With Ultra, Apple took a page from its now familiar operating guide on how to extend the appeal of its mobile devices and apply it to its Watch line:
- Step 1: Submit a solid 1.0 but not yet fully realized version.
- Step 2: Refine, Refine, Refine.
- Step Three: Create a “Professional” version.
Ultra is the first truly new Apple Watch to be introduced in 2015, and it fills the “Pro” slot. (I don’t count the SE because basically some of the old parts were remixed to fill the lower price point.) But the Ultra won’t be the last. How do we know that? Apple’s Playbook doesn’t stop at Step 3:
- Step 4: Let some “pro” features go down.
Apple has done it with the iPhone – two cameras for everyone! – And iPad Air – Pencil Support! – But she didn’t do it by the hour. Before Ultra, when every new series was launched, the only thing that distinguished every new model was its materials. In a new market, this type of strategy can work well because there is plenty of wiggle room. But the smartwatch market is new, and Apple needs a more segmented strategy.
Enter Ultra, Apple’s first attempt to segment the market based on features. Some may appreciate its GPS-enhanced or sport-focused features, but the real draw is the slick titanium case, large battery, and international orange action button.
Not all of the Ultra’s new features will hit the market, but I think the action button will. Its usefulness and efficiency is undeniable, as my colleagues Brian and Kirsten discovered in their review. For one thing, athletes love button watches – whether you’re running, cycling, or cross-country skiing, there’s no substitute for a physical interface. Want to start recording playback? You can customize the button to start the running exercise. Then, once you start your workout, you can score a lap with successive pressures.
As developers explore the action button and start creating new apps for it, its appeal outside of endurance games will surely grow. Currently, users cannot customize the secondary action based on the application. But if Brian and Kirsten get their wish, that could change.
Apple has worked hard to build the watch’s fitness credentials, so this may be the first ultra-aluminum model with a movement button, as stainless steel is too heavy for a sports watch. The case will be reworked to distinguish it from both the regular and Ultra Apple Watches. It’s as slim as the Timex Ironman to Ultra’s G-Shock. The extra volume gives the new model an advantage in battery life over conventional models. After all, Apple has improved the Ultra’s battery life quite a bit – a larger battery can cram into its larger case (49mm vs. 45mm).
Big hours aren’t for everyone, of course. This is why the smaller 41mm (40mm on the SE) is still around. But for outdoor fitness enthusiasts, larger watches are becoming popular because they allow for more sensors, brighter screens, and a battery that lasts for days, trade-offs that many owners of smaller wrists accept.
Together, the new features will give the Apple Watch range another boost. Ultra stole the show this year, with nice but expected updates for Sirius 8 (and iPhone 14). The new feature-packed Apple Watch will attract great interest and sales.
With these changes, perhaps Apple will bring back the “Sports” moniker, the previous name for the original aluminum Apple Watch. In the world of watches, history matters, and after seven years on the market, the Apple Watch finally has some. This fits with Apple’s current naming conventions, which are straightforward and express product qualities. “Air” is thin and light, “Pro” is fast and passionate, “Ultra” is serious. “Sport” means sport, and it looks good with an aluminum model designed for athletes.
These athletes are not necessarily the same people Ultra offers. They run half marathons instead of full marathons and tackle day hikes instead of hiking. Very appropriate, but not necessarily severe in the games they keep going. They may also want to get some Ultra features at no additional cost. Is Titanium Worth the Premium on Aluminum? For some, yes. But not for the majority.
With the Sport back in the lineup, Apple can continue to sell aluminum and stainless steel models alongside it. Compared to the Ultra and Sport pop-up models, the company may position them as slimmer and sleeker versions. If the action button persists — and I think it will — they’ll eventually get one too, but without the bright highlight color.
Where does that leave the Apple Watch lineup? If we ignore inflation, it looks like this:
- Apple Watch SE – $199 (GPS only), $249 (GPS and cellular)
- Apple Watch (aluminum) – $299 (GPS), $399 (GPS and cellular)
- Apple Watch Sport – $499 (GPS and Cellular)
- Apple Watch (Stainless Steel) – $699 (GPS and Cellular)
- Apple Watch Ultra – $899 (GPS and Cellular)
Apple will keep its Ultra flagship at the top. Its large size and raised edges help it stand out just like iPhone Pro Max. The larger case will give Apple room to experiment with new sensors that may consume a lot of power or take up too much space to work on regular models, at least initially. As the company improves designs and manufacturing processes for these sensors, some of them will also go downhill.
Apple has found a credible guide that it uses to expand its offerings in every market segment in which it competes, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t do the same for the Watch. Now that Apple has figured out how to market the Watch – a fitness device first, a communication device second – it’s in a strong position to expand into new areas in this category. Restoring the sport as an affordable supercar will help capture another segment of the watch market.
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