with the smartwatch leading it – will grow to 112 million units shipped in 2018, from just 19 million this year.
Other analysts think wearables could just be a passing fad. Forrester Research, for one, has predicted the market will rise next year and then decline by as early as 2016.
Most smartwatches so far have failed to catch on for a variety of reasons: poor battery life, limited functionality and high costs among them. But mostly, they’ve failed the all-important fashion test – they’ve been big, bulky and hideous.
Apple, known for its sleek and stylish computers, phones and tablets, is being counted on to ignite the category with its unique design sensibility.
Yet praise for the Apple Watch falls short of the gushing praise the company’s products usually provoke.
“It’s getting there,” says Grulovic. “It’s something you wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear.”
A watch reflects a person's image
The category’s future is thus murkier than some of the bullish technology-oriented analysts might suggest. Watches, after all, aren’t just gadgets like phones or tablets – they’re fashion accessories that help define many people’s identities.
More than half of Canadians interested in smartwatches won’t buy one that doesn’t fulfill that style role regardless of what it does, according to a study by NPD Group Canada.
“If it doesn’t fit their image, they won’t even consider it,” says Mark Haar, director of consumer electronics at the trend-tracking firm.
Smartwatch makers are starting to figure this out. Last week, Motorola announced its own effort, the Moto 360, which differs from many competitors including the Apple Watch in one key way: its face is round rather than square.
After several false starts, the company went back to the drawing board and scrapped its square designs.
Other smartwatches “feel like pieces of technology and don’t feel like fashion,” said Dickson Isaacs, director of Motorola’s wearables division. “It feels like technology trying to force itself onto the human.”
Motorola’s device, which is available in the U.S. for $249 and will arrive in Canada this fall, also features several leather and stainless steel band options, with an emphasis on giving buyers style options.
“This is at least as much a piece of jewelry as something that’s useful,” said Motorola president Rick Osterloh.
'They're not for everyone'
Manufacturers have focused on the male market so far, likely because of smartwatches’ technical limitations. Women’s watches have traditionally been smaller, which presents an engineering dilemma – screens can’t be too large, but if they’re too small, it’s difficult to read notifications.
Men are far more likely to be aware of smartwatch products as a result, according to NPD numbers. Almost two-thirds of men are following developments in the category, compared to just 40 per cent of women.
Among those who are paying attention, however, the difference in buying interest isn’t that great – about 25 per cent of men intend to purchase a smartwatch, versus 18 per cent of women.
Motorola’s Osterloh doesn’t believe size is an issue, with the average watch getting bigger over recent years regardless of gender.
“That increase is more pronounced in women’s watches,” he says. “For whatever reasons, that’s just been the design direction, but they’re not for everyone.”
Price, however, could be a problem – at least for Apple.
“At $350, that’s [in the] fashion-watch range,” Francisco says, citing brands such as Michael Kors. “If that’s what you’re going for [as a consumer], you’d rather have an actual fashion watch.”
On the other hand, Apple is Apple, and consumers are used to paying a premium for its products.
“People will still buy it because they see value or want to be associated with the brand,” Haar says.