Saturday, 31 January 2015

Apple Watch Destined For Failure?

Apple Watch

David Briddock compares the Apple Watch with previous Apple failures

In spring 2015, we'll see the first Apple Watches adorning customers wrists. First announced in October 2014, it's Apple's first brand new product line for many years.

As always, the novelty of a new Apple product means initial sales are likely to be strong. But over the longer term, will the Apple Watch be a hit with consumers?

No Magic Formula

Every new product launch is a leap into the unknown. Success certainly isn't guaranteed.

It wouldn't be the first time Apple has built the wrong product, released it at the wrong time or sold it at the wrong price. And in case you are wondering, some of Apple's previous mistakes did indeed have Jony Ive's fingerprints all over them.

Let's investigate some of Apple Watch's shortcomings and compare them with previous Apple product failures.

Design Over Function

The Apple Watch incorporates a number of novel innovations. There's a custom-built operating system; a scratch-resistant sapphire multi-pressure touchscreen; a side-mounted digital crown, which aims to simplify user interaction without obstructing its tiny display, and haptic vibrations gently 'tap' you on the wrist to signal notification alerts. It's also packed full of sensors, like the heart rate detector and accelerometer. Plus the whole thing can be customised with a range of designer face surrounds and straps.

As for software, it offers multiple watch faces, Siri voice interaction, the new Apple Health app and Apple Pay integration for card-free purchasing.

It's no surprise, then, that on launch day Tim Cook proclaimed, "The list of features is a mile long."

But how many functions does a watch really need? Especially if you're already carrying a smartphone and maybe a tablet or laptop too. More importantly, will consumers spend many hundreds of pounds on a product that has loads of features they might never use?

Design over function is a classic Apple mistake - one that's been repeated many times before. Take the Apple III, for example. Steve Jobs imposed ridiculous demands on the design - in particular, case dimensions that were too small for all the components, plus a power supply enclosure with no ventilation or cooling fan (because Jobs thought them too noisy and inelegant). As a result the motherboard got hot and warped, which loosened the soldered chips and led to system malfunctions. Apple is reported to have replaced 14,000 bad Apple Ills.

Another example is the unloved Apple Puck USB mouse. Its circular shape and small size was unpleasant to hold and tricky to orient. Even worse, the Puck mouse had a very short cable of just two feet in length. And it appeared when the Mac USB port was relocated from its central rear position to the left hand side. Consequently, right-handed mouse users had to buy a cable extension or a USB-to-ADP adapter, before using their brand new Mac!

Then there's the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (TAM), launched in 1997. Jony Ive's spec included a new feel shape, metallic green-gold paint job, TV and FM tuners and a massive Bose subwoofer. But on sale at an eye-watering $7,499, it was hugely overpriced (a similarly specified PowerMac 6500 was $2,999). The TAM was discontinued in 1998 and the price slashed to $1,995.

Immature Hardware?

The Apple Watch battery life is likely to be limited. How limited? Well, we don't yet know. The fact that we still haven't seen the actual figures is itself a strong pointer to potential problems.

So far, Apple has declined to respond to requests for more information on battery life. However, one Wall Street Journal reporter says he was told by an spokesman that the Apple Watch will have to be charged once a day. That's a big disappointment, as expectations were for at least two days on a single charge.

Sure, there's the fancy MagSafe magnetic-connection charger, which Apple says will make, "Apple Watch easy to charge in the dark without looking while being only partially awake." But is that enough compensation for having to charge it every single night?

Research into graphene and other nano-scale technologies offers the promise of much longer battery life. And a company in Israel has already announced a super-fast charging battery technology. But unfortunately these are years away from commercial reality.

Should Apple have waited for a leap in battery technology first? There's no doubt Apple felt under pressure from shareholders, industry analysts and consumers for new innovations. Did this pressure ultimately force its hand too early?

Past Apple products have also been hampered by immature hardware.

Take, for example, the Macintosh Portable. Despite its name, at over 7kg in weight the Macintosh Portable wasn't very portable.

One of the reasons was the Portable's car-like lead/acid battery, which alone weighed around 1 kg - or nearly as much as a modern Apple MacBook Air laptop. But that still left 6kg for the chassis, drives, black-and-white LCD display, keyboard and so on. Far too much for most people to lug around.

Remember the Apple Newton MessagePad? It was meant to be your carry-everywhere personal digital assistant (PDA), but with chunky dimensions and at almost half a kilogram in weight the Newton couldn't really be considered pocket-size. In addition, the non-backlit LCD screen had poor contrast, which made it especially difficult to read outdoors. Released in 1993 for $700, it was discontinued in 1998.

Immature Software

In January 2007, the iPhone was initially launched with a limited selection of Apple-supplied apps. In fact, the hugely successful iTunes App Store didn't appear until July 2008. But you couldn't launch a new mobile platform that way today.

Gone are the days when looks and hardware specifications alone are enough to guarantee sales. Today, software in the form of low-cost apps are a vital ingredient, so any new mobile technology platform must have a well-stocked store full of exciting, useful, novel, fun and engaging software creations.

Yet the Apple Watch apps bandwagon hasn't started to roll. We have no idea how many coders are fully focused on Apple Watch development or what to expect in terms of quality in the first batch of apps. Consequently, it's impossible to gauge how successful these apps will be in attracting Apple Watch customers.

Software problems also dogged the Newton MessagePad. Built-in handwriting recognition was one of its most attractive capabilities. Designed to convert the owner's scribbling into computer-readable text, in the original Newton, handwriting recognition was often wildly inaccurate.

Subsequent software updates eventually improved the accuracy of the handwriting recognition, and it eventually lived up to its earlier claims. But its reputation could not be salvaged. It was another 14 years before a modern take on the Newton MessagePad appeared -namely the iPhone.

Immature Market

Wearable technology is seen as new and cool. In practice this means wearables are positioned right at the top of the peak of exaggerated and unrealistic expectations on the classic technology hype chart (see diagram). Wise consumers patiently wait for the third generation.

Yet it seems there's already a market for reasonably priced fitness and health bands. That's not too surprising with a constant public demand for gadgets that might make fitness activities fun - especially at the start of a new year. The recent surge in popularity of sporty pursuits like running and cycling has also helped sales of wearables.

But to be fair, sports bands and health-centric wearables have already gone through a number of generations. And the prices have tumbled too, with quite a few now on sale for well under £100.

We've seen something similar before. In 1993 there wasn't really a market for something as ground breaking as the Newton MessagePad. In the end, smaller, simpler and much cheaper PDA products focused on everyday tasks won out.

And do you remember the Apple Pippin? It was an open-source platform for gaming and multimedia content. Yes, you read that correctly, an Apple-promoted open-source platform. Why did it fail? Apple decided to let partner organisations come up with commercial ideas, which would be marketed under the Apple brand, but at this time, the marketplace wasn't ready for such an idea.

iPhone Companion

There's no doubt the Apple Watch is a powerful device in its own right, and with an estimated cost of $350 or more, it should be. But -surprise surprise - to get the most from your expensive purchase, you'll also need an iPhone.

Even though there are three separate models - Apple Watch, Apple Watch Sport and Apple Watch Edition - rather surprisingly, none has a built-in GPS chip. So if you hope to synchronise your fitness data with location information, you'll need to connect the Apple Watch to an iPhone via Bluetooth.

Is the lack of a GPS chip simply a case of Apple trying too hard to maximise profits? Or is it that omitting a power hungry GPS chip is a sensible choice for a device that already has a battery life problem?

Whatever the reason, this expensive-accessory scenario is a key reason why the Apple Watch might not appeal to the masses. It's no real surprise, then, to see initial optimistic forecasts from analysts of 30 million sales in 2015 have been slashed down to between five and 20 million. Yet it does still represent a huge fall in confidence.

One reason for this pessimism is that there's already a large and growing choice of smart watches and bands. Examples include the diverse range of Android-powered watches and cross-platform products like the new Microsoft Band with its extensive sensor array.

A lower-cost Apple Watch might hit a consumer sweet spot, but unless sales completely ground to a halt, it's unlikely Apple would consider reducing the price or offer other kinds of incentives.

Once again, this has occurred in the past

At around $3,500 the flawed Apple III simply couldn't compete with the much cheaper Apple II models and was soundly trounced by sales of the Apple Plus, Apple lie and even the semi-portable Apple lie.

Sales of the expensive Newton MessagePad also ground to a halt. Nevertheless, its advertising campaign did kickstart the PDA marketplace, which was soon dominated by the more affordable Palm Pilot range, which had a usable handwriting recognition solution of its own.

And, as we've already noted, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh was reduced from $7,499 to $1,995 to clear the shelves of stock.

Identity Crisis

Arguably Apple Watch's biggest problem is that it lacks an obvious core function, the overriding reason why you'd strap it to your wrist all day and maybe throughout the night too.

For comparison, let's consider the iPhone. At its core, the iPhone is a mobile communication device, a device that's now carried by virtually everyone and often singled out as the item they'd least want to lose.

Despite its high cost, some iPhone owners chose to rely only on this core capability and the basic pre-supplied Apple apps. Others transformed their iPhone into a video editor, games console, sketchpad, musical instrument and much more by downloading third-party apps from the Apple's iTunes App Store.

Arriving late to the smartphone party wasn't a problem for Apple. The iPhone's revolutionary touchscreen, smart apps, elegant design and overall quality was unmatched. Right from launch day, the iPhone was the most desirable phone on the market, and it wasn't until many years later that competing smartphones offered similar touchscreen technology and a rival collection of downloadable apps.

What's the official line as to the Apple Watch's core indispensable feature? Well, there doesn't appear be one, which begs the question of what type of consumer the Apple Watch is aimed at.

Over To You

Why would someone consider the Apple Watch an essential buy? There's a growing suspicion even Apple doesn't know the answer, so it appears the decision will be left to others.

Yet to make such a decision, we'll need to know more about the final release specification, and more about its practicality (will it be waterproof enough to go jogging in the rain?), more about real-world battery life (does it need a nightly recharge?), more about the Apple Watch specific App Store (what app range and quality can we expect at launch?) and the final launch price, especially for non-US consumers.

It's possible the ingenuity and creativity of app developers may help create a deep desire for Apple's latest innovation. But in the final analysis, it's the buying public that will decide the future of this product. And if they decide that it's nothing more than a cool but expensive toy, the Apple Watch could be Apple's latest failure.