Apple Watch hands on review: this feels like a third generation product

When I say the Apple Watch feels like a third generation product, it’s a compliment, but it doesn’t mean what you think it means. Skeptics love to say that Apple doesn’t get its new products right until the third generation. They’re being sophomoric, but they have a point – though they’re off a by a number. When Apple launches a new kind of product, it typically blows away the existing products in that class, but it doesn’t become a fully realized product until down the road. The iPhone as we now know it, in terms of interface and software features, didn’t really become the iPhone until the fourth generation. The classic iPod as we all remember it, the one with the click wheel, didn’t come about until – you guessed it – the fourth generation.

Sometimes there are shortcuts. The iPad was launched as a giant iPhone without a phone, meaning that it was similar to the fourth generation iPhone from day one. But the iPad didn’t truly become the iPad until the apps evolved to make better use of the larger screen, and that arguably happened around the fourth generation. I could dig deeper into other Apple product lines, but you get the idea.

When a new Apple product is being developed, the next generation is already being storyboarded in the background with software features that aren’t close to being ready yet, or will require more powerful hardware than exists yet. Whether Apple maps out the first four generations of its products by design, or whether that’s simply how long it takes for things to naturally come full circle, well, that’s a question for someone on the inside. But the Apple Watch feels like a significant break in that pattern.

Part of it is because Apple is a bit late to the game. I got my first smartwatch three years ago, and while it wasn’t any good, the potential it showed me was enough for me to grasp that smartwatches were going to eventually be a major market and one which Apple would have to participate in. Then again, the Apple Watch was already secretly in development at least a year before that.

In other words, Apple took its sweet time. It could have released a first generation Watch, I believe, as early as 2013. Instead it opted to hold back until it felt the product was far enough along to skip all those early-generation limitations, and instead wait until it could swing for the fences. It’s a nice luxury to have, being such a rich company that it can throw away a couple years of revenue just to make sure the first Apple Watch is launches is already home run material. But what a clever gambit if it works, particularly with competitors having been able to do so little in the smartwatch space during Apple’s absence.

And I think that’s what happened here. The first generation Apple Watch feels like a third generation Apple product, because I suspect it is one; the first two figurative generations simply weren’t released.

Now the question becomes whether Apple can elevate the Watch to that mythical fourth generation complete product status simply through software. What’s unique about this product is that in terms of specs, it only has one hardware configuration. There aren’t varying speeds of processors or multiple storage capacities, because based on its nature of being an iPhone extender, there would be no advantage to such specs.

That means there’s no reason to wait for the second generation of hardware. I can’t see Apple doing much beyond offering new colors or external styling to try to lure in repeat buyers based on fashion alone. This product will evolve based almost entirely on its software interface, and that’s something Apple can update as often as it wants.

This is where I believe the mere existence of the $10,000 model for the wealthy ends up benefiting all users. The last thing Apple wants to do is have its most influential deep-pocket customers complaining loudly about owning a ten thousand dollar product that’s obsolete after a year or two. So I suspect over the next few years, the software updates will add any new features and revisions to all generations equally. And that’ll be as true for the $399 first generation Watch as it will be for the 18k gold first generation watch. When the Watch hardware does fundamentally evolve, it’ll come in the form of gaining enough power to eventually leave the iPhone out of the equation entirely – but that day won’t come for years, and those deciding whether to buy the Watch now don’t have to worry about it yet.

So now we get to wait and see if, over the next year, the Apple Watch evolves into a complete fourth generation product while it’s still in its first generation of hardware. At this point Apple isn’t competing against other companies, or against its own ability to get people to keep buying a new Watch each year. The real battle is to sell the public on the idea that the smartwatch is the next vital product so it can create mainstream market that doesn’t yet exist, and cash in on selling limitless customers their first ever smartwatch. Hence the strategy of waiting and launching a thoroughly fleshed out product from day one – and now it becomes equally vital to round out the rest of the product experience while people are still forming their opinions of it.

Unfortunately for Apple, it’s made a mess of taking preorders for inventory that didn’t appear to have existed at the time, shipping them to customers in seemingly the wrong order, failing to communicate with its earliest adopters as they waited in confusion, and so on. The complaints have been loud, and the ramifications are unclear. But now Apple gets another chance as it prepares to launch the Watch to the general public next month.

The unique selling point here is that there’s no penalty for buying the first model instead of waiting. It’s arguably the most refined first generation product Apple has ever launched, and it’s probable that any remaining pieces will arrive for free in the form of software updates before long. So if customers think they may ever be interested in the Apple Watch, they might as well go ahead and buy one now.

The tricky part for Apple will be figuring out how to convey the message that for once there’s almost no reason to wait until the third or fourth generation, without having to say it in those words.

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