On September 9th, Apple announced the long-anticipated "Apple Watch" (née iWatch), ending months of speculation and needless concept creations. As usual with an Apple announcement, the public reaction seems to be split between "this is revolutionary!", and "Apple is doomed!" In many ways, this reminds me of the original iPhone announcement. Here's why:
The original iPhone wasn't the first SmartPhone
When iPhone was announced, there was a very entrenched incumbent in Blackberry. There were also several nascent players in Palm, Windows Mobile, etc. Apple Watch enters a field already crowded by Samsung, LG, Motorola, etc. No single player is as dominant in the category as Blackberry was in SmartPhones, but Apple Watch does face a formidable foe in Android Wear. It has been almost predictable then, that this has elicited chants of "Apple's a follower!"
As Charles Arthur correctly points out, Apple has always been a follower. They rarely (if ever) create a completely new category/market. They are masters at refocusing a product or category that most approach as a technology or science experiment, and instead approach it from the users' perspective and solve their problems. In some ways, maybe this is reminiscent of the MP3 player market as well. The iPod wasn't radically different, but creating a "whole product" vs. a device gave Apple the edge.
The original iPhone had UX elements that made it novel (multi-touch)
Early SmartPhones were an attempt to miniaturize a PC, all the way down to trackballs and QWERTY keyboards. What made the iPhone distinct was the near complete elimination of physical buttons and an emphasis on touch, swipe, gesture, motion, etc. as input metaphors. The "Digital Crown" on Apple Watch and two-force tap/push UI are very different than the current market filled with either non-touch devices (Pebble) or touch-first/only devices (Android Wear). Only usage and time will tell if Apple got that part right.
As a lefty, I'm waiting to see how the UI adapts to being put on my right wrist. With a typical watch, you simply move it over. The difference is you don't often tinker with the crown while you're wearing a traditional watch. Simply moving Apple Watch to your right wrist would require you to reach across the face of the watch to access the crown or button. Hopefully there will be a left-handed mode that flips the UI upside down and the entire watch can be rotated 180 degrees. The removable band mechanism seems to accomodate this approach.
The original iPhone's potential as a platform was largely missed
Many pundits and tech journalists simply viewed the original iPhone as a device only. It wasn't until the first major software update with iPhone OS 2.0 (this was pre-"iOS") that iPhone's potential as a platform, enabling entirely new use cases and users experiences, was realized. I hear a lot of that same noise right now (about all SmartWatches, in fairness). If we view the SmartWatch category simply as devices that tell time; of course it's going to fair unfavorably with traditional watches that have been manufactured and refined for nearly one hundred and fifty years. Alternatively, if a SmartWatch is simply viewed as a way to get phone notifications on your wrist, the entire category is doomed for lack of truly solving any meaningful user problems (see Microsoft Spot Watch). Google (and its hardware partners) and Apple are both clearly focused on the platform approach. With Watch, I think Apple has taken it further than Google with payments and the many health/fitness capabilities, but I think the stage is set for Apple vs. Google round 3 (and once again, Microsoft is on the sidelines).
Hell, its bulbous curves even look a bit like the original iPhone