iPhone now 'a pocket watch,' says Apple Watch honcho

Jeff Williams says the Apple Watch could become Apple's single most important product.

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Apple Watch head Jess Williams, right, says the company has sold "a lot" of units, "but not enough." Asa Mathat for Recode

Don't think of Apple's iPhone as the end-all-be-all device of the future. Instead, consider it your next pocket watch.

That, at least, is how the executive who oversees the Apple Watch would like consumers to think about the company's biggest moneymaker, the iPhone.

"I think there's great inevitability in technology moving to your body, and we chose the wrist, very carefully," Jeff Williams, who oversees Apple Watch development, said Wednesday during the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. "There's historical precedent for this. If you look at timekeeping, it started with clocks. Think of mainframe computers that moved to your home. Then PCs; then pocket watches."

Does that mean the iPhone has been downgraded to the status of a pocket watch, asked Recode's Walt Mossberg.

"Yeah, but I think we'll sell a lot of pocket watches in that case," said Williams. Apple sold 74 million iPhones during the three months of last year's holiday quarter.

Apple is betting on the success of the Apple Watch. The smartwatch, which costs from $349 to $17,000 and hit the market in April, marked the company's first new product category since the "magical" iPad in 2010. It's also the first new push by Apple under CEO Tim Cook. The company needs to prove it can still create innovative products without its former CEO, the late, legendary Steve Jobs. Jobs is credited with Apple's run of category-defining products, from the iPod music player to the iPhone smartphone to the iPad tablet. The iPhone has accounted for more than two-thirds of Apple's sales in the past couple of quarters.

When asked about other product categories that Apple may enter with its more than $100 billion in cash reserves, Williams acknowledged rumors earlier this year that the company may be building an electric vehicle. "Well, the car is the ultimate mobile device, isn't it?" he said.

Williams, who has served officially as Apple's senior vice president of operations since mid-2010, has been referred to as Cook's "go-to guy" and "Tim Cook's Tim Cook." When asked onstage if that characterization bugs him, Williams said Tim Cook is a "fantastic guy."

Williams oversees Apple's massive supply chain and device production, including the company's relationship with Chinese manufacturer Foxconn. It's up to Williams to make sure devices ship on time and meet demand. Now he's also taken on the high-profile role of public face of the Apple Watch.

One shortcoming of the device is its reliance on a user's iPhone. A majority of the Apple Watch's key features -- including texting, app notifications and GPS -- aren't available without a nearby iPhone. The device is also incapable of running third-party software directly on the device and instead offloads much of the computing workload to the smartphone. That makes a majority of its apps slower and sometimes harder to use than their iPhone counterparts because those apps cannot access key Apple Watch architecture, like its sensors.

Apple will release a developer kit preview next month that will let app makers write software directly for the Apple Watch, Williams said. That will make it easier to create more-powerful, so-called "native" apps.

To date, the Apple Watch has been experiencing long shipping delays reportedly because of a faulty component in the device's so-called Taptic Engine, which allows the watch to discreetly buzz your wrist to notify you of messages, or, for example, step-by-step Apple Maps directions.

Research firm Slice Intelligence in April estimated that only 22 percent of US customers who preordered the Apple Watch received their devices in the first weekend it was available. But Cook reportedly told employees in China that the device will be available in Apple Stores by June.

Some analysts estimate Apple could sell as many as 30 million Apple Watches this year. Apple said it doesn't plan to break out the results in its quarterly reports.

"We weren't going to release data on the watch," Williams said. "We spend too much time on the numbers. We'd rather spend time on the product."

So how many Apple Watches are out in the wild right now?

"A lot," Williams said. "But not enough."

CNET's Connie Guglielmo contributed to this report.

Update at 1:20 p.m. PT: Clarified that Apple Watch's inability to run apps natively is restricted to third-party software. Apple's own apps do run directly on the watch.

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