- Apple unveils entry into wearable tech with long-anticipated smartwatch
- Analysts say device could catch on in a way other smartwatches haven't
- Apple focused on design, with multiple sizes, styles and colors
- Smartwatches remain "nice to have," not "need to have" -- for now, one analyst says
The long-anticipated Apple smartwatch became a reality this week when the tech giant unveiled its entry into the growing wearable-tech field.
The Apple Watch, which comes in three styles and two sizes with multiple options for colors and wristbands, was expected to energize a market that's been slow to catch on as smartwatches from competitors such as Samsung, Sony, LG and Pebble rolled out over the past two years.
More than just a tiny smartphone, the Apple Watch, which hits the market early next year, packs a ton of watch-specific features. It has a "crown" knob to control scrolling and zoom without having to touch the screen, silent pulse notifications, a slate of health and fitness apps and compatibility with Apple's new Apple Pay app, which lets users scan and pay card-free at participating stores.
But there are also questions.
The company is still mum on many of the device's specifications, including memory, screen resolution and -- most crucially -- battery life. The exact differences between the low-, middle- and high-end watches are also still blurry.
The watch must be tethered to an iPhone -- some observers had hoped for a standalone device -- and its $350 price tag is more than many were expecting.
So did the company do enough to make Apple Watch a breakthrough device that will shake up the gadget market the way its iPod, iPhone and iPad did? Many analysts said they think so.
"The Apple Watch defines the category in ways that other competitors will now have to work furiously to catch up to," said James McQuivey, a tech analyst at Forrester Research. "In classic Apple style, the company has introduced a new interface -- the digital crown along with a tap and touch capable surface -- that will make Apple's watch experience significantly easier to use than anybody else's."
While many competitors have released a single smartwatch, sometimes in designs that have been panned for being bulky and unfashionable, Apple's trademark attention to design could make a difference, said Carolina Milanesi, chief researcher at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech.
That's true, she said, even if the features Apple showcased won't come close to making a smartphone unnecessary.
"I do think smartwatches are still a nice-to-have versus a must-have -- more a convenience than a necessity, which is why appealing more from a style perspective might win more users in the short term," she said.
Whether that pushes competitors in the same direction remains to be seen.
"Longer term I think we need to wait and see," Milanesi said. "I am not sure we are totally clear as to what the true role of these wearable devices really is, especially as the Internet of Things materializes."
Forrester Research's J.P. Gownder said he's convinced that Apple Watch will push smartwatches into the mainstream in a way that devices running Google's Android Wear haven't managed.
"Apple will legitimize and create the mass-market wearables category," he said.
McQuivey said he doesn't expect the Apple Watch to catch on with consumers as quickly as the iPad, which first introduced most people to the concept of a tablet computer.
He noted how Apple CEO Tim Cook repeatedly referred to the device as a "personal" device and said that could be the key to wide appeal.
From design to health monitoring to the Apple Pay feature, the watch could become a seamless piece of people's day-to-day lives, not a mere novelty, he said.
"As a longtime Pebble watch wearer, I can attest to the number of ways a watch, because of its glanceability and its one-touch efficiency, helps you get things done more quickly than before, causing you to do them even more," he said.
But what about the people who just don't wear watches, or those who have found, in a smartphone, a suitable replacement?
Milanesi said there's a chance that even those consumers will come on board. After all, who thought they wanted a tablet computer before Apple showcased the iPad?
"There are users that never wore a watch who happily spent money on a fitness band, so I do not see why not," Milanesi said. "Is it for everyone? No, of course not. But there is a market out there, especially of Apple users who see the benefits of having multiple Apple devices working together."