In the ever-growing canon of Apple mythology, Jony Ive, Apple’s Senior VP of Design, is a sort of mash up of Hercules, Gilgamesh, and modernist architect Le Corbusier. He is the company’s design-forward hero, so when he boasted earlier this year that “Switzerland is in trouble” in reference to the smart watch Apple unveiled yesterday, iExecs in Cupertino may have started screaming like One Direction fans – and not without reason. With a stunning design, intuitive interface and a high-end, 18k gold version slated for launch in 2015, Ive and Apple clearly intend to put horological houses on notice.
Should Switzerland, home of Rolex, Omega and the Swatch Group, actually be worried? Yes, but not overly so. The new watch is a fantastic product. The touchscreen is elegant and simple, a heart rate monitor, GPS, and accelerometer are built in, and the digital crown system, which allows users to twist a bezel to zoom or scroll, is pure genius. Still, many people are incredibly attached to traditional analog watches and not just because they keep time. The watch you wear is fundamentally a personal statement, a way to communicate your tastes and sensibilities. On the highway, your car serves as your avatar, but in a boardroom your watch is a signifier of position (both current and intended). Could the Apple Watch ever carry the same clout as, say, a Patek Philippe?
At this point, it seems unlikely. Even the highest-end Apple Watch introduced this week has a long way to go before it would demand the same level of respect as its historic, analog counterparts. Names like Breitling and Hublot carry weight because they mattered to today’s consumers’ grandparents. Those watches have marked milestones in people’s lives and become heirlooms. Tradition is the best way to protect against innovation.
But there is a catch. Your grandson might pawn off that Cartier you pass down to buy an Apple Watch 50.0 if smartwatches become so common that the culture surrounding luxury timepieces disappears. This is a more plausible – and more worrisome – scenario than traditional watches and smart watches competing in the same market. And there’s precedent for this type of paradigm shift: Popularized in wartime just before the turn of the 20th Century, wristwatches took over after the 300 year reign of the pocket watch all because of function. Soldiers, needing to coordinate attacks, required a more efficient means of telling time. Rolex, which originally made watches to military spec, became an industry leader.
Have we reached the end of the analog watch era? Apple hopes so. They’ve jammed a ton of capabilities into the Apple Watch hoping that the masses will choose function over form like they did a century ago. Mind you, Apple regards form in the utmost and they’re offering the Apple Watch in two sizes (men’s and women’s, presumably), three editions (base, sport and “edition” for the 18k gold version) and six interchangeable strap options. But the real point of these new devices is to put your messages, a stock ticker, a calendar and NFL scores on your wrist. The Apple Watch puts function first, as it should, because it’s what Apple does best and that’s the ground where they can win the watch war. JonyIve may be fighting with modern weaponry, but Switzerland still has him outgunned – for now.