Apple Watch and the Retail Experience

Lots of criticism going around regarding Apple’s handling of the Watch launch in the Apple Retail stores. Seems many people are unhappy that Apple is forcing everyone to order online, rather than having stock of the watches in the physical stores for day one. “People who brave the lines and come to the Apple store in person should get first priority,” the thinking goes.

I completely understand this criticism. If there’s one thing I can’t stand about modern retail, it’s the tendency to not stock many of the items found on the web site. The whole point of coming into a store instead of just ordering online is to see the products and then walk out of the store with them. I get angry when I go into a store to see what an item looks like in person, only to be told that they don’t keep that particular item in stock at all.

Apple is, at least, stocking display versions of every model of Apple Watch in stores (including the gold Edition collection in some locations). So you can at least see what they look like and feel them in your hands before ordering online. But it’s still a drag to not be able to just buy the thing right there and walk out with it. It’s un-Apple like, to be sure.

Here’s the issue, though: Apple doesn’t have enough Watches. And it probably won’t until late summer. From all indications, there have been millions of preorders already, and the shipping times for most models slipped past the April 24th launch day in minutes.[1] That means there will likely be less than millions of watches ready for the 24th. Maybe even less than hundreds of thousands. Given that there are hundreds of Apple stores to stock (even just counting the initial launch countries) how does Apple keep enough stock in each store to satisfy what would have been crazy long lines, all while not knowing which models they would need in each store?

When it comes to iPhones or iPads, Apple has past data to figure out which stores need each individual model. How many Space Grey, how many Silver, how many Gold, etc. With Apple Watch, there are many more models to track, and zero data to inform which models should ship where.

As bad as it is to tell people who come into the store now that they will have to order online, the notion of having long lines on day one and sending most of those folks home with no Watch after hours of waiting is far worse.

One thing I learned from my time at Apple Retail is that it’s always better to set expectations early, rather than disappoint later down the line. If there is only going to be enough stock to give each store a couple dozen of each model (I suspect less than that for some models, given how fast many were pushed back to May), it’s better not to sell Apple Watch in the stores at all at this point. Don’t send the majority of people who are going to wait for hours in that line home with nothing.[2]

Angela Ahrendts seems to have made a very tough call here. She was handed a dilemma, and she chose the less painful of two terrible choices. In an ideal world, I’m sure she would have been happier to launch Apple Watch the way the stores always launch new Apple products. But given the situation, I can’t say I would have handled it differently.

The only other option would have been to wait to ship the Watch to anyone until Apple had enough stock to handle both online orders and in-person pickups. For all we know, Ahrendts argued for this, but can you imagine the press backlash if Apple started shipping in July instead of April?[3]

By late summer or fall, I’m certain Apple will be selling the Watch in all Apple stores just like all of Apple’s products. Make no mistake; Apple hasn’t lost its mind here, experimenting with evolving the retail division into some sort of Gateway model. It’s simply dealing with a temporary bad situation in the most fair way possible.[4]

When the Watch was announced, and people were still in speculation mode about how the Watch would be sold at retail, I had two strong opinions. First, that Apple would let us try the Watches on some time before launch day. And second, that Apple would sell all the models, including the Edition, in Apple Retail stores. They may sell the Edition at other fine jewelers as well, but there was no way they’d give up an opportunity to cut out the middle man and send customers to another store to buy a gold Watch. (Apple loves profit margins even more than it loves its customers.)

For this reason, I’m very confident that Apple will get Watches into the Apple stores to sell directly in person as soon as that’s feasible.

  1. I ordered my Watch with link bracelet at 3:01 am Eastern time, as soon as the iPhone app allowed me to. My order ships mid-May. I’m pretty certain no one will be getting a link bracelet on April 24th.  ↩

  2. I most definitely would have been one of the crazy people in line on day one, and I would have been sent home after hours of waiting when I found out that my Watch of choice (the link bracelet stainless steel) wasn’t going to be ready for day one. Personally, I prefer knowing that my Watch is coming sometime in mid-May. Saved me a long night of waiting for nothing.  ↩

  3. As it is, people are already mocking Tim Cook for shipping in April, when he said that Apple Watch would ship “early in 2015”. Personally, I’m dumbfounded by this criticism, since April is, of course, early in the year. What else could April be? It’s not late 2015. It’s not mid–2015. It’s early 2015. If I say “middle of the year”, any reasonable person thinks June, July—maybe May. The term “early” was classic Apple vagueness. Those of us who have been following Apple for years know to always set your expectation to the latest possible interpretation of any Apple announcement for launch times. But I digress.  ↩

  4. One thing I’m certain of, given my recent experiences with waiting in lines on day one for Apple launches: Online ordering will help guarantee that most of the few Watches Apple has on hand day one actually get into the hands of people who will want to use them, rather than into the hands of smugglers who will illegally ship them overseas. This is a continuing problem for the Apple Retail experience, especially in bigger cities, and I hope Angela Ahrendts has some plan to address it.  ↩

Release Notes Joins Forces with AltConf

As some of you may know, last year Charles and I rented a conference room at the Parc 55 hotel during WWDC and invited some of our close friends to come watch the sessions as they were being released. As with most things we do together, the idea was entirely Charles’, and it was brilliant. Everyone pitched in, from chipping in for the cost of the room, to lending us some equipment (including a portable projector, speakers, and some Karma hotspots). We had a great time, and we learned a ton. I don’t recall ever watching so many WWDC session videos so early after their release before.

Almost immediately after we got started on the first day (and had a standing-room only audience for the Keynote and State of the Union talks) it became apparent that this should be something bigger. The folks at AltConf agreed, and we decided that we should talk about joining forces the following year.

AltConf has become an institution during WWDC week. I was there for the first year at Stack Mob’s headquarters, when Alt was just getting started. And I’ve been to every rendition since. This year’s event is going to top all the previous years and then some.

Were there benefits to a small group of nerds watching these videos on our own over the course of a few days? No doubt. The discussions we had that week were invaluable, and there was a magical, small, intimacy to our little renegade project.

But there are far more benefits to us doing our “viewing room” at AltConf this year. First, it’ll be free for everyone. We don’t need to pool our pocket change together to get a space. Second, it’ll be accessible to everyone who attends AltConf. You don’t need to be in the “in” crowd or know one of us to benefit. Many more people will happen upon our room and enjoy the event, thanks to AltConf’s never-ending commitment to providing a safe and inclusive environment for all. Third, the theater rooms at the Metreon are several times larger than our little conference room at the Parc 55, so many more people can see the videos at once. We’ll be watching the sessions in a movie theater. The screen is gigantic, and the sound system isn’t two little laptop speakers. Finally, the location is far more convenient. We’re right across the street from Moscone West, and the AltConf talks will be happening in the same building. You can bounce back and forth between watching video sessions and watching the great talks going on in one of the other rooms. (Did I mention, I’m also giving a talk at AltConf?) I missed so many great talks at Alt last year because I had to walk twenty minutes between our little room at the Parc and the AltConf location. This year, that won’t be a problem.

I say to my friends every year, “Just be in San Francisco that week. It’s always worth the trip.” And I believe that. WWDC may not ever be able to expand beyond the few lucky people who get tickets, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a non-stop, week-long celebration of our love of Apple in the same city. I’m proud that Release Notes can play a small role in making that celebration even better this year.

UPDATE: There is one sponsorship slot available for our viewing room. We’re looking for a good company to help us make this viewing room a great event for everyone. Get in touch with AltConf if you are interested.


Good Old-Fashioned Marketing

You can’t swing a dead cat today without hitting any number of (at least a dozen so far) reviews of Flexibits new version of their popular calendaring app…

That’s what the Loop’s Shawn King had to say about the release of Fantastical 2 from Flexibits today. He’s not wrong. My Twitter stream is also full of Flexibits today.

And that’s exactly why I always watch Michael Simmons very closely when he’s launching a new product. The guy never fails to get great press coverage. And it’s not by chance.

Having spent some time chatting with Michael on different occasions over the years, one thing is clear: He knows how to make you feel like he values your opinion. Even if he were faking that (and I don’t suspect he is), it’s a remarkable skill. Most of us suck at even pretending to care what other people think. But Michael has a natural enthusiasm for his work, and he wants you to feel it, too. And he really does want to know what you think.

Now, multiply his chats with me by the dozens of other people he must have similar chats with, and you start to see that he’s investing an incredible amount of time—pre-launch—to getting other people invested in his products. To gather feedback, listen to suggestions, and, of course, fix bugs. By the time the launch happens, you can’t help but be rooting for him. And, as a result, you end up tweeting, blogging, pitching in with the promotion yourself.

It’s brilliant. And it obviously works. But only because it’s genuine. And only because he’s willing to put in that time. That incredible amount of time. Not coding. Not designing. (That’s all getting done, too.) But good old-fashioned marketing.

Notice I haven’t even mentioned anything about the quality of Fantastical 2? It’s, of course, an amazingly good app. Took away my final few reasons to ever want to launch the built-in Calendar app. But you know that already, if you’ve read any one of those dozens of reviews out there.

But at the same time, I could easily see an app this great sitting on the store shelves, getting ignored, if it weren’t being marketed properly by an experienced expert. As Shawn King might say, You can’t swing a dead cat on any day without hitting an app that is incredibly well crafted, yet a complete financial failure.

If you’re out there building great products, don’t short-change their chances of success. Start caring about promotion. The best products deserve it.

The Eleven

Today’s Release Notes 2015 Speaker announcement is the culmination of several months of hard work and cooperation from many people. It’s only March, and already this show is well on its way to being a tremendous success. I can’t thank my co-organizer Charles Perry enough for spearheading this entire show from day one. He’s the man with the plan, if you will. And he’s had a clear vision that has driven every decision we’ve made thus far.

When you want to put on a conference like this, the easiest thing in the world is to come up with a list of potential speaker names. The indie development community is full of great people. Heck, we had forty or fifty names just off the tops of our heads in our initial brainstorming session. And any combination of them would have made for a great show.

But that’s when the hard part kicks in. You have a handful of slots (in our case, eleven). And you need to populate those slots not with the first eleven people who pop into your head, or the eleven most popular people. You need the right combination of people. People who complement each other in the correct way. A balance of people who have experience from various places in business, who can talk about different topics and offer the maximum value to our guests.

In other words, you stop looking at individuals, and you start looking at the whole group. What are the right ingredients? What will adding this person do to the mix? What effect will removing this person have on the group? Are we covering enough of the landscape? And so on.

And once you’ve whittled that initial list down to a very balanced group of eleven, you have to go out and ask them and hope they all say yes.[1]

The fact that we managed to publish a list with these eleven names on it our first time out is, I think, a proud accomplishment. The reaction thus far from our audience has been so enthusiastic that I can’t help but think we chose wisely, and that we’re extremely lucky that all eleven of these folks have agreed to put in the hard work to participate.

I want to thank our speakers, Myke Hurley, Rachel Andrew, David Smith, Rob Rhyne, Georgia Dow, John Saddington, Chris Liscio, Pieter Omvlee, Daniel Pasco, Jean MacDonald, and Jim Dalrymple. You are all taking a chance on a new conference led by two first-time organizers, and we aren’t going to forget it.

We’ve promised our audience we’re going to spend some time helping each other build businesses this October. Our speakers are going to be the driving force behind that. You should have no problem gleaning practical, actionable advice from this group, and our discussions throughout the week will further amplify the benefits of being there.

I’m sure Charles and I will hear a bit of “Why not this person?” or “Why not that person?” over the course of the next several months, and that’s okay. I’d probably do the same thing myself to some other organizer, at least in my head. If only we had forty speaker slots, right? Believe me, there’s an excellent chance whoever you’re thinking of is someone we had on our initial brainstorm list.

And there’s always next year.

Release Notes 2015 will be held in Indianapolis, Indiana on October 21–23. Tickets will be on sale to the general public on April 27th, with early access granted to those on our mailing list. For more info, visit our web site.

  1. Or wait. Before you can ask anyone, you need to know what the dates of your conference are. And in order to have dates, you need a venue. And to get a venue, you need to scout out several venues, have meetings, figure out their availability, hope it coincides with the dates you want, negotiate deals, and sign on the dotted line. It’s a lot of work, in other words. And that’s before you start cold emailing some people you’ve never met in person to ask them to speak at an event of which they’ve never heard.  ↩

On Waiting Until Next Year

The new debate I keep having with friends is whether we should buy the first gen Apple Watch next month or not, because generation two is going to be so much thinner and lighter, and you should never buy first generation Apple products, anyway.

Okay, for starters, let’s talk about the old “never buy a first gen anything” adage. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told by certain people that first generation products from Apple are always problematic and therefore should be avoided like the plague.

I’ve been buying first generation Apple products since the late 80s, and I have yet to get burnt by one. Even if my first gen watch turned out to be a total dud, my average on first gen products from Apple has been so good that it would hardly make this old proverb seem like wisdom. Apple’s manufacturing processes have gotten so good recently that this is only going to be even less of a problem as the years go by.

I know a lot of people are risk-averse, or they had a bad experience once, or they just don’t want to shell out new money every year for the shiny objects. I have no problem with that; we all have a right to spend our money any way we want to. But this notion that first generation products are always riddled with issues is over-exaggerated, at best.

Next, on the notion that by next year, Apple Watch will somehow be significantly lighter and thinner: This is simply not likely.

“But look at the iPad, Joe” my friends say. “Look at the MacBooks and iPhones. They keep getting thinner every year.”

Yes and no. Most years they get thinner and lighter by a pretty small margin. Or, in the case of the iPhone, they only get thinner and lighter every two years. Once in a while there will be a major breakthrough, but more often than not it’s the accumulation of trimming that adds up to the PowerBooks of old becoming that new ultra-thin MacBook.

And the biggest reductions happen with the big products, like laptops that already get great battery life. Consider the size difference between a laptop and a watch, and the fact that the watch is barely getting enough battery life to be considered acceptable right now. With a product like a laptop, there’s a lot more physical space to utilize and save. Shrinking the logic board by two-thirds in that new MacBook meant a lot more space for batteries to make up for the cut in overall thickness. If you shrink that tiny little S1 chip in half (forgetting the fact that it’s unlikely Apple will be able to do that in a year) how much space did you gain? Probably not enough to make both the battery larger and the overall watch smaller. I suspect Apple is not happy with 18 hours for the first generation watch, so they won’t want to make it even shorter for the sake of thinness.[1]

Even tricks like software optimization and other reductions in power consumption only get you so far.[2] Without a major change in battery chemistry (which isn’t in the pipeline for next year, as far as anyone can tell) Apple is going to run out of ways to seriously reduce consumption eventually.

My point is, it’s harder to find places to trim when you’re dealing with such a small device that has so little to trim in the first place, and when your years of accumulated knowledge have already gone into the current design.

Will next year’s watch be thinner? Maybe. But by how much? Let’s be extremely aggressive and throw out an unrealistic number like 15%. What’s 15% of 10.5mm? 1.6mm. That would be noticeable, but not exactly earth shattering. And it’s unlikely they can do that much.

I suspect we’ll see small changes every year to Apple watch. And I do eventually expect all those changes to add up to something significant. But it’s going to take longer than people think for this device’s dimensions to change drastically.

But let’s grant that next year’s watch will be so much better that I’ll be dying to upgrade. Maybe I’m wrong about all of the above, and the watch next year will be 50% thinner, through some miracle breakthrough. Or maybe they’ll add some new sensor that brings features I won’t want to live without. (Isn’t that always the danger with any computer?) How much will an upgrade cost me?

If you think about it, you only really need to upgrade the body of the watch. If you get an Apple Watch with the link bracelet this year ($999) and want to upgrade next year, all you need to do is buy an Apple Watch with the rubber band ($599) and attach your link bracelet to it. Sell the old body with the rubber band for $300, and the upgrade ends up costing $300 or so[3]. It’s a cost, to be sure, but it’s cheaper than what I’m used to paying to upgrade laptops regularly. Certainly, $300 is cheap enough that it makes sense to enjoy wearing a watch for an entire year rather than waiting? Is is for me, anyway.

So I say go ahead and get that first gen watch this year if you want it. As with anything, buy the best device you can afford that makes you happy now, and worry about the upgrade options when they happen. Or wait, if you want to wait. But don’t tell other people they’re crazy for simply making different decisions than you. And don’t set yourself up for disappointment when Apple fails to defy the laws of physics by next April.

  1. Remember the third-generation iPad? There’s only one thing that trumps thinness for Apple, and that’s a minimum acceptable battery life.  ↩

  2. Software changes will benefit the first generation watch as well as the second.  ↩

  3. I probably won’t end up selling my first generation Apple Watch, as I’ve regretted selling my first generation iPod and iPhone. But that, again, is my choice. The fact remains, not buying the watch because you’ll just want to get the better one next year isn’t a very strong argument.  ↩