Apple Watch is a breakthrough device that won’t polarize the wearable computing world

In many ways, the Apple Watch and its introduction resembled many Apple products before it. It is a tightly integrated combination of meticulously designed hardware and software; it will even plug into Apple Pay. Like the Mac, iPod, and iPhone before it, it relies on a new input method, the digital crown. And starting at $349, while most Android wear devices are priced at $350 or less, it is priced comfortably above other products in the class.

In other ways, though, it is different. It may be the least expensive debut of a new product category ever from Apple and the one the company has attacked with the most versions and accessories out of the gate. But whether you think that the Apple Watch will be a bit success or not, it’s worth noting that Apple hasn’t made any polarizing decisions in developing its new smartwatch.

Of course, Apple made design decisions that one may second-guess. It opted for a square face instead of a round one like the Moto360 and it abstained from adding cellular connectivity. It’s also made the Apple Watch compatible only with the iPhone, but that’s akin to Android Wear watches requiring a recent Android phone. Indeed, there’s nothing in these decisions that is so radically different from decisions others have made.

The digital crown, placed asymmetcially on the side of the device, could be a handy input aid. But, for all of its legacy in following the iPod scroll wheel as an iconic input device, that feature won’t be a game changer in driving adoption of smartwatches the way the iPad drove adoption of tablets. Indeed, later versions of the iPod ditched the scroll wheel for touchscreens.

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

Past Apple products rallied against the mainstream, embracing the kind of trend-bucking direction that has historically led to industry naysaying and eventual word-eating. For example, at a time when many computers had color screens, the Mac had a small monochrome one. When leading-edge portable media players could play video, the iPod didn’t support it. And when leading-edge smartphones had keyboards, the iPhone eschewed them, a decision that was famously derided by Steve Ballmer (even as he left open the possibility that it might sell very well).

Indeed, in the month that the Apple Watch was revealed, BlackBerry revealed a much more polarizing product with its widebody Passport, a phone by a notoriously conservative company in a mature category.

Certainly, polarization is not a requirement for a successful product and many polarizing products flop. Windows 8 was plenty polarizing; so was Newton. And Apple often changes its mind about features with the times; the Mac, of course, went on to support color as the iPod did video. Likewise, Apple’s success hasn’t been based on polarization, but on bringing together solutions; poliarizing product decisions have been part of the means, not the end.

Google I/O Motorola Moto 360

However, perhaps with this product, Apple just hasn’t found deal-breakers in other products. This could be attributed to a number of possible factors:

Apple could have scuttled a major differentiator. According to some reports, Apple was exploring solar power as a way to provide the Apple Watch with exceptional battery life, avoiding the day or so that is common in other watches with color displays.

A simplified device leaves fewer things to strip. One of the ways that Apple has set itself apart has been by saying no – to legacy ports in the iMac and keyboards on the iPhone. However, there isn’t much legacy to discard on a smartwatch. That said, it’s somewhat surprising that the company went all-in on heart rate tracking, something many watches have eschewed.

The competition has gotten smarter or faster. The first few smartwatches out of Apple’s chief rival Samsung were clunky, but Android Wear has offered a unique proposition for the category focused on timely notification. Android Wear supports apps, but departs more from the app-centric model for this new device category more than the Apple Watch. And while Apple has previously knocked competitors for putting multitudes of buttons on its devices, the Apple Watch’s tiny frame hosts two.

There may well be more to learn about the Apple Watch before its debut next year that could reveal it to be more of a revolution. Or it could ultimately turn out that everyone is still missing the boat. But at this point, it’s hard to see anything in the Apple Watch that would make us look back five years from now and say, “This is what Apple saw that others missed.”