When Apple unveils its wearable at Tuesday's press event, it will grit its teeth and prepare for violent blowback, as if launching an experimental rocket. The iWatch, or whatever it's to be called, might soar to the heavens and dazzle us all. But it might also sputter at takeoff, and blow up in Apple's face.
Consumer-tech manufacturers insist wearables have potential. Witness Samsung and its binge-development of seven smartwatches in a single year. But normal folks at home aren't embracing smartwatches and activity trackers with enthusiasm. Not a single smartwatch has become a mainstream, runaway hit, and market research tells us that after six months of use, about one-third of all consumers stop using their wearable devices entirely.
The public ennui is daunting. But if Apple can deliver in the five following areas, it stands a fighting chance of converting the masses to its wearables vision.
Simplicity in the face of feature creep
Mounting evidence tells us Apple's wearable will be packed with health- and activity tracking sensors; a mobile payments and identity authentication system; and a full-fledged apps ecosystem. That's a lot of features to service on a necessarily teeny-tiny user interface. So unless Apple delivers an experience that's iPhone-simple, it will leave even mobile-savvy millennials struggling to find happiness on a 1.5-inch display.
Sometimes interface icons can be too small to be useful. Sometimes you do need a large screen to expose critical navigation elements. Sometimes you can't get by with simple finger swipes and never-quite-reliable voice control. Bottom line: The more features you add to your wrist gadget, the more you're looking for trouble.
Indeed, I've long argued that smartwatch manufacturers should drop all their dreams of third-party app integration. Unless you can reduce apps to just a single sliver of contextual relevance, as in Android Wear, it's far more advantageous to deliver a tightly controlled user experience that respects device limitations.
So let's cross our fingers and hope that Jony Ive and company have solved the puzzle of surfacing rich app experiences on a display the size of a postage stamp. The last thing Apple needs are word-of-mouth reviews that say the iWatch is too difficult to use.
A hardware design that miraculously pleases everyone
There's a reason why some traditional wristwatches are classic-luxe, and others are techy-sporty: Because some people's self-expression hinges on blazers and dress shoes, while other people wear hoodies and cross-trainers to strike a completely different mien. All wearable tech comes preloaded with some type of fashion statement, and it will be exceedingly difficult for Apple to deliver a single iWatch design that not only accessorizes a wide range of clothing styles, but also suits the broad spectrum of how we humans, in all our vanity, establish identity.
Unlike regular watches which you can swap out as necessary--the fun-trendy Swatch for the work week; the retro-simple Tissot for dinner parties--smartwatches are intended for everyday use. Otherwise, what's the point of all the notifications, micropayments, and activity tracking?
So somehow in its iWatch design, Apple will need to reach a perfect aesthetic compromise, a look that appeals to nerdy early adopters in cargo pants, to working women in ballet flats, to yacht club blue bloods in salmon shorts, and to Nicki Minaj, Cara Delevingne, or some permutation of Kardashian. Because celebrities can validate even the ugliest smartwatches if they wear them to the VMAs.
The iWatch can look unapologetically high-tech, and still be successful. And it doesn't even need to look like a watch, or use organic materials like stainless steel and leather strapping to telegraph "quality." But whatever Apple shows us on Tuesday, it will need to dazzle our senses. It should look like an object that was teleported from the heavens by an alien race--all without looking even remotely like a movie prop.
This won't be easy. This wearable is Jony Ive's biggest challenge yet.
Fitness features that are accurate, reliable and comprehensible
Step-tracking and heart-rate monitoring have been persistent, nagging challenges for other wearable platforms. From the Fitbit line-up to Jawbone UP to all the Samsung wearables, today's digital pedometers report wildly different step counts, casting suspicion on all their abilities to provide accurate activity data. The usefulness of heart-rate sensors is even more dubious. Samsung devices can't report real-time heart-rate data during the heat of exercise, and even the Basis B1, with its greater battery of sensors, doesn't promise real-time heart rate accuracy.
So Apple will need to rise well above the competitive fray for its fitness story to be taken seriously.
In June, the Wall Street Journal reported the iWatch will include more than 10 sensors to track health and fitness activity, and just last week the New York Times reported that Apple has invested enormously in step-tracking and heart-rate accuracy. These are positive signs, as the onus of perfect execution is always higher for Apple, and it can't suffer a fit-tech version of Mapgate, with thousands of users sharing stories of laughably inaccurate sensor results.
Just as importantly, the activity tracking features need to be dead-simple to use. Samsung and LG stuff their health and fitness apps with enough data to satisfy hardcore exercise junkies and quantified selfers. But this is TMI for most normal people, and Apple will need to respect simplicity. It can't have its iWatch users giving up and tossing their devices in a drawer like so many current wearable-tech owners.
A tenable price
Pre-event reports say Apple will explore multiple price points, but it's unclear whether consumers will be paying different prices for different feature sets, or if a plan to release different display sizes (as small as 1.3 inches and as large as 2.5 inches) will entail the larger version's costing more. Recode says Apple is considering a $400 price tag for one SKU, but that'd better be limited to the Cadillac version of the iWatch if Apple wants to find traction with mainstream consumers.
A much more tenable price would have the wearable costing no more than $250. That's the price of a mid-capacity iPod touch, and it feels reasonable for a mobile accessory that merely complements the smartphone experience.
It would be far too simplistic to say Apple's wearable needs pricing that competes with the Moto 360 ($250) or the Samsung Gear Live ($200). These smartwatches aren't direct competition because so few iPhone users will ever be willing to join Team Android just to play around with Android Wear. But while Apple won't be competing with currently shipping products, it will have to respect our gut emotions vis-a-vis product pricing, and what an exciting but completely unproven gadget should cost.
A single magical feature
The iPhone 4S wasn't a very interesting hardware upgrade, but it did introduce the world to Siri, and that was enough to give Apple a new benchmark for smartphone sales in the first quarter of 2012. Siri showed us that a single novel, enchanting, never-before-seen feature can capture the public imagination, and propel mobile hardware to deity status.
Smartphone notifications and activity tracking won't do this for Apple's wearable. But a system for easy mobile payments and personal authentication could elevate the iWatch from meh to magical.
Reports tell us that Mastercard, Visa and American Express are onboard to support Apple's mobile payments platform, which will presumably be serviced via users' iTunes accounts. Meanwhile, CVS, Walgreens and even Disney stores are reported to be supporting Apple on the retail end. Add in Starbucks, which already makes some $1.5 billion off app-based mobile payments annually, and you have the beginning of a compelling mobile payments ecosystem. For the record, I'd like to use my wearable to buy gas as well.
Of course, the iPhone 6 will also support mobile payments. But imagine how much easier it would be to pay for items at checkout with the wave of your wrist. With phones buried in pants pockets and handbags, don't underestimate the friction the iWatch could eliminate. And the same NFC-based system that lets you pay for groceries could also tie into Apple's Home Kit technologies, unlocking your front door and hooking into other personal authentication scenarios.
The possibilities are exciting, but Apple's margins for error will be extremely thin. In the wake of the celebrity iCloud hacking scandal, the public will be cautious about using iAnything for mobile payments and authentication schemes. But if Apple can present a believable security story, and deliver an easy, reliable user experience, it might give mainstream users the best argument of all to buy the new wearable.