14 August 2015

The failure of the Apple Watch should cheer us all up


Apple has today started a refreshed marketing campaign for its Apple Watch. “To wear it is to love it” goes the strap-line (no pun intended).

The reason this is a “refreshed” campaign is that the product has been, in Apple terms, a flop. Not only has it not sold in anything like the numbers Apple expected, but more worrying for Apple, it is, whisper it, just not cool. It’s seen as something worn by affected tech junkies and poseurs who want everyone to see them wearing it.

Make no mistake, for a company with the Midas touch when it comes to brand this has been a disaster and the panic at Apple HQ is now less about just shifting units than it is about stopping the word “uncool” becoming more widely associated with the rest of the product range.

The reason for the failure of Apple’s latest digital child though is beautifully analogue. It’s a rubbish watch.

Yep, that’s it really. When push comes to shove just about everything else Apple has made in the last three decades has been good. Sure, as competitors have caught up in markets like smartphones, laptops and tablets, some Apple offerings may have been marked down in some areas, but they were still premium products that worked very well.

So fans of the brand might pay fortunes for a product, and be desperate to have it first, but whilst many people smiled at this fan-boy approach to consumer electronics, they at least knew the fan in question was buying something which worked well.

Not so the watch.

Firstly it’s quite difficult to use it to tell the time. I’ll say that again in case you misread it. It’s quite difficult to tell the time on it.

Secondly, its main selling point is how much is connects you. To your office, to Apple, to your friends, to “the grid”. And as it turns out the appetite for “wearable tech”, long since seen as the next big thing in this world, is not as big as manufacturers thought.

People want to be connected, but on their terms, not to pay a lot of money for what amounts to a flash electronic tag which allows their boss to interrupt and intervene in their life whenever he or she chooses. Equally, the much-trumpeted functionality around health and tracking doesn’t appeal too widely either, coming as it does as public suspicion about big data grows, and at a time when trust in what major tech companies do with that data is plummeting.

Feedback from consumers also shows that people find the Apple Watch subliminally stressful. It’s constantly delivering messages which might or might not be things you want to read, you have to check. It records data about them and spends its time trying to get them to use that data to improve their health, or communicate with other Apple Watch owners. It’s like a little nanny on the wrist, constantly chirping away in your ear and the corner of your eye.

But ultimately the crunch for Apple (see what I did there?) has been the way the unpopularity of the things functions affects the image of those wearing it. If it’s not very good, and it’s quite expensive, you’d have to be an idiot to buy one, right? So think most people, and thus the internet has long been awash with joke news stories about the kind of people who buy one, from The Onion to The Daily Mash and Newsthump, Apple Watch owners have been the butt of a thousand jokes. They have become “a thing”, just not in the way they’d hoped.

Whilst all this represents bad news for Apple, it represents good news for the rest of us. Perhaps we have finally grown up and learned to think about what tech does for us, rather than just being dazzled by the new and shiny?

Now Apple is big enough and rich enough not to take this laying down, which is why they’ll continue to push the thing like fury. It may work, although I’d be surprised.

Meanwhile the mechanical watch – that beautiful, simple, robust collection of springs and wheels and gears – continues to go from strength to strength, more than 400 years after it arrived.

You can tell the time with them you see, which is really handy. Perhaps Apple should just have bought Rolex and put an “i” in front of the name?

James Clark is a journalist and communications adviser. This article was first published on his blog, The Making Progress Blues https://themakingprogressblues.wordpress.com