Want to take a peek at the Apple Watch Series 9? Look no further than Ultra • TechCrunch
With the Ultra, Apple has taken a page from its already familiar playbook on how to broaden the appeal of its mobile devices and applied it to its watch range:
- Step 1: Present a solid but not yet fully realized version 1.0.
- Step 2: Refine, refine, refine.
- Step 3: Make a “Pro” version.
The Ultra is the first truly new variant of the Apple Watch since the first was introduced in 2015, and it fills the “professional” slot. (We’re not counting the SE because it’s basically some old parts remixed to fill a lower price point.) But the Ultra won’t be the last. How do we know this? Apple’s guide doesn’t stop at Step 3:
- Step 4: Let some “pro” features slide.
Apple did this with the iPhone – two cameras for each! — and iPad Air — Pencil support! — but he didn’t do it with the watch. Before the Ultra, when each new series was introduced, the only thing that distinguished each of the new models was their materials. In a new market, this kind of strategy can work well because there is a lot of room to work. But the smartwatch market is anything but new now, and Apple needs a more segmented strategy.
Enter Ultra, Apple’s first attempt to segment the market based on features. Some people may appreciate its improved GPS or sports-focused features, but the real draw is the sleek titanium body, larger battery, and international orange action button.
Not all of the new Ultra features will migrate down, but I’m guessing the action button will. Its usefulness and potential are undeniable, as my colleagues Brian and Kirsten found in their review. For one thing, athletes love watches with buttons—whether you’re running, biking, or cross-country skiing, there’s no substitute for a physical interface. Want to start logging a run? You can customize the button to start a running workout. Then, once in the workout, you can log a lap with subsequent taps.
As developers begin to explore the action button and develop new applications for it, its appeal outside of endurance sports will almost certainly grow. For now, users cannot customize the secondary action depending on the application. But if Brian and Kirsten get their wish, that could change.
As Apple has been working hard to build the good qualities of a fitness watch, the first non-Ultra with an action button will likely be an aluminum model, as stainless steel is too heavy for a sports-oriented watch. The case will likely be redesigned to differentiate it from both the Ultra and regular Apple Watches. It will probably be slimmer, more like the Timex Ironman versus the Ultra’s G-Shock. The extra size will give the new model a battery life advantage over regular models. After all, that’s partly how Apple improved the Ultra’s battery life—it could cram a bigger battery into its larger body (49mm vs. 45mm).
Bigger watches aren’t for everyone, of course. That’s why the smaller 41mm size (40mm on SE) still exists. But for outdoor fitness enthusiasts, larger watches have become commonplace because they allow for additional sensors, bright displays and days of battery life, trade-offs that many people with smaller wrists accept.
Together, the new features could give the Apple Watch lineup another boost. The Ultra stole this year’s show, overshadowing the decent but expected Series 8 (and iPhone 14) updates. Apple Watch, rich with new features, is likely to attract significant attention and sales.
With these changes maybe Apple will even bring back the “Sport” moniker, a name that dates back to the original aluminum Apple Watch. In the world of watches, history matters, and after seven years on the market, the Apple Watch finally has something to look back on. It also fits within Apple’s current naming conventions, which are clear and convey the qualities of the product. “Air” is thin and light, “Pro” is faster and more effective, “Ultra” is extreme. “Sport” would be, well, sporty, and would go well with an aluminum model that’s tailored for athletes.
These athletes are not necessarily the same athletes that Ultra caters to. They are more likely to run half marathons than full marathons, doing day hikes instead of treks. Extremely fit, but not necessarily extreme in the sport they pursue. They may also want some of Ultra’s features at no extra cost. Does titanium deserve the premium over aluminum? For some people, yes. But for the vast majority, no.
Once the Sport returns to the lineup, Apple may continue to sell the regular aluminum and stainless models alongside it. Compared to the extroverted Ultra and Sport models, the company can position them as toned down, more elegant versions. If the action button catches on—and I’m guessing it will—they’ll eventually get one too, but without the bright accent color.
Where would that leave the Apple Watch lineup? If we ignore inflation, it might look like this:
- Apple Watch SE – $199 (GPS only), $249 (GPS and cellular)
- Apple Watch (aluminum) – $299 (GPS), $399 (GPS and cellular)
- Apple Watch Sport – $499 (GPS and Cellular)
- Apple Watch (stainless steel) – $699 (GPS and cellular)
- Apple Watch Ultra – $899 (GPS and Cellular)
Apple will keep the Ultra at the top as its flagship. Its large size and extrovert bands will help it stand out (literally and figuratively), just like the iPhone Pro Max. The large body will give Apple room to experiment with new sensors that might otherwise draw too much power or take up too much space to work in regular models, at least initially. As the company refines the design and manufacturing processes of these sensors, some of them are likely to be stretched as well.
Apple has found a reliable playbook that it uses to expand its offerings in every market segment it competes in, and there’s no reason to think it won’t do the same for the Watch. Now that Apple has figured out how to market the watch—it’s a fitness device first, a communication device second—it’s on solid footing to expand into new niches in the category. Bringing the Sport back as a more affordable Ultra could help it capture yet another segment of the watch market.