Apple’s Watch event – can the company scale luxury heights?

Tonight, Apple will give us more details on its Apple Watch. Is it really about to enter the luxury market - and what will to do its image amongst existing customers?

Tonight’s Apple event – yes, another one – is an unusual one. We only get one like this a couple of times a decade, when Apple gives us the details of a brand new product line.

Since the rebirth of Apple when Jobs returned to the company in 1996, we’ve seen:

  • The iPod
  • The iPhone
  • The iPad

And now, the Apple Watch.

Given that it’s been over six months since it was announced, we’ve actually know relatively little about it. Six Colors has done a round-up about what we do know about Apple Watch – and it’s not much.

Watching Social Media the Apple way

It’s been a general rule that Apple doesn’t “do” social media for years – although that might be changing, given some recent job ads. However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t use social media – they just create a vacuum into which content appears. In this pre-launch information vacuum some really interesting discussions arise.

The earliest was John Gruber’s predictions back in September that the Apple Watch Edition would be a “collective shit-fit” inducing price – thousands (and possible over $10,000).
Gruber is both informed and thoughtful, as Apple pundits go, and has been playing the prediction game more over the past 48 hours:

 But there is one good reason for last-minute speculation: this is fun. Apple tends to be such a predictable company that we often know the basic gist of what to expect before one of their media events. Not this time.

And that’s the point. Back at the iPad launch, Apple threw us a curveball by launching at a far lower price than people predicted. What could surprise us about today’s announcements?

Gruber’s made his best guess at the pricing line-up, which runs from the announced $349 up to $10,999. Given that the leap from Sport (the cheapest) to the steel version is nearly double the price – I think I’ll be buying the cheapo one (if Gruber is right) and seeing how vital the Watch proves to be in my life.

Where tech and metallurgy meet

It’s easy to forget that Apple in the current era is, in many ways, a design company that specialises in electronics, not an electronics company with a good design team. The recent New Yorker interview with Jony Ive made that clear. And part of what makes the issue of pricing the Apple Watch so hard is that conventional ideas of materials costs go out of the window.

As Dr Drang explored, the “gold” Edition watch is more complex than you might think:

 It’s because Apple’s gold is a metal matrix composite, not a standard alloy. Instead of mixing the gold with silver, copper, or other metals to make it harder, Apple is mixing it with low-density ceramic particles. The ceramic makes Apple’s gold harder and more scratch-resistant—which Tim Cook touted during the September announcement—and it also makes it less dense overall.

This is serious metallurgy territory, not just a design wrapper around a circuit board. And this is why predicting the details of new Apple products is so hard before they’re formally announced – we never know what other disciplines Apple has drawn on to make this product fly.

(It’s also interesting to consider where the metallurgical technology developed for the watch might find expression in other products in the future. Apple is pretty good at taking its learning in one sphere and moving it into other products.)

Where luxury and mass market meet


If anything, though, tonight’s revelations will show us what kind of company Apple will be from now on. While Apple’s products have been arguably premium priced for years, a more nuanced view would be that Apple is uninterested in playing in the cheap end of the market, but would rather target those with an eye to value for money, rather than just value…

That approach has led Apple to create what you might term “affordable luxury” – and pull the general standards of the tech world up with them.

The Apple Watch has the potential to be very different – especially with the Edition. If they’re playing straight to the luxury market, that’s a new Apple. That’s a company that provides a cost differential not based on functionality but on materials. From all we’ve seen, the Edition is the same basic product as the Sport – but wrapped in much fancier materials. That’s not really something we’ve seen from Apple before.

And how will its traditional customers feel about being treated as, in essence, second class citizens to Edition customers? If rumours of special areas of the Apple Store prove true, that stratification of customers will be made manifest.
Some people are hoping that Apple doesn’t walk that path:

Apple’s brand elitism, mass-market alienation, and the uncomfortable issue of an extremely expensive watch that’s completely obsolete in a few years would all be significantly less problematic if the Edition was priced closer to $2,000–3,000.

It’s a nice thought. But Apple has been explicitly recruiting people with a luxury background over recent years. If I were a betting man, I’d go with Gruber’s prediction of a luxury-priced edition. And that really is uncharted territory.

Apple Watch may not just be a gamble in the sense of being the first big post-Jobs product launch, but also being a fundamental shift to the Apple brand. Can the company’s much-vaunted marketing and design approach stretch to accommodate everything from the free-with-contract phone to the $11,000 watch? The coming months will tell us.

Tonight should be a very interesting event indeed.