Will Apple's Newest Gadget Ignite A Smart Watch Movement?

Will Apple's Newest Gadget Ignite A Smart Watch Movement?

4:01pm Apr 25, 2015
As the Apple Watch goes on sale Friday, it's unclear if the gadget and others like it can attain the utility and prominence smartphones have in the past eight years.
As the Apple Watch goes on sale Friday, it's unclear if the gadget and others like it can attain the utility and prominence smartphones have in the past eight years.
Ryan Emberley/AP

The Apple Watch is making quite a splash with its launch Friday, but most of us have never thought about this new gadget, the "smart watch." Is it a luxury item, or is the smart watch destined to be the next great essential, something we don't know we'll need but will.

We've asked this kind of question before. Smartphone owners Alexandra Sanders, Jimmy Pichotto and Desiree Ngai all agree that the devices were luxuries when they purchased them.

Ngai says that her first smartphone, a Samsung, was pink and pretty — and that describing it as "smart" might have been a stretch.

"Back then the Internet reception wasn't that great on your phone, so it was actually mainly just to download online games and stuff," Ngai says.

Pichotto's current smartphone is his first, and he says he only bought it a year ago because his wife made him.

"I would just like to call, you know — but she would just text me, so in order to have a conversation I'd have to text her back," he says, but on a tiny non-smartphone's keyboard, "it would take me forever."

For Sanders — as for many smartphone users — what began as a luxury has become an essential part of her life, liberating her from her desktop computer and changing the way she socialized and learned.

"When I got further into my studies, junior, senior year especially, I really needed to have a smartphone to do all the research," she says.

And so in eight years smartphones have gone from a splurge — the original iPhone cost $400-$600, even with a two-year, AT&T-exclusive contract — to a tool 64 percent of Americans have come to rely on.

The smart watch — a mini-computer, connected to the Internet, that sits on your wrist — does not carry the same appeal yet.

Pichotto can't imagine using it, literally.

"I mean I can barely work this phone," he says.

Ngai is confident she could maneuver the tiny screen, but she doesn't want to.

"I don't need it. I know I personally won't need it," she says. "I'm positive. ... for now."

It's that "for now" that smart watch makers are counting on.

The Apple Watch is not the first smart watch on the market, but — given its launch by the biggest company on the planet — it's the loudest. That actually is helping Apple's competitors, including Pebble.

"We saw a very specific spike when the Apple Watch came out," says company founder Eric Migicovsky. "In fact, the rate of sales doubled when the Apple Watch was announced in March."

The purpose of the smart watch — what users actually will do with these devices — is unclear.

Motorola says its Moto 360 is meant to be fashionable first and foremost. Samsung says its Gear S is meant to help with routine activities (when a smartphone isn't nearby), including emails, exercise and turn-by-turn navigation. Migicovsky says Pebble is meant for busy people.

"They don't want to have their whole life locked up, staring down at their phone," he says. "They want to be able to live."

This point really struck me a couple of nights ago, when I was at a concert.

A woman three seats away from me — who had paid good money to be there — kept glimpsing at her phone. Out in the atrium, a guy was flipping through Tinder, the app that lets you geolocate singles nearby. In the old days, he would have just scouted this room for a hookup.

Then there was Mary Anne Shaw: She's been to just three concerts in the last 20 years, but even she was staring at her iPhone.

"I was playing Scrabble with my 93-year-old mother," she said. "That's how we check in every day."

Endearing — or distracting?

The smartphone has created a problem. The smart watch aspires to solve it.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There are two ways to look at this Friday. If you listen to publicity surrounding Apple, today is the start of the next great chapter in the history of innovation.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, Steve. On more practical terms, what's happening today is that some customers are taking delivery of a new watch. Apple is hoping to make it a product that people have to have.

Here is NPR's Aarti Shahani.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: We've asked this kind of question before.

What is the first smartphone you ever owned?

ALEXANDRA SANDERS: I owned a BlackBerry. I forgot what the number was, but it was a BlackBerry. It was a little one from, like, forever ago.

JIMMY PICHOTTO: The one I have now. I just got it, like, a year ago - this one. It's a Nokia.

DESIREE NGAI: It's a Samsung touchscreen. I actually don't remember the model, but...

SHAHANI: But regardless of when Alexandra Sanders, Jimmy Pichotto and Desiree Ngai decided to buy, they all agree, at the time, it was a luxury item. Ngai's smartphone was pink, pretty and kind of dumb.

NGAI: Back then the Internet reception wasn't that great on your phone, so it's actually mainly just to download online games and stuff.

SHAHANI: Pichotto got his against his will. His wife made him.

PICHOTTO: I would just like to call, you know? But she likes - she would just text me. So in order to have a conversation I'd have to text her back, and it'd take me forever.

SHAHANI: Many of us agree the smartphone has become essential. It's liberated us from our desktop computers, changed the way we socialize and learn. Alexandra Sanders...

SANDERS: When I got further into my studies, you know, like junior, senior year especially, I really needed to have a smartphone to do all the research.

SHAHANI: The smartwatch - a minicomputer connected to the Internet that sits on your wrist - does not today carry the same appeal. Pichotto can't imagine using it, literally.

PICHOTTO: I mean, I can barely work this phone. It's like...

SHAHANI: Ngai is confident she could maneuver the tiny screen, but she doesn't want to.

NGAI: I don't need it. I know I personally won't need it.

SHAHANI: You're sure?

NGAI: I think so.

SHAHANI: You're positive?

NGAI: I'm positive for now.

SHAHANI: Smartwatch makers say that'll change. Apple is not the first smartwatch on the market - it's the loudest. And that's helping competitors, like Pebble.

ERIC MIGICOVSKY: We saw a very specific spike when the Apple Watch came out.

SHAHANI: Eric Migicovsky is founder.

MIGICOVSKY: In fact, the rate of sales doubled when the Apple Watch was announced in March.

SHAHANI: The purpose of the smartwatch is unclear. Motorola says its Moto 360 is meant to be fashionable first and foremost. Samsung says its Gear S is meant to help with routine activities when a smartphone isn't nearby, like emails, exercise, turn-by-turn navigation. Migicovsky says Pebble is meant for busy people.

MIGICOVSKY: They don't want to have their whole life locked up, staring down at their phone. They want to be able to live - live your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAHANI: This point really struck me a couple nights back at a concert. The woman three seats over, who paid good money to be here, kept glimpsing at her phone. Out in the atrium, a guy was flipping through Tinder, that app that lets you geo-locate singles nearby. Completely uncivilized, I thought. In the old days, he would have just scouted out this room for a hookup. I also met Mary Anne Shaw. She has been to just three concerts in the last 20 years, and she was staring at her iPhone.

MARY ANNE SHAW: I was playing Scrabble with my 93-year-old mother (laughter), so that's how we check in every day.

SHAHANI: Endearing or distracting? The smartphone has created a problem. We'll see if the smartwatch is the gadget to solve it.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAHANI: Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station