Why There Won’t Be An Apple Smart Watch

The rumours of an Apple smart watch remind me a little of Jack Nicholson’s character in Kubrick’s epic The Shining. Just when you think he’s gone, he reappears, even more crazy.

And crazy is what I think this rumour is. The more you look at it, the more the idea of an Apple smart watch sinks into a morass of stupidity. It makes about as much sense as an Apple coffee grinder – in fact, coffee is probably a better bet.

If you look at Apple’s recent history, it’s all about entering a growing market early with a high-margin, premium product, preferably in a form that revolutionizes the entire category. The iPhone was launched into the nascent market for smartphones, with margins that dwarfed the competition, and completely reshaped what smartphones were all about. The iPad took a product type that had been moribund for years – the tablet PC – and breathed new life into it, leaving competitors scrabbling to catch up.

On the surface, the market for smart watches looks a bit like tablet computers. The concept has been around for years, but has never taken off. Previous smart watches have been clunky, with poor user interfaces and limited connectivity. They’ve also often looked like they’ve been designed by a committee of geeks, determined to fit as many buttons and dials on to the watch as possible.

With a market like that, maybe it makes sense for Apple to sweep into the smart watch market and remake it, as it has with the iPad and iPhone in their respective markets. But there are a few problems.

First, watches aren’t generally a growing market, and nor are they new. Wearing a watch is something that less and less people do, as they have access to the time on more and more devices. When I’m working, I have my laptop in front of me, which has the time in the corner. When I’m out, it’s almost as easy to pull out my iPhone as it is to look at my wrist.

Where watches are still popular is mostly at the luxury end of the market. Expensive watches don’t sell in the massive volumes that the average wrist watch used to, but they are proving to have enduring popularity, particularly among male style aficionados.

But despite its big margins, “luxury”, despite the perception, isn’t really what Apple does. As one of John Gruber’s readers pointed out, Apple makes premium products rather than luxuries. And luxury watches are not something that people buy and replace on a regular basis. You buy a Patek Phillipe once in your lifetime, if you’re lucky. Even with a high margin product, that’s not the kind of market that Apple wants to get into.

The one area where Apple could make a splash with a watch-like accessory that would made sense is a low-cost, premium accessory for the iPhone and iPad. Something like the Nike Fuelband, with a simple design and limited functionality for controlling your iOS device, would be an option. But that’s not so much a smart watch as a smart remote control.

But that’s a long way from the smart watch of geek fantasy, and an even longer way from the all-singing, all-dancing watch of The Jetsons. Don’t expect that from Apple any time soon.

Image credit: krunkwerke

Ian has been writing about Apple since Michael Spindler was the great hope of the company and Newton was the last word in intelligent assistants. He lives in London, herding cats for a living.