Time for Apple Watch to show us what it can do

Apple on Monday will talk up more features of its smartwatch -- and it needs to give consumers a reason to buy one.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
6 min read

Apple will host an event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9. James Martin/CNET

It won't paint your house, butter your toast or fold your laundry. But besides telling time, the Apple Watch may do enough other interesting things to convince iPhone owners to buy it. At least, that's what Apple's hoping.

The Cupertino, Calif., electronics giant will reveal more details about its first smartwatch -- including when you can buy one and how much they'll cost -- on Monday in San Francisco. What we know, after Apple CEO Tim Cook debuted the device during a star-studded event in September, is that the Apple Watch will be priced starting at $349, come in two sizes and that there will be three models available with a variety of band options.

Also, we know it only works with iPhone 5, 5S, 5C, 6 and 6 Plus smartphones running the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system software, iOS 8.

Tune in to CNET's Apple event live show and blog on March 9, at 9 a.m. PT

What we don't know is if the device will be fashionable enough to compete with the luxury watches it's being compared to and if Apple has cracked the code on turning a wearable computer into a must-have device. Time has shown that simply having a smart device strapped to the wrist isn't something consumers want, with makers from Pebble to Samsung struggling to find mass market acceptance for their early efforts.

"The watch itself is exciting and interesting, but what they fundamentally showed us was glass on the wrist, a computer," said Tim Bajarin, a longtime Apple analyst at Creative Strategies. "Now they need to give us a reason to buy it."

To address that issue, Apple has worked on creating unique experiences for the smartwatch, including a mobile payments service called Apple Pay that lets you tap the watch at checkout stands to pay for everything from a Big Mac at McDonald's to shampoo at Walgreens.

But the real trick is convincing app developers to invest in creating programs for the Apple Watch that will show off what you can actually do with it. Apple's iPad tablet and iPhone became popular with the help of third-party software developers, who collectively have created more than a million apps for those mobile devices. And though app developers have already announced they're working on hundreds of Apple Watch apps, the "killer app" has yet to emerge.

Apple declined to comment for this article.

Ticking past the competition

When Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, nobody realized the media player would revolutionize the music industry. The iPhone in 2007 wasn't expected to be the world changer it's become. And the "magical" iPad in 2010 was also met with skepticism and concerns over who would buy it. But all three did something unique that made them attractive to buyers. The iPod put thousands of songs in the palm of your hand, and let people buy songs for less than a dollar through online music stores. The iPhone gave people true Internet access from a mobile device for the first time. And the iPad created a sort of second-screen consumption device, allowing you to surf the Web while watching TV.

As for the Apple Watch, perhaps it will help make us healthier by tracking our fitness. Or maybe it will teach us new ways to communicate through a simple user interface on the small screen. The most likely scenario is everyone will see a different reason to own a smartwatch. Even so, Cook needs to give us more of those reasons, beyond the device simply being an excellent timekeeper and a good way to count our steps.

Watch this: Inside Scoop: Watches and what else to expect from Apple on March 9

Companies have tried selling smartwatches for decades, but none of the gadgets has really taken off. In the late 1990s, companies such as Samsung designed "watch phones" that let users make calls from their wrists. The devices flopped.

The modern smartwatch craze largely started with Pebble Technology, analysts say. The company's $150 Pebble watch, which debuted on Kickstarter in April 2012, caused giants such as Samsung and startups such as Withings to try out their own designs. Samsung introduced its Galaxy Gear smartwatch in September 2013 and followed up with a handful of other wearables within the next year. Google gave the market a boost when it announced its Android Wear software in early 2014, and LG, Sony, Motorola and others have released new devices.

Despite Samsung and Pebble Technology's efforts, smartwatch sales were weak in 2014. Last year, smartwatch vendors shipped just 4.6 million units, according to Strategy Analytics. That's compared with 242 million tablets and 1.3 billion smartphones in 2014.

The companies struggled largely because their large, clunky-looking watches were considered too "techie," typically appealing primarily to "early adopters," people who will try any new gadget. But most smartwatches didn't have enough consumer-friendly features to make them attractive.

Strategy Analytics says Apple will ship 15.4 million Apple Watch units in 2015, giving the company 54.8 percent of the global smartwatch market and bumping Samsung to No. 2. The Apple Watch should help raise awareness for other watches, bringing total smartwatch shipments in 2015 to 28.1 million.

The Apple Watch could help smartwatches become mainstream in developed regions like the US by the end of 2015 and into 2016, said Neil Mawston, an analyst with Strategy Analytics. Apple's brand is strong enough to attract many (read that as millions of) customers who will buy anything the company makes. Apple also has broad distribution for its products, a big marketing budget and a large ecosystem.

"A lot does hang on this first generation Apple Watch," Mawston said. "If it proves popular, that will snowball, and other models will quickly pick up volumes."

But if Apple's smartwatch doesn't take off, it could be tougher for the market to expand.

What Apple Watch does

At the Apple Watch unveiling, Cook touted Apple Watch as the ideal health and fitness device, timekeeper and notification system, as well as a way to stay closely connected to friends and family. You'll also be able to use your watch to purchase items through Apple Pay, and you'll be able to talk to the Siri digital voice assistant to send messages.

Along with the Apple-developed apps, there will be third-party software that does everything from letting you unlock your hotel room door with your watch to receiving coupons when you're walking past your favorite store in the mall.

The apps that come with the Apple Watch (pictures)

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Making things easy to deal with at a glance is a key goal for Apple Watch apps. You'll spend only seconds at a time looking at the device, and you won't be able to quickly navigate through long menus to find the task you want.

"Because it's a small screen, you have to be so much more efficient," said Mikael Berner, the CEO of notification app EasilyDo. His company has made an app for Apple Watch that send quick alerts.

Still, not everyone will be making an Apple Watch app. IBM, which formed a partnership with Apple last year to create business-oriented mobile apps for the iPhone and iPad, is holding off on creating Apple Watch versions.

"I could imagine it [someday], but not yet," said Katharyn White, IBM's global lead for the IBM-Apple partnership.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Apple will be getting us to put down our phones. It was Apple's iPhone that convinced many people to stop using a watch in the first place. Now it's time for Apple to show us why we really do need a watch.

Tune back to CNET for full coverage of Monday's event.