Apple Watch could become latest must-have fashion accessory

Apple Watch might be the breakthrough fashion-tech accessory that the wearables industry has been waiting for

There was no killer app announced at the Apple Watch event Monday. No groundbreaking features. No major new development for the Watch at all.

And yet, the Watch might wind up being the breakthrough fashion-tech accessory that the nascent wearables industry has been waiting for.

A coveted brand name and attractive design alone have propelled plenty of handbags and shoes to the top of consumer must-have lists, and the company will try to accomplish the same with the Apple Watch when it goes on sale next month. Now that it has entered the world of fashion, functionality matters less.

It's a significant change in direction for the longtime technology maker, one that could usher in wider public interest in smartwatches and reposition Apple as a luxury fashion name. In the past, the question surrounding Apple products was whether they performed well. Now the central concern with the watch is whether stylish customers will think it looks good.

"Maybe they didn't meet the hype of hard-core tech folks, but I think they met the hype of fashion folks," said wearable tech expert Dan Ward, co-founder of mobile app development firm Detroit Labs. "They've created a device that's desirable. Design will sell, and Apple's products are gorgeous. They're not different from other products out there in terms of functionality, but they're beautiful devices with beautiful materials."

Other smartwatch makers have simply made a wearable gadget instead of designing with a fashion accessory in mind, said Ariel Adams, a watch consultant and founder of watch blog A Blog to Watch. That distinction, he predicted, will set the Apple Watch apart from its numerous competitors.

"This is a device that is as much about clothing and fashion as it is about technology," he said. "That's unique to the company and it's unique to any company in the tech industry."

Apple will begin taking pre-orders for the watch April 10 and release it two weeks later. Already, sales estimates are expected to be strong — anywhere from 10 million to 40 million sold in the first year — as loyal fans rush to get their hands on the first-generation device.

That's despite a hefty price tag. Although the Cupertino, Calif., company had previously announced that the watch would start at $349, it revealed its full pricing lineup Monday: $349 to $399 for the Apple Watch Sport; $549 to $1,099 for the Apple Watch; and a jaw-dropping $10,000 to $17,000 for the elite 18-karat gold Apple Watch Edition, which will be sold in limited quantities.

Those prices, particularly on the higher end, will be hard to justify for what is still at its core a mobile device that will quickly become outdated, unlike pure fashion pieces that are timeless.

"The thing with Rolex and Omega watches though is they're investment pieces," Ward said. "They don't lose value. It'll be interesting to see if Apple Watch can do that, because in a year when they announce Apple Watch 2, people might think it wasn't a good $10K investment.... It'll be obsolete."

Tech analysts are in agreement that Apple will advance the smartwatch market further than any other tech company, but worry that the watch will still lack mainstream appeal.

Price and short life cycle aside, there's a utility problem: Although Apple Watch can handle a variety of tasks including sending and receiving texts and has a growing ecosystem of apps, it largely does everything that your phone can do, but on a much smaller screen and in some cases, a less logical form factor.

"In terms of fashion, you have to think about how you're going to use the device — if someone calls you, you have to talk into the watch and hold the phone to your ear. It's hard to not look stupid doing that," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group. "I think it will take them three generations to figure out what people want to use this for."

The watch is also limited because it only fully works in conjunction with an iPhone, shutting out millions of potential buyers who use rival smartphones.

Others, though, think that critics are shortchanging the technical features of the Apple Watch. Adams said developers are just getting started inventing applications for the Watch, and the coming months and years will add to the device's utility.

Even with added function, style is very much a personal preference, and many consumers have said they don't love the watch's boxy design.

"The watch still looks very Silicon Valley-esque, like that's who the target customers are," said Annette Lin, a 25-year-old fashion writer from New York City. "And I don't think the functions are useful enough to override the lack of aesthetic appeal, especially when it's something you're wearing on your wrist. "

"I wouldn't consider buying one because the design doesn't appeal to me," said David Surman, 33, a London artist. "The industrial design speaks to the iPhone, but I don't personally like the rounded rectangle at that scale — I think a circular face is much more elegant."

The watches have yet to make their way into display cases at Apple stores, though, and consumer perceptions might also change if the watch is seen as a must-have status symbol. This is, after all, a world in which Uggs and Juicy Couture velour tracksuits made their way to the top of Christmas wish lists.

At its media event, Apple played up the watch's technical features, demonstrating its ability to make and receive calls, check sports scores and the weather, remotely open a garage door and identify a song.

"Apple Watch is going to become integral to your day," Chief Executive Tim Cook told hundreds of attendees packed into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Shares of Apple rose 54 cents, or less than 1%, to $127.14.

Apple made a few non-watch announcements Monday. It introduced the MacBook, a 2-pound notebook computer with a 12-inch retina display that will join the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air family. It also revealed a deal with HBO to be the exclusive launch provider of HBO Now, a new streaming service available starting next month for $14.99 a month.

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Times staff writer Russ Mitchell contributed to this report.

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