Engadget published a good read today about the tough challenge facing tech companies chasing wearable fashion. The thrust, which I completely agree with, is that getting the tech right is only half the challenge. When dealing with something whose form is based on style and taste, that’s a harder nut to crack and you’re never going to have the product that pleases everyone.

The pending iWatch announcement is instructive. People are saying Apple usually does sleek and cool right, so they have the best chance to finally produce a wearable people want in big numbers. I think these sentiments are generally correct in that Apple takes great care with design compared to other tech companies that do hardware, but if they’re expecting whatever (probably) will be unveiled this week to do the trick, I’m skeptical and am having a hard time getting excited about it. The tech is the easy part if you are thinking about it as a gadget. But if you’re thinking about it as a fashion accessory, this is going to take time.

Google’s struggles with making Glass culturally cool are worth a look here. They’ve introduced frames to make the device seem less clunky (and they do look much better in the wild!) but even 10 to 15 choices isn’t nearly enough. With iPod or iPhone, they’ve really only had 2-3 different models to choose from. Fashion is something different in that there’s a difference between a brand category people want to have and then the specific thing they buy. For example, people buy the label with designer handbags or shoes, but they don’t really want to have the same thing as everyone else.

Apple certainly had a winner with the iPod when it came to the convergence of tech and fashion; it became a must-have for those who wanted to look cool. But you have to remember that MP3 players before were nerdy and ugly. Apple didn’t just design a beautiful device; they were the first to design a beautiful device in a sector that was known for being awful. As the iPhone has evolved, how do people put their own stamp on it? With a case that suits their personality. People want the brand, but they also want to be different.

Watches aren’t really that. We’ve seen our share of ugly smartwatches, but beautiful watches as a fashion accessory have been around for hundreds of years. People already have some sense of what is gorgeous or fashionable.

And that’s the problem. Apple isn’t just trying to become a leader in a tech category, it’s trying to compete with traditional players as well. They have to convince non-watch wearers to don one without looking like an Applebot (same watch as everyone else) and convince watch wearers that this digital kind is better – all while getting the price point right. If this was purely about the device itself, a tech company would solve a software problem like that by making software that is more customizable, but this isn’t a software problem.

So how can Apple design an iWatch that is designer in label but has enough variety that people feel like they’re getting their version of it? Everyone’s tastes differ even if there are only a handful of brands people want. These are questions you ask when you’re talking about fashion, not technology. Will the groundwork be laid for this in the device that launches Tuesday, or are they going to get the tech right first and then worry about the fashion later?

Now there may be a trump card in that whatever they are working on is so incredibly useful that it’ll be like the iPod – so useful that nobody cares if theirs looks like everyone else’s. But then we’re talking about a gadget, and not a fashion accessory. If the reports are true that Apple wants to be a big player in the fashion world, that’s the real stuff to watch for when Tim Cook takes the stage on Tuesday.

Whatever Apple unveils on Tuesday, I’m looking less at the tech and more about the individual design and customizability. There’s a reason they’re still hiring fashion designers even as this thing is ready to launch. I’ll be looking for ways the device allows other companies that want to make custom straps and other fashion-oriented accessories to customize the watch, a fashion version of their SDK.

That’s the only way this goes from being a gadget to a fashion accessories. We’re going to need a lot of this – 5 iPod colors won’t do this time.

If I had to predict something (and I admit I’m Jon Snow on this one), it’s that whatever Apple launches is aimed at people who are dying for a tech-centered watch. It’ll have some cool design factor, but each device will be largely the same like the iPod, iPhone and iPad before it. The real fashion customization will come in later versions as it chases the fashion crowd with already-established tech. That’s why they’re still hiring designers. It’s the long game for Apple.

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Wearable tech as fashion is a long game

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