In 5 years, Apple Watch shifted from indulgence to everyday device

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The Apple Watch has evolved from its first version five years ago.  

Angela Lang/CNET

A $17,000 model. A fitting appointment. A cover spread on Vogue. The Apple Watch was more than a fitness-tracking device when it debuted five years ago. It was a fashion item and status symbol. It was luxury on your wrist. 

Fast forward to 2020, the fifth anniversary of Apple’s smartwatch. Millions of people around the globe wear Apple Watches to remind them to stand during meetings, take time to breathe and get in one last workout for the day. Once a fashion accessory, the Apple Watch is now an essential tool for health and fitness. 

The ubiquity of the Apple Watch doesn’t mean it’s lost its appeal to the fashion-conscious. Last year, the Apple Watch outsold the entire Swiss watch industry by a huge margin, according to Strategy Analytics. Apple shipped an estimated 31 million units in 2019, while all Swiss watch brands combined accounted for 21 million shipments, the research firm said. (Apple doesn’t detail how many watches it sells each year but said it generated $24.5 billion in revenue in its latest fiscal year from its category that includes the Apple Watch and AirPods. That was a 41% jump from fiscal 2018.)

“Swiss companies, like Swatch, are losing the smartwatch wars,” Strategy Analytics said. 

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They aren’t alone. When the Apple watch came out five years ago, every major eBay online shopping company in tech, and a lot of new startups, seemed to be making a watch or fitness band. The list included Samsung, Sony, Fitbit, Pebble, Misfit, Jawbone and various other companies. Some of them, like Samsung, still sell smartwatches, but others, like Pebble, were acquired or have gone out of business. And the Swiss watch brands, some of which are trying to go digital, are struggling to compete. 

“The window for Swiss watch brands to make an impact in smartwatches is closing,” analyst Steven Waltzer said. “Time may be running out for Swatch, Tissot, TAG Heuer and others.”

For Apple, the watch has turned into one of its most successful products, even though the business is nowhere near the size of its hugely popular iPhone. The Apple Watch still requires Apple’s smartphone to run, with limited functionality on its own. And it has more to do when it comes to becoming a standalone health tracker. Still, Apple managed to do what seemed nearly impossible five years ago: find another hit product. 

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High stakes

With Apple’s huge position in smartwatch sales today, it’s easy to forget how it all started. When the company unveiled the first Apple Watch in September 2014, success wasn’t guaranteed. The device wouldn’t reach consumers’ wrists for seven months, which gave nimble rivals time to respond. It wasn’t clear why anyone actually needed a smartwatch, or what a smartwatch would do once people had one.

For Apple CEO Tim Cook, the Apple Watch was a major test. He needed to show that his company could still create lust-worthy, must-have products in new categories without Steve Jobs at the helm. Apple’s last totally new, hit product was 2010’s iPad, which was ushered to market by Jobs before he died the following year. 

When introducing the first Apple Watch, Cook called it a “breakthrough” product and described it as a “comprehensive” health and fitness device, walkie-talkie and remote control for the Apple TV streaming box, among many other capabilities.

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The device is “the most personal device we’ve ever created,” he said at the time. “Because you wear it, we invented new intimate ways to connect and communicate directly from your wrist.”

The first model came with multiple band options, two watch sizes — 42mm or 38mm — and three designs: the aluminum-cased Apple Watch Sport, the stainless-steel-cased Apple Watch and the 18-karat-gold-cased Apple Watch Edition. The aluminum came in silver or space gray options, while the stainless steel came in its namesake color or a space black version. The gold watch was available in 18-karat yellow gold or 18-karat rose gold. 

The entry-level device, the aluminum and glass Apple Watch Sport with plastic band, started at $349. The premium gold Apple Watch Edition started at $10,000 and went as high as $17,000.

To sell the very personal device, Apple tapped former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts. She joined the company as head of retail in April 2014 and quickly got to work transforming the store experience. When it came to the Apple Watch, she drew from her time running a luxury fashion brand. 

In the beginning, you couldn’t walk into a store and buy an Apple Watch like you would an iPhone or iPad. Would-be Apple Watch buyers had to make appointments to see the gadget in Apple stores during the preorder period, and sales were made through a reservation system.