I can’t remember a time in Apple’s history when I was this anxious about a slide. On Monday morning, Tim Cook will take the stage and fill in all of the blanks he left during September’s Apple Watch demo; we’ll learn about apps and battery life and bands, and then sometime toward the end of his presentation, he’ll click his remote and the room will go silent.
For the past six months we’ve been speculating and arguing about what Apple Watch will cost, studying gold prices and Rolex catalogues as we try to get some kind of a handle on how much we need to save if we want a Link Bracelet or a Milanese Loop. All we know for sure is that it starts at $349—a fact you wouldn’t know by looking at the Apple Watch website. Had Cook not revealed the starting price at the end of Apple’s iPhone 6 event, we would be completely in the dark; over the pages and pages of gorgeous images and enticing text there isn’t a single mention of a dollar amount.
Cost of customization
Apple’s entry-level Watch certainly isn’t cheap, but it’s well within the range of what we expect to pay for a smartwatch. LG’s Android Wear-powered G Watch R sells for $299, and the stylish Urbane unveiled earlier this week is sure to top that. Add in the so-called Apple tax and $349 actually seems a little low for a first-generation Apple gadget of this caliber.
Tim didn’t explicitly say which Apple Watch you’ll be able to get for that price, but common sense says it’s the Sport version, with a silver or space gray aluminum case and a fluoroelastomer bands. It’s also safe to assume that price specifically refers to the 38mm model, but it’s been suggested it also might be limited to the white band (the same one Cook and Jony Ive like have been photographed wearing), with Apple charging a little extra for colored bands.
And it only goes up from there. Apple Watch is by far the company’s broadest product category, with 12 case models and some 20 bands, and Apple’s site is making it seem more like a prized piece of jewelry than a gadget, breaking down the features much in the way a glossy catalog would. Instead of tech specs there’s a gallery; chips and carriers are replaced by grades and closures.
Living on the edge
Apple may have a reputation for selling overpriced gadgets and computers to affluent, indiscriminate buyers, but in actuality its products have never been more affordable. The iPhone established the starting-at-$199 premium smartphone model, but when it was released it cost $599 on contract. The MacBook Air can be had for under $1,000 today when just a few short years ago it cost $1,800. And you can buy a touch, a nano, and a shuffle for less than the cost of the original $399 iPod.
If anything, Apple’s “tax” is on new technology. More than any other consumer company, Apple pushes the limits of technology and design, and there’s usually a hefty price for those early adopters who want to live out on that bleeding edge.
There’s no better example of this than the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh. Back in 1997, a young designer named Jony Ive conceived the ultimate luxury PC, a stunning all-in-one with a 12-inch display flanked by a pair of skinny Bose speakers, a removable trackpad and a circular subwoofer that looked as good on your desk as it did under it. The cost of all that luxury: $7,500.
At the time, there was nothing that even resembled the TAM, but underneath its sleek enclosure, it was essentially a dressed-up Power Mac with a TV tuner and a upgraded sound system. It was one of the few products in Apple’s history that shamelessly placed form before function. It was Ive gone wild, pure hubris by a company that was nearly bankrupt, and it predictably flopped.
Now, nearly 20 years, we have the Apple Watch. In it’s own way it’s just as stunning as the TAM, and both are design marvels, defying expectations and reimagining the conventions of what’s possible. It might seem like I’m comparing apples and oranges here, but listening to Jony Ive talk about the TAM two decades ago sounds awfully familiar:
“One of the things that’s really striking about the product are the colors that we’ve used, the materials and the finishes. … We wanted to design a product that would fit into personal environments much better than traditional solutions have done.”
There may be other smartwatches on the market, but Apple Watch is a singular standout among its peers. The retina screen. The inductive charging. The Digital Crown. The colors. The materials. The finishes. But this time around, the “tax” doesn’t apply to all early adopters. Come launch day you’ll be able to walk into an Apple Store and walk out with an Apple Watch for a relatively reasonable $349.
It’s the materials, not the technology that will cost you. John Gruber piqued our curiosities a few weeks ago when he surmised that there will be five tiers of Apple Watch pricing. He estimates the link bracelet will cost well in excess of $1,000, and a healthy premium will be attached to each of the various clasps and colors, topping off at an eye-popping $20,000 for an edition with as as-yet-unannounced solid-gold Link Bracelet.
The would certainly make it the most expensive Apple product in its catalogue—a fully maxed out Mac Pro with every display and accessory available will only set you back $14,889.98—and it would cost more than a Hyundai Elantra, though at least you’d be able to use your Apple Watch Edition to unlock it. Few people would be able to afford one, and it would draw a distinct line in the sand between the haves from the have-nots, much like Rolex and Bvlgari do.
The decision to spend a few extra dollars on an Apple product is generally based on need. 128GB vs. 64GB. 15 inches vs. 13 inches. LTE vs. Wi-Fi. But there’s no such distinction between the Apple Watch tiers. The decision to spend three hundred or three thousand dollars is entirely based on preference and affordability. No matter how high it goes, Apple Watch Edition is a pure status symbol.
I could see $5,000, but a five-figure Apple Watch seems outlandish. Apple may fancy itself a high-end watch maker, but people Rolexes to pass down through generations; Apple Watch is, first and foremost, a piece of technology with a definite shelf life. Not only does it raise all sorts of questions about longevity, repairs, bugs and warranties, but chief among them is whether the world is ready for such an astronomically priced product from Apple. For the first time since the TAM, I might not buy the Apple product I really want because it’s just too much.
But with the TAM, Apple was selling a limited, one-of-a-kind item that pushed the boundaries of what was possible with computer design. Apple Watch Edition does no such thing; it’s the exact same product as the Sport, just in a luxurious case. Apple Watch may be Apple’s most personal device yet, but I shouldn’t need a personal loan to afford the one I want.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.