Rich people regularly spend thousands of dollars—sometimes tens of thousands of dollars, or more—on fancy watches. For their "investment" they get classic timepieces expected to function as well as the day they there were made for generations. In some cases, these luxury devices become family heirlooms and collectors items, worth even more than they were when they were brand new. New versions of these watches come along fairly rarely, and may sport design changes, but are unlikely to perform significantly better than the ones they replace. Watches—the regular kind, anyway—are a very mature market.
Smartwatches, not so much.
Apple today announced that prices for its new Apple Watch Edition in 18K gold will top out at a whopping $10,000, putting it in a league with legendary timepieces from companies like Tag Heuer, Rolex, and Breitling.
It had better get better than this
That's fine, except for one thing — the Apple Watch is a first-generation device. Everything about it—from the hardware to the software to the functionality—is brand new and completely untested in the real world. Apple didn't say how often it plans to upgrade its watch, but the company refreshes most the other products it sells every year or so… at least. It tends to change the hardware form factor for the iPhone every two years.
Millions of people—including me—are eager to spend hundreds of dollars every couple years to upgrade their phones to get these new designs and functions. In the United States at least, much of that cost is subsidized by their wireless carriers, masking the true cost of the upgrades. And as far as I know, no one is asking smartphone users to spend thousands of dollars for the same privilege.
Now, I can see spending $350 on a smartwatch every couple years. It's not cheap, but at that price, you can convince yourself you're buying functionality that should be replaced and upgraded when something better comes along.
But it's hard to imagine very many people spending more than $1,000 (the top price of the steel model Apple Watch) on a smartwatch—or any tech gadget—that will quickly be reduced to a piece of prematurely antique jewelry. I guess some of the people who can afford this kind of device will be able to afford more than one, but even if money is no object, they'll still realize that this is a huge amount of cash to be devoting to their wrist.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution: modular, replaceable guts.
Basically, the fancy gold cases that account for the biggest chunk of the cost must be reusable. Apple must guarantee that ALL new versions of the Apple Watch will fit into those cases. It's OK if you have to spend a few hundred dollars, or whatever the cost is of a new entry-level Apple Watch, to have the factory upgrade your luxury edition with the latest guts. The longer that guarantee lasts, the better, but 10 years probably isn't long enough. Think 25… or 100… or even for the life of the device. If Tim Cook wants buyers to the think of an Apple Watch the way they think of a Rolex, then it has to match the kind of longevity those devices effortlessly deliver.
Guarantees and design challenges
Sure, that kind of guarantee will constrain Apple's designers in how they develop new watches going forward. But designers famously do some of their best work finding creative solutions to these kinds of limitations. And promising to let Apple Watch owners upgrade their existing models doesn't mean that Apple can offer only models that fit into existing cases, just that Apple must offer a version that does so.
Full disclosure – I'm not going to be buying a solid gold Apple Watch no matter how modular it is or how long Apple promises to support a particular form factor. Like most people, I simply don't have that kind of spare cash laying around, and I don't think it's close to beautiful or elegant enough to deserve fine jewelry status.
But unless the company does something dramatic to address this issue—and I couldn't find anything on this subject in any of coverage of today's announcement—the high-end Apple Watch Edition won't makes sense even to the people who can afford it and like it enough to be tempted to buy one. And that's especially true when regular luxury watches can be "upgraded" with smart bands that deliver many of the functions of the Apple Watch and don't present these obsolescence issues.