Special Projects Editor
The world’s biggest public company has a track record of popularising gadgets but getting us to wear them may be its biggest challenge yet.
The Engineer has historically avoided reporting the minutiae of the gradual advance of consumer electronics. Rather than following every announcement of a software upgrade or a processor speed increase, we prefer to look at the bigger picture of how the technology is changing our lives and how engineers are overcoming the big technological challenges.
However, when the planet’s biggest public company with the kind of track record that Apple has in delivering world-changing technology announces a new product line, it would be foolish to ignore it. This week the firm revealed details of its Apple Watch, essentially a tiny computer you were on your wrist that allows you to access many of the functions of your iPhone without taking it out of your pocket.
Wearable technology has been touted for several years now as the next potential paradigm shift in electronics. And if any company can bring about that change it’s Apple. After all, MP3 players, smartphones and tablet computers all existed before Apple took them on but it was the iPod, iPhone and iPad that truly popularised such products.
Similarly in wearables, smart watches have been around in some form for over a decade but have yet to become a must-have product. More recently we’ve also seen Google Glass eyewear come and go without convincing the majority of the population that walking around with a computer on your face is worthwhile.
Whether the Apple Watch is the device that will change all this, however, is by no means clear. The main problem it faces is that rather than equipping people with a major new capability they simply didn’t have before – i.e. accessing the internet or vast amounts of music on the go – Apple’s new device merely changes the nature of that capability. Moving your emails from your pocket to your wrist is a much smaller jump than moving them from you desktop to your pocket.
There are other issues, too. The Apple Watch is really an iPhone accessory, not a product in its own right. Much has been made of the £13,500 cost of the premium gold version but even the standard £299 price tag may be off-putting to many who’ve already shelled out hundreds for an iPhone, limiting the spread of the device.
We’ve also seen that consumers like bigger screens – smartphones appear to have grown in size over the last few years to the point where some are indistinguishable from tablets. Users may therefore balk at the idea of going back to tiny screens, especially when they have much more comfortably sized ones in their pockets.
However, what Apple may well do with its new launch is make smart watches aspirational, attractive and cool. This kind of appeal was key to the success of its previous products, and the cachet of the company is such that the idea of wearables will be thrust further into public consciousness simply by the fact Apple now makes them. The question that remains is whether the firm has made smart watches useful as well as beautiful. But if anyone can, it’s Apple.