Can Apple Watch turn back the clock?

Apple WatchOver the past couple months, I’ve had the very exciting assignment of assisting the U.S. launch of Campaign, Haymarket Media Group’s legendary brand serving the advertising industry.

We scored one of our biggest successes to date last week when my old MacWEEK fellow traveler Daniel Drew Turner wrote a piece titled “With Apple Watch, it’s time for new ad designs.” Like the headline says, the article considers the advertising potential on Apple Watch, the wearable device Apple reportedly will ship in February. Dan looked at Apple’s WatchKit software development kit and spoke with industry insiders about the UX considerations a small, wrist-mounted advertising platform will impose.

The coverage we’re doing on Apple Watch has got me wondering about a tangential usability issue: In 2014, how many of the target audiences for smart watches are inclined to wear any watch?

I’ll keep the focus on Apple’s consumer devices for simplicity’s sake, but feel free to consider other contenders. When Apple introduced the iPod, it strapped a rocket to the nascent market for MP3 players. When it extended the line to the iPhone, Apple added its iOS savvy and app ecosystem to the burgeoning smartphone market. And when it expanded the platform to the iPad, Apple innovated and legitimized the very formative market for tablets.

Disclosure: As a reporter covering Apple technology, I was often right (although sometimes way too early in my estimates). As a predictor of Apple’s success, my track record is appalling. When I first saw a photo of the original iMac the day before its May 1998 debut, I remarked that it looked like a bath toy. What’s more, I successively underestimated the success of the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

I’m happy I never actually published my lousy forecasts, and I’m not about to claim superior wisdom this time around. Nevertheless, I’m really curious about how Apple Watch will play in the wake of personal-technology transformations Apple itself architected.

Anecdotally, the appearance of a smartphone in every hand seems to correlate to the disappearance of watches from many wrists. And as I research the question online, the numbers bear out my impression: This 2011 survey found that 60 percent of 16- to 34-year-olds used smartphones as their primary timepieces. A 2010 study of U.K. consumers by market researcher Mintel found that 14 percent said they had no need for a wristwatch — a figure that doubled among 15- to 24-year-olds.

While sales figures indicate that classic wristwatches continues to sell well at the high end, many observers explicitly point to tradition in explaining their appeal.

So this poses an interesting conundrum for Apple Watch (and its competitors): Now that smartphones and tablets have rendered old-school watches obsolete among Millennials, can Apple or any other technology company convince them to put their wrists on the line?

Now, if any company can merge fashion and technology, it’s Apple. Its recent partnership with Nike (and prominent placement in some couture contexts) shows that Apple is serious about the “wearable” part of the equation.

Nevertheless, it’s going to be very interesting to watch Apple sell users on a new version of the technology its last products superseded.

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