Apple unveiled its much anticipated line of Apple watches recently with a price range of $349 to $17,000. I believe they also revealed a weakness in the company. This is a weakness that Asian companies would be less prone to, such as Samsung (South Korea) and Xiaomi (China). In full disclosure I’ve owned several iPhones, an iPad, and an iPod. I loved these products because they were innovative, fun, easy-to-use, well-built and stylish. In my opinion, the combination of those aspects were done better than anyone else out there. Even though the iPhone is relatively expensive, I still felt that I got a lot of value out of the product. The iPhone eliminated the need for a separate camera, GPS unit, music player, desk calendar, etc.
As word came out about the watch last year (2014), I felt that it had potential. I was leaning towards buying the least expensive version, realizing that there is probably little initial additional functionality over the iPhone other than the health functions. At this point, it seemed like more of a toy than a need to have, but I was willing to give it a try and open to further possibilities, as I suspect others may also have shared this same consumer sentiment.
Hearing that the most expensive version of the Apple Watch would start at $10,000–and rise to $17,000–I thought the article I was reading had a typo. Now that this pricing is confirmed, it seems exorbinant on several levels.
• This signaled that Apple is now willing to move away from products that provide true value. All of the value in a smart watch itself can be obtained at the base price of $349. Beyond that you are paying for jewelry. At a price level above $10,000 you have a vast array of world renowned watches to choose from.
• What rational consumer would be willing to buy a $10,000+ Apple Watch over a Rolex? A Rolex is truly expensive, but one could argue that it’s not really that expensive at all because it will last for decades. The Apple Watch on the other hand will be the fastest depreciating watch of its price range as the technology advances will quickly make it obsolete.
• If consumers buy the $10,000 watch, it’s akin to burning money for attention. The fact that someone would rather buy the $10,000 Apple Watch than use the extra money for a wise investment or charitable donation speaks volumes, in my view, of such consumer’s character.
• Do I want to be associated with the “conspicuous consumption” individual who buys the $10,000+ Apple Watch?
It almost seems to me that the $10,000+ Apple Watch is a cry for recognition amongst the Apple design team. After Steve Jobs died, there was a fear that Apple might not be able to innovate. Jony Ive thereafter became more prominent and powerful within the company. Rumor has it that Ive was the one who pushed for the $10,000+ watch. The $10,000+ watch is where the design shines and the technology takes a backseat. After all, the smart watch is the same across all models, so you’re just paying for the extra materials and design of the band at $10,000+. This, then, makes Apple not only a technology company but also a fashion company.
Jony Ive is unquestionably a great designer, but this $10,000+ watch is an unnecessary distraction for the company. What made Apple work before was the teamwork: great vision, great technology, great execution, and great design. We can’t all be great at everything, that’s why we need a pool of diverse talents to make a company great. It appears to me that those at Apple with a talent for business sense and strategy were overridden by those at Apple that want to now be part fashion company. This, I believe, has the potential to create a rift within Apple’s employee and customer base.
A better strategy for Apple would have been to go down the pyramid instead of up the pyramid. The top of the pyramid contains the wealthiest consumers and the bottom of the pyramid the poorest. When the iPhone C came out, some were expecting this would be Apple’s offering to the developing world, but it wasn’t. Most of the consumers in the world are in the bottom section of the pyramid. To go there is more difficult than to go up the pyramid, but the potential rewards are greater. This is a hole in Apple’s offerings that is recognized and being filled by other players in technology–including Samsung and Xiaomi–in the smart phone space, as well as even Google and Facebook.
Corporations have the mandate to maximize shareholder value, and at first glance it could appear that extravagantly priced products may add value. However, if you deviate from what your stakeholders (in this case employees and customers) expect from you, those stakeholders may go elsewhere, thereby reducing shareholder value. The $10,000+ Apple Watch isn’t worth that risk. The weakness that the $10,000+ watch exposed is that there must have been a struggle within Apple as to whether or not to enter the luxury goods market. It’s not inconceivable, based on personal speculation, that Jony Ive may even have threatened to leave if not allowed to pursue his personal vision. This has the potential to fracture the company. Asian companies such as Samsung and Xiaomi are less subject to this issue because of Asia’s relatively consensus-based corporate culture. Asian companies are thus more likely to work cohesively as a corporate unit and follow the lead of senior management. This represents a rare yet tangible opportunity for many of Asia’s tech giants.
Brian Sullivan is an Assistant Professor of Finance at Hallym University in South Korea where he teaches courses on finance and business. He has an MBA in Finance from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a BA in Economics from The University of California at Berkeley.
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