Apple Watch seems to be banking an awful lot on its name
The 1970s were all about how disappointing the future could be.
Science fiction really started to find its way in the 1930s, and by the 1950s and early 1960s the world was starting to look like a futuristic comic book. Everything from roadside eateries to motor homes took on flowing shapes in burnished chrome.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey made space look both unbearably cool and unremarkably mundane. Going to travel to a space station? You fly Pan Am, just the way you always have. Time to call home to wish your kid a happy birthday, pop into the nearest video phone booth — AT&T, of course.
By the time the middle 1970s came around, the way forward was lost.
Humanity’s future in space? Who cared?
Going to the moon, as America did in 1969, had been nice. But now no one seemed sure why we’d gone. Sure, Velcro was great, but it wasn’t much help in a grinding bear market, with stagnant economic growth and skyrocketing inflation. It couldn’t withstand fierce crime waves, poverty and racial unease.
So, what did science offer as a sop to American misery?
The digital watch.
Some had fancy bands, bright-red numbers and, often, you had to press a little stud to get them to show the time because the display couldn’t stay on without draining the battery.
Sound a bit like the Apple Watch’s 18 hour battery life?
They sucked, but people bought them in droves — for a little while. A few years later, all the displays were liquid crystal, black on gray, with a little button you could press to make them light up at night. They had stopwatches! Some had calculators and what people pretended were “games.” But, really, games are supposed to be fun.
The Apple Watch, of course, does more. The face is high resolution and in color. It even has apps that allow you to do a few of the things you’d be able to do if only you could muster the strength to dig your hand into the front pocket of your jeans, or do a little digging in your handbag. It comes in alumninum, steel and gold, ranging from $349 to $10,000. Seriously. There were gold digital watches, too.
Speaking of mobile phones, last year 2 billion were sold, the majority of them smartphones.
In 2013 (the most recent data available from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry), the world bought 1.3 billion wristwatches.
China makes the most watches — 634 million — and the cheapest on average: $3. Hong Kong comes in second — 332 million — and gets about $19 per watch. Switzerland ranks third, with only 28 million units, but a whopping average sale price of $791.
Just from looking at the numbers above, it’s clear there’s a huge potential market for Apple to break into — even if the only people who buy one are those already willing to spend more than $300 on a watch.
Last year, though, of all the watches sold, fewer than 2 million were smartwatches, mostly made by Samsung.
Yes, Apple can change markets. After all, before the first iPhone, how many smartphones were being sold by Palm, Research in Motion, Motorola and Nokia? Some, for sure, but think about how much has changed. Since the iPhone 6’s introduction in the first quarter, for example, Apple sold about 75 million of them.
Palm, Nokia, Motorola, RIM? Not one has prospered. Nokia is owned by Microsoft, and in some trouble. Motorola was bought by Google, which then quickly sold it. RIM is now called Blackberry, and the world has been waiting for a bankruptcy filing for at least as long as they’ve been waiting for the Apple Watch. Palm? Gone.
The argument can be made that Apple made the market — made a smartphone something that everyone had to have, even if it was just a copy of the Apple ideal.
The phone did everything well — or at least well enough — and each generation has been an improvement. They’re now powerful, Internet-connected computers that take great pictures. They even make phone calls, if Snapchat isn’t working for you.
You can also use them to tell time. Which is what an ever-growing number of people do.
Watches are a different animal. It’s been a very long time since the well-heeled have bought a watch for any practical reason. In fact, most of those incredibly expensive mechanical Swiss watches don’t even tell time that well, compared to their quartz-driven competition.
But if you’re going to be spending that kind of money on a watch, you’re probably looking for a status symbol — something old-timey and pretty. Sales of expensive mechanical Swiss watches rose 8 percent at the end of 2013, compared to the cheaper quartz versions.
Apple knows how to make status symbols, but its new watch isn’t exactly pretty. Take away the magic Apple pixie dust, and you can see it’s bulky, squarish and a little weird. It’s vaguely reminiscent of its digital forbears that appeared in drugstores 40 years ago.
And we know what happened to them.
In the 1980s, people in the United States and around the world had a sudden realization that telling time the old-fashioned way — with a dial — wasn’t so hard. And digital watches were a fashion statement only as far as telling people you had no sense of fashion.
The analog watch returned, and, in the United States at least, digital watches receded to a periphery largely occupied by athletes who actually have some use for those exacting stopwatches.
The Apple Watch? Time will tell.