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Reflections on the Apple Watch

The recent announcement of Apple Watch brought back fond memories. Twenty five years ago, I worked for Titan Watches in India. At the time, it was a young company, seeking to disrupt the watch industry in India. Before Titan entered the market, watches in the Indian market were plain, boring and functional. There was limited choice and a lack of creativity. After all, a watch is an instrument to tell time, isn't it? Not according to Xerxes Desai, the CEO of Titan and a true design genius. Xerxes saw watches very differently. He defined a watch as a “fashion accessory that happens to tell the time”. Titan brought a breathtaking array of attractive designs to the market and swiftly became the market leader in India. To this day, Titan is a leader in its category and has since leveraged its design roots into other lifestyle products like jewelry and eye-wear.

Titan’s success was in significant part rooted in Xerxes’ belief that we were a fashion and lifestyle company. He insisted that everything we did – our retail stores, our kiosks, our packaging, our factory, our salespeople, our corporate headquarters – had to speak the same design language of our products. One time, I found him spending an hour with the landscaper at our factory in Hosur, going over in excruciating detail with him what plants and flowers we would have in the factory. I was puzzled. I gathered up the guts to ask him – “Sir, don’t you have better things to do as the CEO of a large company?” Xerxes smiled and said – “We bring our partners here. We bring dignitaries here. Our employees who make our watches come here every day. How can an ugly factory make beautiful watches?”

Sound familiar? Yes, echoes of Steve Jobs. Which brings me to Apple Watch. I see an interesting parallel to the Titan story in Apple’s approach. Until now, “smart watches” from Samsung, LG and Pebble have essentially been “wearable computers on your wrist”. They were smart as hell, but ugly and clunky for the most part. Genetically, they were computers. Along comes Apple, with a completely different approach. Apple put the “watch” before the “smart”. Like Titan in India, they have built a “fashion accessory that happens to be a wearable computer”. The Apple Watch is genetically a fashionable watch. Yes, it has the guts of a computer and a smartphone. But every design detail screams “WATCH”. The digital crown, the wide array of straps and clasps, the handsome watch faces, and the gold and stainless steel options – they are all closer to Switzerland than to Silicon Valley. Notice they did not call it iWatch – that would have been putting the “i” before the Watch. I think this departure in branding strategy is significant. Make no mistake – Apple is putting fashion before function.

Will this strategy succeed? Time will tell, but it is no slam dunk. There’s a fundamental disconnect between consumer electronics and horology. Electronics is about timeliness. Fine timepieces are timeless. You spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and they become family heirlooms. Can you imagine passing down your smartphone or your smart watch to your kids? Apple itself has been guilty of making products that pretty much self-destruct or become hopelessly obsolete in a year or two. So will we trash our 18 carat gold plated Apple Watch in a year because Watch 2 or Watch 3 just came out? The investment in a Patek Philippe is amortized over multiple lifetimes. The investment in an Apple Watch has to be amortized over a year or two at the most. How can Apple reconcile obsolescence, which is in the DNA of electronics - with timelessness, which is in the DNA of fine watches? Oh, and I don’t need to charge my Rolex twice a day and I don’t need it tethered to an iPhone whose battery also doesn't last through the day.

So lots of questions remain about durability, battery life and cost of ownership. I believe Apple will figure these questions out in a couple of generations of the Apple Watch, so I would wait for the next version or the third generation. Apple also may find greater success in attacking the low end of Swiss timepieces. Swatch should be more worried than Rolex or Patek Philippe. People who buy fine Swiss watches aren't excited by computers that measure their health and alert them to emails. But at lower price points of a few hundred dollars, Apple is a real threat.

I applaud Apple’s attempt to completely redefine the smart watch category. Steve Jobs’ legacy seems to be in very good hands with Tim Cook. I don’t think the Apple Watch will take off immediately, but Apple has shown us yet again how to re-imagine a category and to boldly go in a different design direction. Apple has also shown us how powerful and evocative design can be. For a while, Samsung seemed to have stolen a march over Apple in design innovation. But with the Apple Watch, design innovation is back at Apple. Like Titan in the Indian watch industry or Tesla in the automotive industry, Apple has put design first – a sure way to connect emotionally with customers.

A confession – I own an Android phone and I’m typing this on a Lenovo Windows machine. I don’t have any Apple products although I have used all their products. I returned my iPhone, gave away my Mac Book Pro and donated my iPad to a needy kid in India. But my relationship with Android and Samsung has been an uneasy one. The Apple Watch (the second version!) may well make me jump ship to Cupertino.

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