The iPhone came first, but it was of secondary importance. Apple’s big event this month relegated the company’s best known and best selling product to the role of an opening act for "the next chapter in Apple’s history": the Watch. With a perfectly pitched tremor of emotion in his voice, CEO Tim Cook finally confirmed all the rumors of an Apple wearable device, while leaving some mystery about how it will work and everything it will do. The product itself was almost less important than the statement the company was making: the future of personal computing will be on your wrist and Apple has the time machine to transport you there.
In spite of never once uttering the word ‘smartwatch,’ Apple is now one of the most committed participants in the nascent smartwatch business and has brought its halo of attention to the entire category. Because this company launches entirely new products so rarely and so successfully, the Apple Watch has already enjoyed more popular attention than any other device of its kind. Al Jazeera, Asahi Shimbun, the BBC, CNN, Reuters, Men’s Fitness, The Times of India, and Vogue have all covered the Watch extensively. Everyone from the stodgiest paper of record to freestyling fashion bloggers has dedicated a column of prose or a slot of time to mulling over what Apple’s Watch means for the collective future of humanity.
The thing is, the Apple Watch isn’t even all that special. It has a touchscreen, tracks biometric data, takes voice commands, and displays notifications. The same is true of every Android Wear watch and there’s a certain irony to the generality of Apple’s smartwatch evangelism: the company’s asserting the advantages of smart watches in general, and potentially aiding competitors like Motorola and Samsung who may find it easier to promote their wares to a more receptive public.
Like all successful fashion brands, Apple understands that the most effective way to achieve sales at the counter is to first sell people an idea. The company’s greatest strength has always been to translate technical innovation into relatable user benefits — knowing how to package and explain a piece of new technology is as essential to its commercial success as figuring out how to make it work. That’s where Apple shines and its established credibility will help the Apple Watch and others like it grow, out of sheer market curiosity if nothing else.
I'm just going to say "yes" anytime someone asks if I'm wearing the Apple Watch from now on. Even if I'm wearing a Casio calculator watch.— dan (@dcseifert) September 12, 2014
People aren't sure what it is, but they kinda want an Apple Watch anyway
In the two weeks since the Apple Watch was introduced to the world, pretty much everyone wearing an Android Wear or just an outsized regular watch has been asked the same question: is that the Apple Watch? People aren’t sure of its full set of features, precise dimensions, or even how the damn thing looks, but they are aware of the idea and eager to experience the Apple Watch.
That’s the sort of mainstream marketing that the combined efforts of the rest of the tech industry couldn’t previously achieve. Sony’s been doing smart wrist accessories for smartphones for over half a decade. Samsung, LG, Moto, and HP have all previously dabbled with the idea of connected wristwatches. But it’s one thing to make an alien-looking gadget that sparks brief interest from passersby, and a whole other task to generate a worldwide buzz for an as yet nonexistent device. Apple's public image is as polarizing as that of the best fashion brands: there's one group of loyalists who trust Apple to build useful and desirable devices, and another diametrically opposed crowd who are sick of hearing about Apple’s products but are nonetheless interested to know about them. The middle ground of indifference is rapidly vanishing.
There’s another important trend at play here. Research by The New York Times recently showed that teenagers are increasingly turning to technology rather than fashion for their status symbols. Clothes are giving way to personal gadgets as the expression of being in vogue, and Apple’s sought to capitalize on this movement by buying Beats and recruiting some of the most experienced fashion CEOs to amplify its voice among the trendsetting crowd. Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts and Yves Saint Lauren’s Paul Deneve, who both joined in 2013, are well versed in the act of making luxury brands appealing to a younger audience, which is exactly how Apple wants to position itself. As geeky interests like mobile photography become mainstream pursuits, and technology grows more accessible and immediate, the line between tech and fashion will grow ever fainter. Smartwatches are just the next logical step in that evolution. They are about the style of the old mixed with the smart connectivity of the new.
Apple's marketing tide is likely to raise all smartwatch boats
What all of this amounts to is a big injection of energy and enthusiasm for a new category of electronic device that still has everything left to prove. The conventional wisdom — and probably the reason why Apple chose to pre-announce its Watch so many months in advance — suggests that potential Android Wear customers might now choose to wait for the Apple alternative. That may still be the case, but in the interim, Apple's marketing tide is more likely to raise all smartwatch boats. There are more Android users than iPhone owners out in the world, and those among them who are swayed by Apple's pitch would look to the devices compatible with their smartphone: taking the leap into Android Wear waters off the back of Apple’s successful marketing.
The dashingly good looking Moto 360 and the outsized Samsung Gear S both gain legitimacy by being compared to the Apple Watch. Even with Apple’s refined strap designs, super high-end solid-gold options, and clever touchscreen tech, the Watch is still quite bulky and must be recharged every night. It’s a double-edged sword, however, as the closer a current smartwatch looks to Apple’s device, the more likely it is to be attractive today and obliterated tomorrow. Once the real deal Apple Watch goes on sale, it’ll reclaim all the focus and attention for itself, and satisfying the demands of the new tech fashion will require the original Apple article. But until the time comes when you can actually buy one, the Apple Watch will continue to serve as the best advertisement for Android Wear around.