Why Did the Apple Watch Lose Its Health-Tracking Functions?

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 Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported two momentous facts related to the Apple Watch. The Watch won’t track its wearer’s blood pressure or other health-related metrics despite the company’s flirtation with state-of-the-art tracking sensors (that it now won’t include). That would seem to be a major blow to the imminent smart watch, eliminating perhaps its most compelling feature.

And yet, that same WSJ story claims that Apple is building as many as 5 million smart watches for its first quarter (the Apple Watch goes on sale in April). With the absence of one of its most widely-touted and exciting features, will the Apple Watch really sell so well?

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It’s estimated that a total of 4.6 million wearables were sold last year. But most of those units weren’t full-fledged smart watches, but fitness trackers of some kind. The range of models that run Google’s Android Wear operating system hit 720,000, while Pebble, whose wildly successful 2012 Kickstarter campaign is widely credited with launching the smart watch trend, sold around a million. 

In other words, Apple not only expects to sell at least three times as many watches as all of its competitors last year combined, but to do that in a single quarter — and without any of the novel health-monitoring functionality it promised. We’re not here to predict whether the Apple Watch will or won’t live up to Cupertino’s reported expectations, but if it even comes close, there’s only one explanation: The Apple Watch isn’t a wearable computer that moonlights as jewelry. It’s first and foremost a fashion accessory that broadcasts devotion to all things Apple.

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After all, what is it that the Apple Watch does that’s new, different, or in any way revolutionary? The health-monitoring sensors were genuinely innovative, and seemed like an existential threat to companies such as Basis and Fitbit. Why bother with $150 to $200 dedicated fitness trackers when you can get the same sensing hardware, plus the promise of a vast ecosystem of potentially useful apps? Now that the Apple Watch has lost its most advanced hardware, prospective buyers who are also in the market for a fitness-tracking wearable have to decide whether to pick up two separate wrist-worn gadgets, or else go with the tracker and wait for some future generation of Apple Watch to do double duty. Without health monitoring, the Apple Watch is nothing more or less than another smart watch — and a damn expensive one, at that, coming in at $100 more than Motorola’s Moto 360, and $150 more than the Pebble Steel.

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For the Apple Watch to justify the reported production numbers, it has to be what the iPhone once was: a head-turning, vaguely exclusive status symbol. The difference, however, is that the iPhone was undeniably groundbreaking. It reinvented the smartphone, and revealed the full potential of carrying around a pocket-size computer. The best functions of the Apple Watch, meanwhile, are now mostly ornamental, like the physical knob that lets you zoom in and out without pinching and reverse-pinching on a tiny touchscreen. The Apple Watch, at least in this first, stripped-down iteration, will exist primarily to be seen.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. Engineers and industrial designers have no obligation to only make things that are plainly useful. And if any consumer tech brand can pull off something so bizarre, and so brazen as selling a device that’s almost entirely ornamental, it’s Apple. Fashion often serves the purpose of starting conversations, and the Apple Watch is bound to foster debate. For the right person, $349 (or possibly more, based on your choice of materials) is a bargain for the privilege of being noticed by strangers, and to occasionally hold court about the pros and cons of wearing a thing that even Apple doesn’t seem to know what to do with.