Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Apple gets its mojo back...for now

Earlier today, Apple held a multi-product announcement at the Flint Center in Cupertino. I'm going to skip the product specifications and discuss what it all means, at least to me:

iPhone 6

The long-rumored iPhone 6 was announced, in two flavors: The iPhone 6 with a 4.7" display, and the iPhone 6 Plus with a 5.5" display. Other than display size, the two phones are functionally identical to each other. The big news, obviously, is the bigger screens. Prior to today, if you wanted an iPhone, you could choose between a 4" display and...another 4" display. Android smartphone vendors have successfully competed against the iPhone with bigger phones--in fact, some analysts attribute a fair portion of the decline in iPad sales to substitution of bigger smartphones for tablets.

With the deliveries of the iPhone 6 models in September, Apple will have its own "phablet" to compete with big Android and Windows Phone models. The iPhone 6 Plus, in particular, is likely to cannibalize sales of iPads and iPad minis, but Apple would rather steal sales from itself and keep customers inside Apple's ecosystem than lose sales to competitors and risk having customers switch to Android or Windows Phone.

Apple has also adopted Near Field Communications (NFC) for use in financial transactions. The company's new Apple Pay service enables customers of five of the largest U.S. banks to make credit and debit card payments without taking out their cards. Apple says that over 220,000 stores are already equipped for Apple Pay transactions. Again, this is an area where Apple is catching up with competitors; the first NFC-equipped Android and Blackberry phones were released in 2011. NFC hasn't taken off in the U.S., largely because a relatively small number of customers had compatible smartphones, and partly because not enough banks and merchants were supporting it. Apple Pay goes a long way to cutting the Gordian Knot by bringing Apple, payment networks (American Express, MasterCard and Visa,) banks and merchants together. However, Apple Pay only works with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, so for quite some time, the vast majority of iPhones in customer hands will be incompatible.

From all appearances, the new iPhones are well-built, well-designed smartphones that compare well with the best phones from competitors. However, the key features that differentiate the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus from earlier iPhones, particularly the iPhone 5s, are features that competitors have had for some time. With today's announcement, the top iOS, Android and Windows Phone smartphones are largely at parity.

Apple Watch

Today's Apple Watch announcement (really a preannouncement--I'll explain in a moment) finally brought to an end most of the speculation about the "iWatch"--speculation that began in late 2012. Many, if not most of the current assortment of smartwatches from Pebble, Samsung, Motorola, LG, Sony and others, owe their genesis to a desire to get into the market ahead of Apple. Apple isn't in the market quite yet--they announced the Apple Watch with two different display sizes and three models, but didn't discuss the actual screen size, resolution, storage space, RAM size or battery life. We also don't know when the Apple Watch will ship, other than some time in early 2015. The prices was specified at "starting at $349" in the U.S., which suggests that the three models will be differentiated by screen size, bands, and possibly memory. (We've since learned that the models are also likely to be differentiated by case materials.) So, we know a lot about the Apple Watch, but if we don't know when we can buy it, how much it'll cost or how it's equipped, it's a preannouncement.

People have criticized Samsung for their tendency to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their smartphones, whether or not the features are actually going to be used or work very well. I felt the same way about the Apple Watch feature set. Some of the features, such as using a GPS-based time server to maintain the correct local time, and the ability to use the Watch as the "front end" for texts, phone calls and email, make a lot of sense. The exercise features make the Watch an effective substitute for a fitness tracker. However, some features, like the ability to draw on the crystal with your finger and to send your heartbeat to another Watch user, go into the "What were they thinking?" category.

It feels to me like no one--not Apple, Samsung, Motorola or the rest--knows what the real use cases for a smartwatch are. Of course it has to tell time; otherwise, it's not a watch. But anyone can buy a perfectly adequate watch for telling time for $25. How do you justify spending $250 or more for a smartwatch? One way is to let it act as a "front end" for the smartphone for the most common uses--phone calls, texts and emails. Using the watch for maps and navigation is also nice, and fairly common. And, of course, if the smartwatch can do everything that a fitness tracker can, you don't need the fitness tracker. But here's the problem: Other than telling time, the smartwatch doesn't do anything as well as a smartphone. The screen is too small, especially when people want smartphones with bigger and bigger screens. Fitness trackers aren't selling well, and many people who bought them have stopped using them. Will they use the fitness features longer or more regularly if they're part of a smartwatch? Perhaps. Will they want to feel someone else's heartbeat? Maybe once.

I don't think that anyone, Apple included, has as of yet either 1) Justified the prices of their smartwatches, or 2) Figured out the right feature set to make them a mass market item. At $349, I expect a watch that's a smartphone, not a watch that has to be connected to a smartphone in order to do anything more than tell time. Maybe at $199, smartwatches with comparable functionality to the Apple Watch will sell in big numbers, but at $349, or even the $249 that most Android Wear watches are priced at, they're going to be niche items.

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