Last year, Apple broke with tradition and offered not one, but two Apple Watches—the Series 6 and the cheaper SE. Now, a Bloomberg report is suggesting Apple is mulling adding another rugged variant to appeal to outdoor athletes and hikers.
The news comes from Mark Gurman, a noted Apple prognosticator with a good track record. Citing unnamed Apple sources, Gurman contends a rugged Apple Watch wouldn’t supplant existing Apple Watch models. Rather, it’d be its own model, in the vein of other special edition Apple Watches, like the one it has with Nike. Functionally, the rugged watch wouldn’t be that different from the regular Apple Watch. The main difference is that it’d have “extra impact-resistance and protection.”
Aesthetically, Bloomberg contends the rugged watch might look something like a Casio G-Shock. That makes sense given its rubber exterior, a look that you can find on many a Garmin or Suunto. Right now, you can get the Apple Watch in either aluminum, titanium, or stainless steel. While the titanium and stainless steel versions are hardier than the cheaper aluminum model, they’re still not immune to dings and scratches—especially if you’re someone who likes more extreme sports like downhill mountain biking or rock climbing. The same goes for the more expensive sapphire crystal screens. (They’re mostly fine if you’re sticking to the gym or gentler exercises like yoga.)
Aside from a beefier encasing, sturdier materials, and watch strap accessories, it’s not clear what else Apple would do to set a potential rugged watch apart. The current Apple Watches are already water-resistant to 5 ATM or 50 meters, which is the minimum level required for swimming. Apple’s native workout app also includes a wide variety of outdoor activities, including climbing, open water and indoor swimming, water sports and water polo, surfing, snowboarding, downhill and cross country skiing, and even hunting. Bloomberg says the company is working on new swim-tracking features, but unless they’re upping the ante to 10 ATM, better swimming metrics wouldn’t necessarily be limited to the rugged version. The same holds true if Apple decides to offer the same in-depth running metrics offered by more fitness-focused wearables like Garmin and Polar.
In any case, Bloomberg’s report says the earliest we could see a rugged Apple Watch is later this year or 2022 at the earliest. If it’s this year, we’ll likely find out sometime this fall, which is when Apple usually launches its new generation of Apple Watches. (This is provided that the global chip shortage and existing supply chain issues don’t continue to muck up the usual product launch cadence for 2021.) Then again, this isn’t the first time Apple has purportedly considered a rugged version. Back in 2015, after launching its first Apple Watch, the company reportedly mulled releasing a model to appeal to extreme sports athletes but eventually decided against it. The same thing could happen here too.
One thing in favor of a rugged watch, however, is the fact that the Apple Watch is a much more important product for Apple these days. It’s hard to say exactly how much the Apple Watch generated in revenue for the company, as it’s lumped in with AirPods, the HomePod, and accessories in Apple’s reporting. However, that segment saw a record 30% growth in Q1 this year for an impressive $13 billion in revenue. Plus, Apple has noted that in terms of the watch, 75% of customers are first-time buyers, rather than upgrades. Given that, adding another SKU makes more sense now than it did when the Apple Watch was widely considered an unnecessary luxury.
But while the move makes sense, it’s unclear whether it’s a gamble that will pay off. By offering a rugged watch, Apple’s taking clear aim at competitors like Garmin, Suunto, and Polar. Good luck there, as Garmin users are among the most brand-loyal in the smartwatch category, and there’s a reason it’s one of the most preferred endurance sports brands. Apple doesn’t natively offer as much in the way of the recovery metrics—which can be a serious dealbreaker for dedicated athletes. Not to mention, the Apple Watch is still touting an 18-hour “all-day” battery life—which in the world of rugged smartwatches, is pitifully short. Lastly, while Apple’s recently made a bigger push into fitness (See: Fitness+), its biggest strength is still in its advanced health features and multi-purpose usage.
Right now, the biggest rumor swirling around the Series 7 is the possibility of blood sugar monitoring. (A feat, that if Apple could pull off, would render a rugged variant small potatoes.) Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has also said the Series 7 will likely focus on “innovative health management functions” and “improved form factor design.” It’s possible the latter is referring to a rugged watch, though it could also mean a more aesthetic redesign. We’ll just have to wait and see.