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Fashion makes a statement. Making an appointment for a fitting and handing over $17,000 after seeing a cover spread in Vogue is statement aplenty for what turned out to be a fitness tracking device. Back at its launch, the Apple Watch was a status symbol that fitted perfectly around your wrist; it was fashion and it was luxury.  

2020 marks the fifth birthday of the smartwatch from Apple. They’re worn by millions of people across the world. Whether it’s there to remind the user to stand up during a meeting, go do a workout, or take a moment to catch their breath, the Apple Watch has become a mainstay in people’s lives. It’s become much less a fashion statement and much more an essential tool for health and wellness.  

When an item goes mainstream, it can lose its fashion icon status, but the Apple Watch has bucked the trend. In 2019 Apple Watch sales figures outshone the whole Swiss watch industry by scarily large margins, says Strategy Analytics. An estimated 31 million Apple Watches were shipped in 2019, compared to a combined total of 21 million shipments for the entire Swiss market, so say the research firm. Shara Tibken, who originally wrote this article for cnet, notes that although Apple doesn’t release hard numbers on units sold but it did say revenues in the last fiscal year were $24.5billion for the category that includes Apple Watch and AirPods. That revenue figure saw a jump of 41 percent on the 2018 reporting year. 

“Swiss companies, like Swatch, are losing the smartwatch wars,” noted Strategy Analytics.

Market entrant

Five years ago, everyone was trying to get into the smartwatch and fitness band markets, be it tech companies or myriad startups. Market entrants included Fitbit, Sony, Pebble, Samsung, Jawbone, Misfit, and a host of other companies. Samsung, along with a few others, is still in the smartwatch sector, and others like Pebble got bought out or went bust. With all the tech-focused market entrants, the Swiss watch brands are struggling to meet market demands, even as they try to go digital.  

“The window for Swiss watch brands to make an impact in smartwatches is closing,” analyst Steven Waltzer said. “Time may be running out for Swatch, Tissot, TAG Heuer, and others.”

The smartwatch is now one of the massive successes of the Apple product line, although it can’t hold a candle to the iPhone for sales and revenue generation. Wearers still need to own an iPhone for their watch to work; there’s limited functionality as a standalone product. As a fitness tracker in its own right, the smartwatch needs a lot of work, yet it still went against expectations that were set five years ago and became a new successful product for Apple.

Leading the pack

As the dominant player in the smartwatch market today, it’s interesting to look back and see where it all started for the Apple Watch. Back in September 2014, the Apple Watch was unveiled, with no guarantee it would succeed. It wasn’t due to land on wrists for a further seven months and this gave rivals plenty of lead time to get started on their competitor products. The immediate need for a smartwatch wasn’t really clear, and the functionality wasn’t really understood. 

The Apple Watch was a major test for the Apple CEO Tim Cook. He had to show the market and investors that the brand could still find the next big product that consumers would lust after and spend big money on. The test was so big because of the recent, untimely departure of the previous helmsman Steve Jobs. The last completely new product that proved a hit was the iPad that came out in 2010, the last product that Jobs took to market. 

“Breakthrough” and “comprehensive” were the words used by Cook when introducing the Apple Watch, explaining its uses as a fitness device, walkie-talkie, and a controller for Apple TV, with plenty of other features packed in too. 

The device is “the most personal device we’ve ever created,” were his words at the launch, “because you wear it, we invented new intimate ways to connect and communicate directly from your wrist.”

Upon launch, there were a few different band options, 42mm or 38mm watch size options, and three different designs: the Apple Watch Sport with its aluminum case; the Apple Watch that had a stainless steel case; and an 18-karat gold version called Apple Watch Edition. Further, with the aluminum case, there was a choice of silver or space grey colors and the stainless steel version could keep its natural hue or come in black. The two gold choices were either yellow or rose gold, both 18 karats.  

The cheapest, entry-level watch started at $349; that gave you the Apple Watch Sport in aluminum and glass and a plastic wristband. For $17,000 you could get the Apple Watch Edition in gold. 

Angela Ahrendts, the former Burberry CEO, was brought in to sell this very personal device. She was appointed head of retail in April 2014 and took on the challenge of shaking up the in-store experience. To sell the Apple Watch, she was able to draw on her years of experience in the luxury fashion brand market.  

At its launch, it wasn’t as simple as walking into a store to pick up your Apple Watch in the same way you’d go buy your iPhone or iPad. Those looking to buy an Apple Watch needed to make an appointment to check out the device in a store whilst it was in preorder, and if you wanted to buy one you’d need to make a reservation. 

It grabbed market attention immediately. Estimates of 2 million preorders of Apple Watches were touted by analysts, and that was just in the two weeks leading into the official release date of April 24. Strategy Analytics notes that the combined shipped units of all other smartwatch vendors totaled 4.6 million for the whole of 2014. 

Nowadays, things are a little more simple. You can walk into any Apple Store to try on whichever model you’re interested in and you can choose from a range of bands, not having to stick with Apple’s preselected options. September saw the launch of the Apple Watch Studio Experience, brainchild of a new head of retail, which allows customers to take a mix and match approach to the available watches and bands. It’s an online and instore option, too.  

The Apple Watch Series 4 was launched in 2018, seeing a new size which increased screen size whilst making its profile thinner. The current dimensions stand at 40mm and 44mm.  

By the second generation iteration of the Apple Watch, the luxury offering was scrapped. There was no $17,000 offering by Series 2.  

The concept of a higher tier option has returned, with a more accessible price. The Apple Watch Edition has been reintroduced for the Series 5, but this time it’s made from titanium or ceramic rather than 18-karat gold. The top-line option rings up at $1,749 and that gets you the white ceramic, black link bracelet, 44mm device. There’s a Hermès option that’s priced at $1,499 and the new Series 5 starts at $399 for the always-on display. The cheapest option available is the Series 3 which you can pick for as little as $199.  

The Apple Watch “has changed from luxury to something that’s very useful,” explained Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi.

Personal companion

Initially, the Apple Watch was thought to be something like a miniature version of your iPhone for your wrist. There were 3,000 apps available by the time the launch date rolled around, which was impressive considering Apple had anticipated maybe 1,000. The uses ranged through fitness, messaging, and trivia, and everything required an iPhone to be near for operation. Predictions by the app store analysts AppFigures said there’d be over 100,000 apps for the Apple Watch within twelve months. 

But even the best predictions can be far away from reality.  

You’ll find around 20,000 Apple Watch apps at the moment. The vast majority need you to have your iPhone close by to be able to function properly; they’re simple extensions of your smartphone. To compare, the iPhone is 13 years old and has around 2 million apps available for download. 

Little fanfare or concern was raised when companies like Amazon, Target, Google, eBay, and TripAdvisor removed support for Apple Watch apps. 

You can get 22 Apple-designed apps for the Apple Watch and these are the ones that tend to get used the most on the device, say analysts. It relates to the reason people tend to access their watch – weather reports, fitness tracking, and getting notifications without digging around for their phones. Apple-made apps are what allow these elements of the watch, so third party apps aren’t much needed to do the basics.  

“There’s been nothing like an iOS app ecosystem for the watch,” Technalysis Research analyst Bob O’Donnell said. “For the most part, you’re going to use all of the Apple stuff and one or two other things and that’s about it.”

The other things are probably going to be messaging, controlling music, and fitness. The most popular third-party apps across the globe for the Apple Watch are DingTalk, Spotify, and Facebook Messenger, so says the mobile insights and analytics provider App Annie.

Living the Life

From the beginning, functions around health and fitness have been part of the Apple Watch concept, accessed through the Activity and Workout apps. The health tracking capabilities have pushed themselves center stage now, with the newer Apple Watches able to track menstrual cycles, count swim strokes, and even see if the noise levels in your environment could be damaging. The FDA in the US has even accepted them as being able to conduct reliable electrocardiograms, the medical procedure that detects abnormal heartbeats.  

Apple is also collaborating on research studies across different organizations that would allow users to share Apple Watch and iPhone data to help improve user health. 2018 saw an Apple and Johnson & Johnson partnership, pairing the tech giant with a big player in pharmaceuticals, to research ways to improve heart health in the over 65’s. That research has expanded into the realms of women’s health, hearing, and seeing what the correlation between heart health and physical activity is. 

A cellular version of the Apple Watch was also launched in 2017, allowing users to get online and make calls even when their phones weren’t readily available. People who use their phones when out running have latched on to this, not having to take their phones with them when out exercising.  

Finally, Apple got around to introducing a native App Store that exists directly on the watch – no more need for an iPhone to get iOS apps downloaded that work with the watch. Third-party apps can land straight on your wrist and there are now Watch-only apps on the market, such as TubeSnake.

Taking advantage of the health features and the newfound independence from iPhones is a big growth area for the future of the Apple Watch. As it stands, the watch is still little more than an iPhone companion – you can’t use it with an iPad or Apple Touch devices so iPhone users are the only market. Building in independence from the iPhone will expand the potential market in an instant, including making it accessible for kids, with a touted children’s edition.  

If sensors for glucose and blood pressure could get added to the device, Apple would have a full-blown health tracker on their hands. Sleep tracking would also be a huge addition, with it being rumored for years with nothing coming to fruition yet. Battery life is the main concern for this option. 

Just five short years ago, the Apple Watch was introduced to the market as an iPhone extension. With so much more potential for development, will that companionship be a mere memory of tech gone by in another five years?

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