The Best Time to Jump the Gun

The most compelling reasons to own a smartwatch are years away.
Here’s why Apple didn’t wait.

If you want a sound, bullish case for the success of the Apple Watch, look no further than Ben Thompson’s piece, “How Apple Will Make the Wearable Market.” In it Thompson outlines a “world as it might be,” where the Apple Watch removes all the little frictions in life: it unlocks your car, pays for your latte, orders dinner before you get to the restaurant and turns on the lights when you get home. It’s like Disney’s Magic Band, except for the entire world.

I like this view; it’s an incredibly compelling use-case and Apple’s shown hints of it already. But the Apple Watch isn’t going to be able to do these things on day one, and that’s what’s interesting. Conventional wisdom is Apple’s never the early-mover — they wait until all of the pieces are in place (especially the ones out of their control) before releasing a product that ties them all together. But if Ben Thompson is right, and Apple shares his view of the future of the Watch, then they’re way early to the party.

So the obvious question is: why now?

The Conventional Wisdom

Let’s pick apart that conventional wisdom and see if it really holds up. The classic case is the iPod.

The iPod was nowhere near the first MP3 player. Apple let others do the dirty work of introducing consumers to the idea of storing their music digitally. They knew a portable music player that could only store fifty songs wasn’t compelling. Apple waited until the technology had caught up to the vision, then pounced — and dominated the category.

The iPhone’s (arguably) another example. But most recent is Apple Pay. Apple’s payment solution relies on the same NFC technology that both Google and cellular carriers bet on years ago. NFC is a classic chicken-or-the-egg problem: there’s no reason for merchants to add NFC readers before customers can use them, but customers won’t use them until they’re ubiquitous. It’s taken years for NFC readers to trickle out into the world — years in which Google Wallet was basically useless. Apple waited. And because they waited, Apple Pay was useful and compelling on day one.

I don’t say this often, but in this case I think the conventional wisdom is right. Apple doesn’t want to be the early mover. That doesn’t mean they want to be late, either: Apple waits until the world is primed for a new product category, and then they pounce.

Except, it seems, with the Watch.

Why Now for the Watch?

The world’s not ready for a universal Disney Magic Band. Restaurants aren’t ready to receive an order from your watch. Cars aren’t ready to unlock with a wave of your wrist. Lights aren’t ready to switch on when you get home.

Much of that technology exists, but none of it is universal. And it’s not something that Apple’s likely to build itself — even if it were, it’d take years. If Apple’s ultimate vision of the Watch lines up with Ben Thompson’s, they’re early to the party. Worse, they’re relying on other companies to play catch up.

So what’s different about the Watch that’s convinced Apple to launch it before all the pieces are in place?

Right now Apple’s brand is stronger than it’s ever been. I mean the brand, specifically — and the way people feel about it. In 2014, it topped Forbes’ list of the world’s most valuable. Its calculated figure ($124 billion) was an impressive 20% higher than in 2013.

What does a brand that strong buy you? In a recent Reuters poll, 25% of people surveyed were interested in buying an Apple Watch. That compares to only 9% in a similar survey in 2007 — for the first iPhone. Devices sporting Jony Ive’s minimalist look have never been more sought after; they’ve never been more lustworthy.

Which gets to what’s unique about the Watch: its success as a platform depends entirely on whether or not you’ll wear it. That takes more than just building an attractive smartwatch — and I’d argue there are already attractive smartwatches — it means building a brand that people love enough to want to make it part of their identity.

The first hurdle the Apple Watch faces is not proving its usefulness. It’s getting on your wrist. And Apple’s big bet is that they’ve never been in a better position to do just that.