Don’t call the Apple Watch a smartwatch, even though it has the same challenges they do

Did you see the Apple Watch introduction on Tuesday? I was there, but I had to go back and view it again online to answer this question: How many times was the word “smartwatch” said during the launch event?

You can go watch for yourself and I’ll wait or I can save you some time. The answer is: None.

That’s a subtle, smart strategy on Apple’s part. I suspect the company executives knew exactly what they were doing by omitting the word. Instead, they spoke of a highly personal device and called it a timepiece, or just a watch.

An attendee inspects the new Apple Watch.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
An attendee inspects the new Apple Watch. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Here’s another question though: Did [company]Apple[/company] provide enough reasons — or any reason, really — for millions of consumers to buy the Apple Watch? I’m not sure it did, at least not yet. Bear in mind that CEO Tim Cook and company didn’t share all of the Apple Watch functions on stage. We’ll surely hear more as we get closer to the early 2015 product launch.

By not calling it a smartwatch, Apple can define the device they way it sees fit. But I’m already seeing some of the same challenges that current smartwatches face. Do we even know what we want a smartwatch to do?

What will you use the Apple Watch for?

Apple thinks it does. The Apple Watch is a companion device; one that works with iPhones. Obviously, it tells the time. There will be third-party apps for it and you can use it for navigation — I especially like the different haptic feedback bits that signal a left or a right turn when used with the Maps app. There is continuous heart rate monitoring, exercise tracking and fitness goals:that’s a big heath focus. You can ask Siri questions. And you can send iMessages or even communicate watch to watch with your friends.

But all of that gets me back to the idea: What is a smartwatch? By that I mean, do people want another screen just to get at most of the same apps, data and activities that are already available for the phone they’ll need to have with them anyway?

Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom
Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

Here’s a perfect example: When you favorite a photo on your iPhone, it will automatically be made available on your Apple Watch. While that’s interesting from a technology perspective, will people want to show off those pictures on a small screen wrapped around their wrist?

I had a related thought when capturing a video demo of the Apple Watch interface. While Apple has done a great job with the overall software design, there are still several taps, touches and twists to get at certain features. At some point, it’s just simpler to pull out the phone and do what needs to be done. Check the video and see if you agree.

Notifications on the wrist at a glance are handy, so that I can appreciate. There’s no contextual aspect to those notifications like Google Now for Android Wear — at least not that we know of — but even a watch built around the useful Google Now service isn’t enough for me to spend $200 or more for a smartwatch at this point. And Apple’s new watch starts at $349 with premium options costing some additional fee.

It’s hard to redefine a category that’s still being defined

There are several examples of Apple redefining markets. It did so with the iPod and digital music and then again with the iPhone, which came to define the current generation of smartphones. A smartwatch, however, is still a bit of an enigma. Nobody has cracked the code that makes the device highly desirable by most people. Instead, we’ve seen a shift of screens from phone to wrist along with the required interface tweaks because it seems like the next thing to do when it comes to mobile technology.

A close-up of the Dial Crown on the Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom
A close-up of the Dial Crown on the Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

Don’t get me wrong: I think Apple has designed an interesting, fashionable device. The idea of taking a traditional, familiar watch element — the crown — and using it to zoom without obscuring the watch display is clever. It’s a feature that I could see some smartwatches “borrow” in the future. But overall, the Apple Watch faces the same complications as competing devices in terms of battery capacity and usefulness.

After all, you still need your phone with you and for many tasks, it’s likely going to be the better device. You still have taps, swipes and button presses to get around on a watch, so why cram them onto a smaller screen when it’s more comfortable on a larger one for the same functionality?

The company has definitely put its stamp and design chops on the smartwatch, even if it’s not calling it a smartwatch. There’s also a big focus on health and fitness here. And for those reasons, it will surely appeal to some customers in early 2015. Barring surprise features though, at this point I’m still not sure Apple has provided tens of millions a compelling reason to get their first smartwatch, even if it comes from Apple and isn’t called a smartwatch at all.

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