“No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” So goes the now classic dismissal of the first ever iPod in 2001 by an editor of Slashdot, a popular online blogging community of free and open-source software advocates. Skeptical comments poured in about how sales would be limited by the fact that the device was only compatible with Mac users who also had iTunes and a firewire port. Commentators elsewhere scratched their heads wondering why a computer company would want to get involved in the business of selling digital music players, an already crowded space.
We all know what happened next.
iTunes and its music store were later made available on the Windows platform. Prices came down. More models with fewer features were introduced at lower price points. Before long, young urbanites were seen everywhere walking the streets and standing in subway trains wearing the iconic white earbuds. Apple’s “cool” credentials were solidified by the company’s association with whatever music people liked listening to. Unlike the Macintosh that was restricted to a desk in the privacy of a home or office, the iPod was highly visible everywhere, and had become a fashion item.
MP3 players were nothing new at the time, but it could be a skilled job learning to use them. With many small electronic devices, learning to use them can often require reading small print instructions in a small leaflet that unfolds into an intimidatingly large manual with the same convoluted instructions repeated in a dozen languages. With Apple’s products, a manual is provided but seldom needed, such is the simplicity and intuitive design of the user interface. Despite the occasional technical hiccup, such as the iPhone 5 battery recall, Apple has generally given users a pleasant experience with a quality product and enabled it to build a brand with a clean, slick and urbane ambience. Microsoft tried this with products like the Zune, but has generally come across as trying too hard to emulate Apple, trying to put a veneer of coolness on a stodgy and clunky product.
The Apple Watch has been greeted with the usual mix of reactions. Apple fans drool over it, while skeptical reporters predict a flop. The company has never allowed skepticism to hold it back, and this is where Apple’s unique philosophy comes into play. Leadership is not just about giving people what they want, often it is about giving people what they need, even if they do not know that they need it. The vision of Steve Jobs in the founding of Apple still rings true. The idea of a computer for normal people to use in the home for everyday tasks was considered preposterous in the early 1980s, but Apple boldly launched the age of the personal computer, was emulated by the rest of the industry, and an entire way of life was changed. Apple is not afraid to create new markets.
That said, Microsoft cannot be accused of totally lacking in vision. Their proprietary Small Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) was an attempt to display useful information on everyday objects like coffee makers, and most notably in the SPOT Watch, an early attempt at a smart watch that was launched in 2004. Taking its data from a service called MSN Direct that broadcast FM radio signals in 100 metropolitan areas, the SPOT Watch could keep the user updated on weather, sports scores, news and other useful information. The expense of the service combined with the limits of the technology of the time and failed to provide an experience compelling enough to catch on. It was discontinued in 2012.
By contrast, the advent of the smartphone, spurred in no small part by the iPhone which brushed aside the Blackberry, has transformed life by putting the power of the computer in just about everyone’s pocket. To sit on a train nowadays is to see everyone’s attention glued to a small screen where only twenty years ago it would have been everyone either looking out the window or reading a newspaper. The Apple Watch could well usher in the era of people walking around looking at their watches. It may even spark a renaissance of the wrist-borne device among younger people. Decreasing numbers of people in their early thirties or younger are wearing wristwatches, preferring to look at their phones when they need the time. However watches as a status symbol and piece of jewelry seem to be hanging in there, with sales steadily increasing year on year and holding on to 13 percent of the jewelry market. It would seem that people who relied on their phones to tell the time when they were younger tend to buy wristwatches as they get older.
More prestigious watches continue to sell, cashing in on a perceived value that remains high enough to convince some people to part with five-figure sums. Brands like Omega and Rolex have not lost their cachet. Whether or not the Apple Watch captures the imagination of the younger generation remains to be seen. Apple has had many successes, but its history is also littered with products that either met mediocre results or flopped completely. The Pippin of 1996 was a games console developed in partnership with third-party manufacturers including Bandai, and it bombed spectacularly by being too expensive. The QuickTake that ran from 1994 to 1997 was a digital camera that failed to compete against more established companies in the photography market. The Newton PDA was strangled shortly after birth when Steve Jobs returned to the Apple fold. Indeed many of the less successful Apple products existed during Mr Jobs’ absence from the company, a time when it seemed like it was losing its focus, and only with Jobs’ return did it regain the old magic.
This may fuel a perception that Apple cannot continue rising to the dizzy heights of innovation without the wisdom of Jobs.
Smart watches are not new by any means, and like the MP3 players of the 1990s there are plenty out there. Whether or not the Apple Watch, the company’s first post-Jobs radical departure into a new market, does for wearables what the iPod did for music players, will be seen as a test of how Apple can fare in the post-Jobs era.