The Apple Watch has an identity crisis, and that's killing sales

The Apple Watch has problems, and it's nothing to do with the technology itself, or the price. It's something a lot more subtle, and it could be very difficult for Apple to address.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor
Image: CNET

Apple loves to brag about sales figures for all of its devices except one - the Apple Watch. When to comes to this device, Apple executives all clam up, claiming that to divulge sales figures for this device would somehow give its competitors some valuable information. So in the absence of official figures, analysts are left to fill that information vacuum, and the consensus is that sales are bad.

The F-word - failure - is bandied about a lot in relation to the Apple Watch.

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So why is Apple having a problem selling this bit of shiny kit, when it's not had any problems moving hundreds of millions of units of other shiny things?

The problem, as I see it, has nothing to do with the technology itself, or the price of the Apple Watch, or for that matter the fact that its functionality is so tied to having an iPhone nearby. It's much more subtle than that, and it could be something hard for Apple to address.

The problem is that it's hard to explain concisely what the Apple Watch does.

Think about it. Almost every other hardware product that Apple has released over the years has been something well-defined and easy to describe in a few words.

  • Mac/iMac: A computer
  • MacBook: A folding Mac
  • iPod: A portable music player
  • iPhone: A phone that's also a computer, and it also runs apps
  • iPad: A big iPhone, without the phone bit

Now try describing the Apple Watch without going generic and calling it a "smartwatch" or a "fitness band." Go on, I'll give you a few minutes if you want.

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Well, how did it go?

The best I've come up with is "it's a watch that's also a health doodad, and it can sort-of run apps, but you have to have an iPhone with you because even though it's a smartwatch, it's not that smart."

Yeah, I know, not particularly catchy.

Since its launch, I've noticed Apple try to define the Apple Watch more as a health and fitness device rather than as a companion to the iPhone. But even that definition gets complicated, as we venture into the realm of heart-rate monitoring and counting steps.

I've also seen Apple try to define it as a second screen for notifications (yawn - if I'd wanted to squint at my notifications on a tiny display I would have stuck with my iPhone 5s), a key for hotel rooms, a digital boarding pass, a payment device, a tool to control a BMW or Tesla, and much more.

It's so hard to pin down what the Apple Watch is that Apple itself is having a hard time of it. Is it a cheap sports commodity item, or a high-end luxury item?

And have you noticed that the only "celebrities" you see wearing Apple Watches are Apple executives? So much for that big, huge push into glossy fashion magazines and such.

It doesn't help that Apple called it a "watch." Notice how none of Apple's other flagship products are named after what they are (the closest is the iPhone). Apple is also meticulous about steering clear of generic categories. I don't remember the iPhone or iPad being referred to as a smartphone or tablet. By calling the Apple Watch a watch, Apple defined it quite specifically, and with the name of a product that fewer and fewer people wear these days.

Here's another identity problem that the Apple Watch has: There doesn't seem to be a killer app for the device. Sure, there are apps, but there's nothing out there that seems to be "blow your hair back" amazing.

Oh, and not only does there need to be an iPhone within range, it would be a lot easier just to grab the iPhone and use the full app on that.

It's possible that a future version will help to better define what the product is. Making the device standalone and ridding it of its dependency on the iPhone would go a long way toward achieving that.

Apple needs to better define what the product is and what problems it solves. Right now the Apple Watch is very much one of those pieces of tech that's looking for a problem to solve. That's not an uncommon thing in the consumer electronics arena, but it's an odd thing for Apple to try to sell such a product.

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