It's been over four years since Tim Cook stood on the stage and added the Apple Watch to the company's growing list of 'One More Thing' announcements. And, just like that, Apple added legitimacy to the smartwatch industry while daring the rest to compete.
The September 2014 announcement built the hype before Apple released the Watch the following April, as punters and analysts speculated whether Apple could transform the wearable category from fad into must-have tech.
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And after four generations, countless updates, partnerships with sport and fashion brands, and various advancements in health, the Apple Watch of today has finally worked out what it wants to be – and, more importantly, where it's going next. Let's round up the key stops along the way, the state of the competition and ponder what the next four years could hold…
A watch has many faces
Like every other smartwatch maker, it hasn't been a straightforward path for Apple.
Take a look at that initial announcement, shown in the video above. Highlights included being able to text and send your heartbeat with Scribble, along with the Micky Mouse watch face and Apple Maps on the wrist. The fitness elements of the Watch weren't given time until 37 minutes into the keynote, with specialised apps and the Digital Crown's functionality taking up most of the room.
It was indicative of a first iteration and the primitive nature of the smartwatch industry, but, crucially, Apple quickly understood what to ditch and what to prioritise.
Midway through the Series 2's lifespan – the first Apple Watch to include GPS – it was becoming clear that fitness was a bigger driver than fancy faces and apps; closing rings became a mission, as software updates encouraged users to get up and move. And after LTE was added through the Series 3, even more adopted the watch as a way to break away from their phone.
In early 2018, the decline of apps came to a head. After initial excitement and emphasis from Apple, the need for standalone apps trickled away – it was clear that the app store for the Watch wasn't going to match its iPhone counterpart. So much so that major names like Instagram, Slack, eBay, Google Maps and Amazon ditched their native apps.
With the focus slowly shifting towards fitness, the Watch's role as a new-age luxury timepiece was also phased out. The Apple Watch Edition – which cost a mind-melting $10,000 in the first generation – was sent to the graveyard, as the stainless steel model became the new face of the smartwatch's higher tier.
As a result, the Apple Watch's fourth generation became the true turning point, and a representation of everything Apple had learnt through earlier iterations. The headline is undoubtedly ECG monitoring, though the design was refined and it continues to peg itself as a formidable workout partner – essentially a fitness-first watch with burgeoning health offerings and some smartwatch features tacked on.
Go on Apple's Watch page now, and you'll see panels tagged 'Proactive Health Monitor', 'Ultimate Workout Partner' and 'Comprehensive Activity Tracker' front and centre. That's mighty different to how they would have looked in 2014, though perhaps not as much as they will in 2023.
Watch the throne
While the Apple Watch is a great example of self-improvement, it's also been a beneficiary of lacklustre rivals. It was a fairly late arrival to the smartwatch space, but once it came it was essentially filling an abdicated throne.
It's a very different situation to the smart home, say, where Apple arrived similarly late but has so far struggled to muster the influence of the early jumpers, Amazon and Google.
So, can it continue to give Google, Samsung and Fitbit a stiff arm? Well, the latest figures would suggest it can, with the Apple Watch Q1 2019 performance showing a 50% growth in revenue (its best non-holidays quarter of all time), with 75% of those sales made up of first-time users.
Wear OS, in contrast to watchOS, has been neglected by Google – and is a victim of sticking with tired themes, like standalone apps, for too long. Whether it can repair its image through the long-rumoured Pixel Watch, and whether it truly values the platform, isn't yet clear, and Fitbit and Samsung remain more worthy adversaries to Apple.
Since Fitbit joined the space in 2017, it's enjoyed mixed success – however, it already bests the Apple Watch in key areas, such as sleep tracking, battery life and price. Samsung, meanwhile, will always have a loyal following, thanks to its Android smartphone support.
At present, it feels like the rest of the industry is always one generation behind, with Apple beginning its conquest of health, for example, while others are still trying to convincingly roll out LTE or add a GPS sensor that doesn't take 45 seconds to lock on.
The next four years…
So, what comes next? Well, much like our Apple Watch Series 5 predictions, let's make four speculative picks for what we could see over the next four years:
1. Big battery life
The most immediate challenge facing the Apple Watch is its limited battery life, which has remained at around 18 hours since launching. With Fitbit and Samsung both delivering long-life watches in their recent iterations, the pressure is now on Apple to do the same, and bring Apple Watch sleep tracking along with it.
2. Another health mission
The Apple Watch Series 4 and its ECG capabilities has already helped many users discover serious health conditions, and we'd bet the farm Apple is already planning how to build even more health-focused features and sensors into the Watch. Could it be epilepsy tracking, screening for another heart condition or something else altogether? Whatever it is, we expect it to arrive in the next couple of years.
3. Smarter accessories
Apple's health ambitions could merge with smarter accessories, such as bands that help track health conditions. Imagine, a watch band that could double up as a blood pressure monitor. And even if it wasn't used in a health capacity, we've seen countless patent filings suggest that the company, like others, is exploring displaying information through the band. It feels distant right now, but it's something we wouldn't be surprised to see Apple pursue over the next four years.
4. Support for Android
As the earnings show, Apple Watch is doing just fine by excluding Android users from the party. However, as the AirPods' success has proved, making something compatible with every smartphone on the planet could see the Watch take an even bigger leap ahead of its rivals. We're not necessarily expecting this one to come soon (although Apple has been more inclusive under Tim Cook), but you never know what the future might bring.
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