Apple Watch Part I: Try to Buy
I wanted to be rational about the Apple Watch.
Although Apple’s next big thing (and its first piece of wearable tech) won’t be available until April 24, the company launched online pre-orders last night, and made “try-on appointments” available today. I told myself I would see the Apple Watch in person before committing to buying one.
Try Before You Buy… Not!
While I was but one geek among millions waiting for Apple’s online store to come back online, I resolved to go straight for the appointment calendar rather than hitting the “Buy Now” button.
When the floodgates opened at the very reasonable hour of 9 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time (midnight in California, or 3 a.m. on the East Coast), I got in quickly via the Apple Store iOS app, which regularly gets a head start over the website. I nabbed the first reservation slot at the Apple Store at Ala Moana Center, and imagined myself going to the mall, grabbing some coffee, strolling into the store to fondle some smartwatches, then place my order.
Then my email confirmation arrived, with this Q&A tacked at the end:
Can I buy my favorite Apple Watch during my try-on appointment? Apple Watch is available exclusively online. Your Specialist will help you buy online and get free shipping.
It turns out that orders placed after try-on appointments were going to be put in the same virtual line as online pre-orders. And a quick check of my Twitter stream showed that line was already getting longer. By 9:05 p.m., someone mentioned that the estimated delivery date for the gray Apple Watch Sport had already slipped from April 24 to “4 to 6 weeks.”
I quickly jumped back into the app, and this time headed to the online store. After a distressingly small number of clicks, I had nabbed my planned-ahead watch-and-band combination: the 42mm silver Apple Watch Sport with green “fluoroelastomer” band.
My confirmation read, “Delivers: 4/24-5/8.” Not quite as reassuring as a hard date, but as people started reporting shipping dates in June (less than 15 minutes after pre-orders began), I considered myself fortunate.
A Quiet Queue. Too Quiet.
On Tuesday, new head of Apple retail Angela Ahrendts declared, “The days of waiting in line and crossing fingers for a product are over for our customers.” I decided to take her at her word. Instead of rolling out of bed at 4 a.m. and arriving at the mall before dawn, my wife and I just drove into town as usual, and after dropping her off at work, I headed to Ala Moana Center.
The sun was up, cars were already filling the parking lot, and a part of me wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake. I imagined turning the corner and seeing a line snaking from the Apple Store all the way around the end of the mall, like I’d see at every Apple launch.
Instead, the only thing standing in front of the Apple Store were those trusty crowd-control stanchions, and a singing, dancing window washer.
As a perennial Apple Store launch attendee, it was very surreal. Where were the dozens of Apple fans who were crazier than me and showed up in the middle of the night? Where were the bleary eyes, the cups of coffee, the mix of gadgets and cables? Where were my people?
As I stood there, surely looking lonely and pathetic, a man walked by and said aloud to nobody but probably me, “Guess no one wants that watch, huh?”
My phone buzzed. My friend, fellow geek, and tech blogger Wayne Akiyama had, at that very moment, posted that the Apple Watch had sold out. It was a fun bit of breaking news, but this quiet morning, there was no one to share it with.
It was only some time later that someone else came by and lingered near the store. It was a man who said he’d bought the stainless steel Apple Watch for his son as a graduation present. I asked if he’d ordered one online, since they were now all out of stock. “I did,” he said. “But it’s not coming until July.”
After grabbing some coffee and doing some work at a nearby Starbucks, I returned to the store to find maybe a dozen people gathered outside. Inside the store, a massive number of employees were preparing for the launch. I had a try-on appointment, as did my friends Burt Lum and Greg Yamane, and so did a few others. But even people who just walked up by chance were able to get a slot on the schedule as well.
Of course, finding out that nobody would be able to go home with an Apple Watch today dampened the spirits of a few of them.
Soon enough, there was the cheering, the clapping, the opening of the doors, and the triumphant entrance of shakas and high fives. The first customers each followed their Apple Watch guide to a table, and the “try-on appointment” began.
The Touch of a Salesperson
Apple has described the Apple Watch as its “most personal product,” and often refers to it as an “intimate” device. I thought this was the usual Apple hyperbole, but as soon as the demonstration began, I realized they were telling the truth.
As much as I love hanging out at the Apple Store, and as much as I like the Apple Store employees I see there, it was a completely different experience to have one of them touching me, holding my arm, strapping on the Apple Watch, showing me its features while it was on my wrist. I was instantly aware of the specific training the employees received in how to interact with customers well inside their zone of “personal space.”
There was a lot of asking permission, a lot of warm language and questions, and a lot of cleaning. Wiping off fingerprints, wiping off any thing that touched skin, wiping the special mat on the special table that turned the normally sterile wooden tabletop into something a little more welcoming.
It was diving into a whole new level of sales for retail employees who probably thought the most contact they’d have with customers is in taking their credit cards. I had to give them credit for stepping up, though I had to wonder how wide a range of comfort level there was across the entire company.
Look and Touch, A Little
The other unexpected thing about the “try-on appointment” experience was how access to Apple Watch models was so carefully controlled. Media leaks had shown us the special glass-topped tables that would serve as the main displays for the Apple Watch, and since these displays would include all the different models, I wasn’t surprised to see a strong security presence around them.
But even when you’re pulled aside for a personal demonstration, Apple Watches aren’t just handed around willy-nilly.
The main demonstration tool is a special box with ten slots for ten Apple Watches, each slot with its own charger (and the box itself featuring an internal battery). There are a number of combinations of watch models and wrist straps are in each box, but not every combination (as there are 54 possible variations). It seemed like the greatest hits were included, but in my case there was no green band. It’s probably not going to be a best seller.
(By the way, I’m mystified to see that none of the Apple Stores in Hawaii will carry the top-end Apple Watch Edition. I’ve seen Asian tourists walk in and drop five figures in cash on an armload of Apple gear.)
The watches in this box seemed to be merely demonstration models. And by that I mean, it didn’t look like they were fully functional production models of the Apple Watch. Some functions appeared to be available, but most of the time they were set up to run through a canned walk-through of different screens.
Only later did I realize that this made sense: a real Apple Watch needs to be paired with an iPhone, and they weren’t about to try to untangle that mess ten watches at a time.
There was, however, a second demonstration device. An Apple Watch affixed to a display that was most certainly an iPad. This wasn’t a real-life Apple Watch pairing either, though. Instead, the large display was linked to the Apple Watch to provide additional context and information for everything that was happening on the watch. When the Messages app was launched on the Apple Watch, the screen explained some of the things the app could do. My Apple guide could show me how to draw flowers on screen, but could only send it to a stock-photo contact.
It was clear that the “try-on appointment,” at least at this early date, was as much about the tangible qualities of the Apple Watch as it was the features. Even I found myself thinking more about how the different watches and bands looked and felt than what the watch could do.
Part of me wished I could really get some quality time with a real Apple Watch, and I have to think that will be available eventually. But from the early reviews of the Apple Watch, it seems like Apple is going to be working on the software right up until the very last minute.
Next: Apple Watch Impressions + Video
I’ve written more than 1,500 words that only cover the lead up to my hands-on time with the Apple Watch. So I’ll save my impressions of the device itself for a shorter post tomorrow. I’ll also share a video that I’ve put together recapping my experience.
In the mean time, you can check out my full gallery of photos from this morning’s Apple Watch launch at the Apple Store at Ala Moana Center: