Apple tries to bring watches back in style

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BYU graduate Mike Groberg has worn his Samsung Galaxy Gear smart watch for more than a year. He enjoys being able to receive notifications without pulling out his phone, but that’s not the only reason he purchased a smart watch.

“I thought it would be fun to take secret spy photos and videos,” Groberg said.

Apple plans to launch the Apple Watch spring of 2015. This will be the latest endeavor in the growing industry of wearable technology. (Photo by Apple Inc.)
Apple plans to launch the Apple Watch spring of 2015. This will be the latest endeavor in the growing industry of wearable technology. (Photo by Apple Inc.)

Companies have launched smart watches in the last few years that would make James Bond jealous — even though they don’t feature laser cutters or remote detonators. Still, smart watches have not managed to crack into the mainstream market, so all eyes are on Apple as the company prepares to debut the Apple Watch spring 2015.

The industry

Apple will be the latest to join the wearable technology party. Major companies, such as Samsung, Sony, LG and Motorola, already have smart watches on the market. Google released Android Wear to coordinate wearables with its Android operating system. Even musician Will.i.am is helping develop a new smart watch with its own data plan, called Puls.

“The technology’s fascinating,” said Jeff Jenkins, a BYU information systems professor. “We have everything on our wrist now.”

Revenues from the smart watch market totaled $96 million between October 2013 and June 2014, according to market research company NPD. The wearables industry is growing, but smart watches have yet to become the next iPhone. Many people gave up watches in favor of cell phones to tell time, but Jenkins thinks wearable technology could swing the pendulum back.

“The generation that’s buying technology right now is different than the generation buying technology yesterday,” Jenkins said. “This isn’t just a cool toy; this is a lifestyle change.”

The look

Apple Inc.
Smart watches allow the function and technology of a smart phone to rest conveniently on the wrist. Wearables have not broken into the mainstream market, but some speculate they could one day replace smart phones. (Photo by Apple Inc.)

Companies have been trying to successfully market smart watches for decades, but the devices always looked clunky and gimmicky. With the latest advances in hardware and software, smart watches can be smaller while performing more functions than ever.

“To wear technology five years ago would’ve been to have something really heavy on you, like strapping on an iPad,” said James Gaskin, an information systems professor at BYU.

Today’s smart watches look hip without being too showy or conspicuous. Apple, in particular, has created an aesthetic-conscious design. The Apple Watch features a high-definition sapphire Retina display and custom alloys of stainless steel, aluminum and gold.

“The No. 1 thing we’ve seen through our research is that people care about what their watch looks like,” said the co-founder of traditional watch company Mnmlst and a BYU graduate, Blake Wheeler. “Most people don’t wear a watch to tell time anymore. They wear a watch to look good. It’s an accessory.”

Among many other features, the Apple Watch allows its users to make calls, track their fitness, pay for items right from their wrists and chat with Siri. But the company is looking to create a watch that’s not only intelligent but also looks good. Bottom line: this isn’t your grandpa’s watch.

The challenges

The hefty costs of a smart watch can cause potential buyers to balk. Prices range anywhere from the Pebble’s $99 plastic watch to the Apple Watch’s starting price of $349. Most watches still require a smartphone to sync with as well. Consumers may wait for prices to dip and features to improve before embracing wearable technology.

Another problem with smart watches lies in their intrusiveness. Although people take their cell phones those devices can be tucked into pockets and out of sight.

“With Apple Watch, we’ve developed multiple technologies and an entirely new interface specifically for a device that’s designed to be worn,” said Apple’s senior vice president of design, Jonathan Ive, in a press release. “It blurs the boundary between physical object and user interface.”

Wearables breach the wall between technology and the body, inviting high-tech devices to nuzzle right up to users and become a part of them. The Apple Watch quietly collects an incredible amount of data each second, tracking movement, monitoring heart rate and even learning from behavior. It’s an extremely personal device. However, it raises the question — with technology, how close is too close?

The future

Wearable technology is a relatively new realm, and it’s hard to predict what the future will bring. Early purchasers of smart watches love them.

“It’s a cool way to extend the capabilities of my phone,” said BYU sophomore and Pebble watch owner Christian Tietjen. “I really enjoy people’s reactions to my watch when I show them what it can do.”

Other students remain skeptical about the likelihood of wearables as the newest trend.

“Smart watches are almost more a vanity gadget than anything practical,” said BYU senior Braden Smith. “I’m not sure if they will actually take off or not. Tech companies certainly seem to think that they will, but that’s what we thought about segways a decade ago.”

The smart watch has the potential of one day replacing the smartphone if Apple succeeds in convincing consumers they can’t live without one, as it did with the iPod. UBS financial services analysts predict Apple will sell 24 million watches within nine months of availability, but only time will tell if wearables will become an indispensable part of everyday life.

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