A lot of my techie friends are saying that the entry priced-Apple Watch Sport will be their pick next month, and not because of the exterior look. The theory is that Sport is the cheapest way to experience Apple’s new product category in 2015, and since the second-gen Apple Watch will inevitably be upgraded, why pay a premium this year for nicer materials such as stainless steel and sapphire glass?
Despite the Apple Watch’s desire to marry jewelry with technology, it hasn’t lost the baggage gadgets carry, namely the reality that they’ll be outdated and replaced in a relatively short period of time. If the Apple Watch evolves anything like the original iPad did when it became the iPad 2, the differences could be dramatic.
Personally, when I think about getting more perceived value out of a higher-priced stainless steel Apple Watch rather than testing the waters with the cheaper aluminum model, I’m more concerned with how soon the Apple Watch 2 will be announced rather than how much more functional the newer device could be. No matter what happens with the first-generation model, an Apple Watch 2 will come to market. How will Apple balance keeping the Apple Watch evolutionary momentum going with keeping the first-generation model “modern” for enough time to satisfy early adopters?
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The reality is that anything goes after the current Apple Watch launches on April 24th. Apple’s history of updating products shows that the company never rules out deviating from the typical 12-month product upgrade cycle. The Apple Watch upgrade cycle is history waiting to be written, but some iOS devices (not considering the stagnated iPod touch) have remained at flagship status for more than 16 months, while others were upgraded after just 7 short months.
If an Apple Watch 2 powered by an S2 chip with even more sensors arrives 6 months after the original Apple Watch goes on sale, original Apple Watch owners wouldn’t lose any functionality from the product they only recently bought; there will just be a newer version to decide to buy or not, and a mild dose of frustration for those who didn’t hold out for the second-gen model.
Here are some of the possibilities illustrating how long the original Apple Watch will remain the only Apple Watch:
The Apple Watch could be the next iPad 3, in terms of time spent as the current model (and maybe weight and thickness, if the next-gen watch slims down). The iPad 4 was unveiled just 7 months after the iPad 3, moving the tablet launch month from March to October. While the iPad family benefitted from having a better flagship product, customers who had spent $500+ to have the latest tablet enjoyed a rather short bragging period, even given natural evolution in the tech world.
Measuring the Apple Watch’s lifespan is more complicated for a few reasons: it received an early pre-announcement before launch, and will be sold into a small list of countries at first. Apple originally unveiled the Apple Watch in September 2014, and customers won’t be able to own the device until April 2015. That’s a 7-month span — about the lifespan of the iPad 3 — that you could loosely consider as part of the product’s life cycle. Add 12 months without a hardware update from the time it goes on sale until the next release, and we’re looking at 19 months with the first-gen Watch being the only Apple Watch we know. Calls to innovate would inevitably follow.
With that in mind, it’s not impossible to imagine an Apple Watch 2 update taking place at the end of this year, although I admit I would feel a tad slighted as an Apple Watch 1 customer. Spring 2016 (historically more likely) would satisfy me.
The Apple Watch could be the next iPhone 4. Remember how long it felt between the iPhone 4 unveiling and the highly anticipated iPhone 4S announcement? 16 months in between meant everyone was more than ready for the “iPhone 5” before Apple revealed the iPhone 4S, featuring nearly identical external hardware and an improved camera paired with Siri. If Apple used March 2016 to reveal the next Watch, that would amount to 18 months in between the announcement and successor, but only 11 months between shipping and the next version. Both the second-gen iPhone and second-gen iPad took this approach.
Keep in mind also that the Apple Watch will only be for sale in nine countries next month, with additional markets likely lighting up in the months that follow. These markets will supplement Apple Watch sales, adding new potential customers during a lengthy product cycle similar to the iPhone 4’s Verizon launch in January 2011, and the white iPhone 4’s delayed release in April 2011.
Apple took nearly 6 months between the original iPhone unveiling and the release, then announced the iPhone 3G 12 months later, a month before its release. Similarly, the original iPad was announced 3 months before going on sale, then replaced after 12 months. Again, bear in mind that the Apple Watch has 7 months lead time between announcement and release, longer than either product.
Native Apple Watch apps are coming in 2015. Adding native app support from third-party developers — not just extension-like WatchKit apps — to the Apple Watch will be a big deal on the software side. An SDK for creating such apps is on its way this year. Showing it off in June at WWDC, then letting developers ship in the fall a year after the Apple Watch’s first unveiling, would pad the extended life cycle.
Changing this aspect of the software would “update” the Apple Watch lineup without changing the physical product. Come next spring, a March or April Apple Watch 2 announcement would give original Apple Watch customers adequate time to own Apple’s new device before being asked to consider upgrading to the newer, better version or not.
There’s also chatter that new materials are being considered for the casing of the Apple Watch. From the perspective of someone interested in spending a little more money for nicer materials while hoping a newer version doesn’t surface too soon, I’d still be satisfied with my purchase if a revved Apple Watch lineup added new material options while offering the same internal hardware and features. It’s the promise of new sensors and improved battery life that tempt upgrading.
So what should you make of all this information? For me, this is an exercise in determining the value of paying a premium for materials that deliver nearly the same utility — for $200 more, the sapphire front will be more protective by some factor than the Ion-X glass found on the Sport model. I would be more likely to upgrade from an Apple Watch to an Apple Watch 2 if I only paid the utility price for a Sport model, but investing in a stainless steel first-gen model would make me hold on to my purchase a little while longer than I might otherwise consider with a tech product.
As I mentioned above, other people are considering these issues when deciding which Apple Watch to purchase, even if they’re already sold on the utility of the device. If you knew the Apple Watch 2 was actually 24 months away from being announced, would you consider paying more for a nicer version now?