The Apple Watch Isn't A Watch, It’s An iPhone Sales Engine

The biggest news about Apple's Watch today may be how many iPhones it's going to sell.

Let's get this out of the way up front: Apple Watch is not a watch. It may well be, as Apple CEO Tim Cook says, "the most advanced timepiece ever created." But "watch" is a misnomer, a branding sleight of hand.

The Apple Watch is not a watch in the same way that the iPhone was not a phone — or at least not what we knew to be a phone at the time. "Watch" is not the device's primary functionality, just as "phone" was not the iPhone's primary functionality. iPhone was an honest-to-god computer in your pocket — and Apple Watch is an honest-to-god iPhone on your wrist.

But there's a big caveat: It's an iPhone on your wrist that requires yet another iPhone in your pocket.

The Apple Watch is really an extension of the iPhone and one that Apple believes increases the value proposition of the main device — along with a rapidly expanding mobile computing experience that now includes payments, health data, and, crucially, authentication.

Onstage at Monday's event, Cook touted Apple Watch as "the most personal device Apple's ever created" — a line he also used at the September 2014 event when the device was first uncrated. But Monday, he repeatedly described Apple Watch as "a rich and integral part of your life."

Vintage Apple hyperbole, to be sure, but it speaks to the company's vision of the device, which — in a conga line of use cases — was shown paying for groceries, checking sports scores, calling an Uber, checking in for a flight, opening the door to a hotel room, and remotely opening a garage door for a daughter who'd lost her house key.

In doing this, Apple told consumers for the first time why they might want an Apple Watch. The device is your phone. It's your boarding pass. It's your credit card. It's your keys. It's your garage door opener. By tracking health and fitness data, "it's a coach on your wrist." With Siri integration, it's an easy way to get answers to simple questions or to set reminders. (Frankly, it may be the single most compelling use-case for Siri we've yet seen.) It's an automation solution for the so-called internet of things. And it's an authentication solution for mobile payments and identity.

But to be all these things, to serve all these purposes, Apple Watch needs an iPhone.

In fact, it's largely pointless to buy an Apple Watch if you don't already own an iPhone or intend to. Tentpole functionalities like payment and authentication are iPhone-dependent. In order to pay for your groceries by simply raising your wrist near your grocer's payment system, you must first pair an Apple Watch with an Apple Pay-enabled iPhone via Touch ID fingerprint authentication. Using the device to enter a hotel room will presumably require a similar watch-on-wrist/phone-in-pocket authentication process.

And, unless I'm misunderstanding Apple's messaging, more basic functionalities are iPhone-dependent as well. In order to browse Apple Watch apps and download them, you must do so on an iPhone. Setting up notifications requires an iPhone as well. As Cook said, "Apple Watch has been designed to work with iPhone."

And that's where Apple's larger strategic vision for Apple Watch comes clear. Fine, the Apple Watch may well "empower and enrich" the lives of those who wear it. As I said, the use-cases on parade today were compelling, and I haven't even touched on the possibilities hinted at by the debut of the associated health diagnostic platform ResearchKit. But it's also going to power iPhone sales. It's going to push veteran iPhone users to upgrade to new iPhones and it's going to give folks on rival mobile platforms one more reason to switch. Apple Watch's pricey Edition models may even extend the iPhone's appeal to a new stratum of user that views luxury as a feature. It's no coincidence that Apple Watch made the cover of Vogue China, or that we're starting to hear lots about Apple's transition to a luxury brand.

In other words, if it succeeds at market, the Apple Watch will become a new engine for iPhone growth. And that's a big deal as the smartphone market becomes increasingly saturated. Just ask Samsung.

If the Apple Watch does all that it promises to — if it's unobtrusive and it simplifies access to key categories of information and identity — it may well become as indispensable as the smartphone is today, setting Apple up to define another massive shift in computing — for those aware of it, and for consumers with no idea it's headed their way.

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