With the Ultra, Apple has taken a page from its now-familiar playbook for how to broaden the appeal of its mobile devices and applied it to its watch lineup:
Step 1: Introduce a solid but still not fully realized version 1.0. Step 2: Refine, refine, refine. Step 3: Make a “pro” version.
The Ultra is the first truly new Apple Watch variant since the first one was introduced in 2015, and it fills the “pro” slot. (I’m 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 that? Apple’s playbook doesn’t end at Step 3:
Step 4: Let some “pro” features trickle down.
Apple has done that with the iPhone — two cameras for everyone! — and the iPad Air — pencil support! — but it hasn’t done it with the Watch. Before the Ultra, when each new series was introduced, the only thing that differentiated each of the new models were their materials. In a new market, that sort of strategy can work well because there’s lots of room to run. But the smartwatch market is anything but new now, and Apple needs a more segmented strategy.
Enter the Ultra, Apple’s first attempt to segment the market based on features. Some people might appreciate its upgraded GPS or sports-focused features, but the real draw is the jaunty titanium case, bigger battery and international orange Action Button.
Not all of the Ultra’s new features will migrate downmarket, but I’m guessing the Action Button will. Its utility and potential is undeniable, as my colleagues Brian and Kirsten discovered in their review. For one, athletes love watches with buttons — whether you’re running or biking or cross-country skiing, there’s no replacement for a physical interface. Want to start logging a run? You can customize the button to launch a run workout. Then, once in the workout, you can log a lap with subsequent presses.
As developers start to explore the Action Button and develop new uses for it, its appeal outside of endurance sports will almost certainly grow. For now, users can’t customize the secondary action depending on the app. But if Brian and Kirsten get their wish, that might change.
Because Apple has worked hard to build up the Watch’s fitness bonafides, the first non-Ultra with an Action Button will probably be an aluminum model, as stainless steel is too heavy for a sports-oriented watch. The case will probably be reworked to differentiate it from both the Ultra and the regular Apple Watches. It’ll probably be slimmer, more like a Timex Ironman to the Ultra’s G-Shock. The additional size will give the new model an edge in battery life over the regular models. After all, that’s partly how Apple improved the Ultra’s battery life — it could cram a bigger battery into its bigger case (49mm versus 45mm).
Larger watches aren’t for everyone, of course. That’s why the smaller 41mm size (40mm on the SE) still exists. But for outdoor fitness enthusiasts, bigger watches have become commonplace because they enable extra sensors, bright displays and days-long battery life, trade-offs that many people with smaller wrists have come to accept.
Together, the new features could give another boost to the Apple Watch lineup. The Ultra stole this year’s show, overshading decent but expected updates to the Series 8 (and iPhone 14). An Apple Watch rich with new features would probably draw considerable attention and sales.
With those changes, perhapsApple will even bring back the “Sport” moniker, a name that dates back to the original aluminum Apple Watch. In the watch world, history matters, and after seven years on the market, the Apple Watch finally has some to draw on. It also fits with Apple’s current naming conventions, which are straightforward and convey the product’s qualities. “Air” is thin and light, “Pro” is faster and fancier, “Ultra” is extreme. “Sport” would be, well, sporty, and it would go well with an aluminum model that’s tailored to athletes.
These athletes aren’t necessarily going to be the same ones the Ultra caters to. They’re more likely to be running half marathons than full ones, tackling day hikes instead of thru hikes. Extremely fit, but not necessarily extreme in the sports they pursue. They might also want some of the features of the Ultra without the added cost. Is titanium worth the premium over aluminum? For some people, yes. But for the vast majority, no.
With the Sport back in the lineup, Apple could continue to sell the regular aluminum and stainless models alongside it. Compared with the extroverted Ultra and Sport models, the company can position them as slimmed-down, dressier versions. If the Action Button catches on — and I’m guessing it will — they’ll eventually get one, too, but without a flashy accent color.
Where would that leave the Apple Watch lineup? If we were to ignore inflation, this is what it might look like:
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 extroverted bands will help it stand out (literally and figuratively), just like the iPhone Pro Max. The large case 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 the regular models, at least at first. Once the company has refined those sensors’ designs and production processes, some of those will probably trickle down, too.
Apple has found a reliable playbook that it uses to expand its offerings in each 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, communications device second — it’s on solid footing to expand into new niches in the category. Bringing back the Sport as a more affordable Ultra could help it conquer yet another segment of the watch market.