Watch out: what lies ahead for the wrist

I had never seen Apple as patron to the proletariat. But from the disproportionate noise resulting from the Apple Watch Edition, you might have thought that the massively profitable business was some sort of fair trade co-op.

Look back a little and it is plain that Apple has long offered products that only the well-heeled could afford. The first decently-specified Mac II cost over $5000 in 1987. My all-time favourite Mac, the IIfx, cost over $10,000 in 1990. And today you can readily spend over £10,000 on a Mac Pro.

Apple Watch Sport, Watch Edition, and Watch: which did you choose? Photo courtesy of and © Apple.
Apple Watch Sport, Watch Edition, and Watch: which did you choose? Photo courtesy of and © Apple.

The difference between those and its Watch range is, of course, that the electronics inside a £13,500 Edition model are identical to those which lesser mortals get in their basic Sport for a mere £299. So the retail ‘worth’ of the inside of a Watch, irrespective of the total cost of the package, is little more than £200. The range of retail cost of the strap and case is thus very wide: from less than £100 to over £13,000. And that is what seems to be troubling some people.

The Apple Watch is a unique product in many ways, but one of the most remarkable is that it reverses the usual balance: a relatively cheap but quickly outdated high-tech mechanism is encased in an expensive but long-lasting box. Buy a Patek Philippe or Rolex watch, and every last pawl and bearing is costly, and built to endure several lifetimes.

How Apple addresses that is a conundrum, one which is even more conundrical when you consider the future. If Apple Watch 2 becomes available in about 18 months time, will Watch 1 be upgradeable?

Others have already spotted this, but what seems to have passed without comment is that Apple already knows, at least in principle, whether hardware upgrades will be possible.

Watch 1 has been in development for some years. The heart of Watch 2, its ‘system on a chip’ (SOC) will already be advancing to final prototype. The key question, whether the next SOC builds up into an assembly which is compatible with Watch 1 cases, will already have been specified. If upgrading is physically possible, there is still no guarantee that Apple will offer it: that final policy will be determined by market research and corporate strategy.

Of course Apple would not dream of committing itself to any policy over upgrades (if possible) or trade-ins until the announcement of Watch 2. Indeed if Watch 1 is not as successful as anticipated, Watch 2 could change or even be cancelled altogether: remember the Newton ‘Personal Digital Assistant’ and Pippin.

These are uncharted waters, not just for Apple, but for consumer products in general. It will be fascinating to see those decisions, and whether they do work out for the best.

What does strike me is that far from Apple Watch Edition products being divisive or offensive, they are the greatest social levellers I have seen. It is heartening to know that those prepared to plump the cost of a very nice new car will get exactly the same functional specification and features that the rest of us get for a small fraction of that cost.

It’s a bit like every Mac shipping with the same 12-core CPU and 27 inch display, but their prices ranging from £3,000 to £135,000 according to the colour of the case – a business model which would have been quite unconscionable before.

Now we can see, touch, wear, play with, and pre-order the Apple Watch 1, anticipation and speculation are building into real excitement. Played right, I think we should be in for a lot more excitement in the future.