Let us start with a comparison.

A typical Rolex or any premium/luxury watch has only one or two “apps” – generally the time/date and one other (such as altitude), yet Rolex sells about 700,000-800,000 watches annually.

The cheapest Apple Watch will cost about US$349. The average AndroidWear watch costs US$189.

So what?

We can infer that there is little correlation between functionality and pricing in watches. Certainly in the 1600-1700s, there must have been a direct relationship between accuracy of time-keeping and price of watches.

However, as time became a commodity, premium watch manufacturers started positioning watches less as functional products and more as signaling devices (communicating taste, wealth, standing, or a combination of these), charging primarily for their ability to do more than simply keep time.

Gradually, much of the value and pricing premium in watches (as with other luxury products) came to rest with their signaling prowess, not notification ability.

Notifications rule

When we look at the Apple Watch, we find that all apps that have been developed seem to be targeting its notification ability and not its signaling prowess. This is true not just of the Apple Watch apps from big-name players such as Evernote and WeChat, but also apps from news media companies such as The New York Times, the Guardian, and CNN. Let us look at these apps.

What is NYT doing?

It is focusing on one-sentence stories, summing up the gist of the story in one sentence. It will also allow the user to save the story for a later read using the “save for later” option or pass the story to the user’s iPhone using Handoff.

What is The Guardian planning?

The Guardian has created an app called Moments. This consists of short, snappy screens containing content that is tailored for the time of day.

Almost all news media apps can be generically understood in terms of screen size reduction. Content is tailored for a quick glance on the small watch screen. As a standard example, here is CNN’s app for Apple Watch.

Fundamentally, these are all notification plays, modifying or replicating the message meant for the notification screen on the Apple Watch display, with any action restricted to Save to Read Later or Handoff to iPhone/iPad. 

In comparison, when we look at notification apps from Target, Uber, and Evernote, they take advantage of the Apple Watch’s ability to track time and location, and they link delivery of the notification to a specific time and location.

Additionally, they allow simple actions to be done throught the watch app: Target’s app allows you to add items to your list and find aisle locations for items. Uber’s watch app allows you to order a car, etc. These make for an experience native to the Apple Watch, (i.e., one that cannot be replicated on a smartphone or any other device).

Mathew Ingram, a leading media journalist, has covered the above and the associated problem of noise emanating from all the zillions of alerts that each of the news media apps will throw at the user in his blog post on Medium.

News publishers rushing to develop apps for the Apple Watch thus risk the following:

  1. They are all essentially making apps doing the same thing – notifying users about news. Yes, there will be attempts at personalisation, relevancy, etc., but it will take time.

    And remember, they don’t get any access to data! In the short run, all of the similar news alerts will risk annoying the user.

  2. They are playing in the functional end of the market, where there is limited maneouverability to extract a premium. We saw earlier how watches are able to extract a pricing premium primarily on account of their role as signaling devices.

So what should news publishers do?

If signaling is indeed the key to capturing value, then publishers should focus on tailoring their apps to convey signaling and not notifications.

Historically, prominent news brands have always had some latent signaling power. Take The Guardian or Fox News. To consume these is to say something about yourself and your political or social views. We can also see it in formats.

Today, as print newspapers’ notification power has dropped sharply, their signaling power has risen manifold. To carry a copy of the Financial Times or The New York Times in your hands today is to make a statement about yourself.

Still, these have largely been historical happenstances and less conscious acts (barring, perhaps, Fox News). How can a news publisher today drive signaling through the Apple Watch?

Let me illustrate this through an example. Could a newspaper that thinks Indiana’s anti-LGBT legislation is abhorrent offer a special screensaver to people who wish to signal their protest? What if the screensaver was designed by a renowned artist and sold for US$3 with some money going to charity? Could there be a digital equivalent of the “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo” button on the Apple Watch?

The Apple Watch offers a unique landscape to map personal views of news and one’s individual positioning. It is the first digital product that can signal facets of your personality – your interests, your passions.

If I am a mountaineering nut, could the screen have glowed gently or pulsated on the day Jorgensen and Caldwell free-climbed El Capitan? If I am obsessed about math, could I get the watch to light up to celebrate John Nash being awarded the Abel Prize? How do I show I care? How do I show I protest?

However, at present, there is a challenge.

Presently, the Apple Watch goes blank to save energy. The screen comes alive only when you turn your wrist toward your face. This does pose an immediate challenge to signaling and screensavers, but, very soon, I am certain there will be possibilities to override the “screen off” mode by inserting features in apps that make it pulse/glow intermittently, or allow users to leave on a screensaver. Improved battery life is a must for this last point, though.

For this to truly take off, one key additional accessory will need to emerge. It is likely in the works. This is the “smart” band. Reports have emerged about the existence of a small port that could emerge as the node to exchange information between a smart band and the watch. The biggest selling smartwatch, Pebble, has a similar concept that is called smartstraps.

So, could The New York Times or any news brand sell a unique smart band, which allows the colour or even the message on the band to change depending on arising news (such as when your favourite sports team wins) or even to draw attention to the wearer’s beliefs, causes, etc.?

We know that NYT Labs has been experimenting with wearables and information signaling. A recent Popular Mechanics story reported that “one of the lab’s researchers recently designed a brooch programmed to light up whenever a topic is mentioned that matches something the wearer read about online that day. What good would that do, exactly? Boggie answers with enthusiasm, ‘We don’t know yet!’”

Allow me now to get back to where we started. Let us look at two of the Apple Watch models side by side.

The standard Apple Watch has about 50 apps, is stainless steel, and sells for US$549. The Apple Watch gold edition has about 50 apps, is 18ct gold, and sells for US$15,000.

Both watches have the same functionality and the same innards. The only difference is the outer material (not even the straps). Yet Apple is pricing the gold edition US$14,500 more than the stainless steel edition. This is the signaling premium.

The signaling premium is not a fixed amount. Rather it is any amount for which an app can be sold for the ability to convey or signal information to the outside world.

At present, this signaling premium is targeted exclusively through hardware (gold). How soon before software emerges to tap this premium? How much of this software and signaling premium can news organisations tap into?

To conclude, publishers focusing exclusively on notification-driven apps are missing a huge opportunity. The Apple Watch presents a unique landscape to signal one’s personality and passions, one that consumers will be willing to pay a premium for.

This is a revenue opportunity that news publishers are best poised for – being able to connect what is happening (news, events, etc.) with the interest areas of the users – and need to start thinking about.

Also worth reading: Jack Riley, Huffington Post UK’s head of audience development, published a report as part of his Nieman Visiting Fellowship on how publishers should engage with wearables/smartwatches. It is almost entirely focussed on the notification end of the opportunity. It is a well-written report and certainly worth a deep read.