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Is the underwhelming Apple Watch the end of the company’s diehard cult?

This could be Apple’s biggest test yet.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Hype is a fickle creature. If you fail to live up to it, you look foolish for the whole world to see. And if you do manage to live up to it, people will expect you to work miracles all over again.

Luckily for Apple, living up to hype is what the company does, at least for the last decade or so. This is why when Apple announced the Apple Watch last September, many pundits predicted it would be yet another in a long line of hits for the tech giant, with some forecasting that it could be the company’s most profitable product ever. The most fervent diehards even thought the product would revolutionize the world of smart watches and wearables, the way Apple made tablets and MP3 players household items.

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But all this hype has made it that much more surprising the Apple Watch has not yet proven to be as profitable as so many predicted. While Apple could still turn things around, perhaps what’s hurting the Apple Watch the most is that no one is thrilled by it. The predominant reaction seems to be in the middle: not bad, not great, just “meh.” Of course, some Apple devotees have been typically in awe of it, but when Apple relies so heavily on cult-like devotion, the question becomes: Are a few members of the cult enough? Or is the Apple Watch where they draw the line?

Early on, the biggest critics of the Apple Watch were actually timepiece aficionados. Like all of Apple’s products, it was sleek, to be sure, but there was a lingering question as to whether the look would be accepted by those more accustomed to a traditional watch. As the tech gurus who the watch would naturally appeal to started to weigh in, the initial reactions began to take on a different narrative. Reviewers found it “fresh” and “exciting,” saying that “at first, it was really cool”—but they also called it “confusing,” “clumsy,” and “fussy.” These are not the words you usually associate with the company’s brand.

The predominant reaction seems to be in the middle: not bad, not great, just “meh.”

The Watch’s launch has seen more than its own share of problems, as the device’s censors do not deal well with tattoos. And the rollout of the Apple Watch has been slowed by defects in its tactic engine, which is designed to cause the sensation of being tapped on the wrist. Moreover, for traditional watch people, having to tap the screen to see the time could be a deterrent. The Apple Watch also won’t let you download any apps designed to tell the time, forcing you to rely on the product itself for this key feature. 

Finally, the Apple Watch also varies a lot along the lines of price, providing users with many different options, but only if you have the cash to pay for them.

The biggest question surrounding the Apple Watch, though, is what is its main value? There’s a lot that the watch can do, but what are users really getting when they decide to purchase it? What can it do that your other devices simply cannot? “People don’t ask that about smartphones or tablets anymore,” writes Apple Insider’s Stephen Robles, in what ends up being a mostly favorable review. “They understand the value and probably own one already. But when asking about the Watch, they want to know if there is actually value there.”

Are a few members of the cult enough? Or is the Apple Watch where they draw the line?

The answer to this actually has as much to do with the Apple Watch itself as it does with another product. “To hear Apple tell it, the real promise of the Apple Watch is to help free us from the tyranny of the company’s last paradigm-shifting invention: the iPhone,” writes BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel. As Apple sees it, the Watch is sort of an extension of the iPhone, leaving you less tethered to your mobile device wherever you go. 

This is all well and good, except for some key issues. The iPhone is so beloved right now that it’s hard to imagine ardent users wanting to get that much distance from it, let alone allowing their phone to go the way of the iPod. In fact, the reason the cult of Apple is so strong is because the iPhone has facilitated record-breaking sales.

Furthermore, while the watch is designed to make our lives simpler, it could have the potential to do just the opposite. Warzel spent 48 hours using the product as a substitute for his phone, and what he found wasn’t exactly that his technological world had been streamlined. He notes that third-party apps like Twitter are extremely difficult to use. He said it was slow with certain apps and had trouble refreshing. Unless you’re within 100 feet of your phone, the watch really isn’t good for much except tracking your steps, which you need Apple’s fitness app to do.

As Apple sees it, the Watch is sort of an extension of the iPhone, leaving you less tethered to your mobile device wherever you go. 

And he wonders whether the camera function, which allows you to take photos on your phone through the touch of your watch, could be a potential minefield for trolls looking to take pictures of people at unsuspecting moments by planting their phones in places they shouldn’t be.

The New York TimesFarhad Manjoo had similar problems initially when he let the Apple Watch dictate his life for a week. Although he liked certain elements, like the physical crown designed for scrolling, he found the interface difficult to navigate. And although he didn’t declare it a “notifications nightmare,” like Warzel, he found the notifications to be tricky, depending on what you use them for. To wit, since the Apple Watch doesn’t have a Facebook app yet, it can do little other than to tell you what you’re missing out on—and force you to pull out your phone like you would’ve done anyway.

“Because the watch needs the phone for connectivity, it’s hardly liberating you from that device,” Manjoo writes. “It’s just giving you less of a reason to look at it.” This is helpful if you think you spend too much time looking at your phone, but where does this leave techies who’ve become accustomed to checking their phone on a routine basis? For these users, the Apple Watch is little other than a way to remind themselves to check another device. It creates the illusion of connectivity, without making that connectivity a necessity.

This is a paradox for Apple, whose product line is based around a fully integrated ecosystem. That the Apple Watch doesn’t work with iPhones that predate the 5 model is no surprise; as is always the case, Apple wants you to have another reason to buy its latest product. But if the Apple Watch doesn’t feel like an essential part of the Apple ecosystem, as much as an unnecessary appendage, then it’s going to remain a tough sell even for hardcore Apple cult members, who rely on that ecosystem for everything.  To a certain extent, we’ve already seen this happen with the iPad. Sales have dropped as many have come to the conclusion that while it’s a great device, it’s just another Apple spleen.

“We believe the Apple Watch has huge potential, and very real benefits right now,” asserts Robles at Apple Insider. “But if the decision is to buy a Watch now or wait until the next generation, and you’re not the typical early adopter, maybe you should wait. Or at the very least, buy the cheapest Sport model you can.” As much as Robles liked the product, this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Everyone appears to think that the Apple Watch lacks widespread appeal, but if members of the Apple cult start to have hesitations about buying one, then Apple is in trouble. The Apple Watch doesn’t need mass appeal, necessarily. But the company needs to appeal to its base. And so far, its base looks to be impressed, but not blown away.

It’s just another Apple spleen.

It’s telling that by the end of his week with the Apple Watch, Manjoo had come around to it. Apple’s products are growers, and you can never count them out based on early reactions. The reason Apple is able to sell itself as the underdog—even though it’s not—is because it often takes awhile for the greater impact of the company’s devices to be felt. Right now, the device has as many strengths as it has weaknesses. However, for diehard Apple fans, there should only be one selling point necessary, and that’s that it comes from Apple. 

If that alone stops being enough with the Apple Watch, then the device could be in serious trouble.

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on websites such as Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, Chris enjoys making movies with friends. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Screengrab via jacksfilms/YouTube

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