While Apple’s introduction of a “smart watch” yesterday couldn’t have surprised anyone with a pulse, there were three surprising bits to me:
- It’s coming out of the gate with so many models.
- The UX centered around the “digital crown.”
- That they’re flat-out calling it a watch.
Arguably all of those points connect. The Apple Watch is just as capable a device as the Moto 360 and other “wearables”; arguably, it’s more so, as it has hardware capabilities none of them (currently) do. But this is firmly a fashion accessory. You know, kind of like a watch.
From the moment they introduced it I started seeing criticisms of—surprise—it’s shape. “It’s square! Not round! Apple blew it!” Well, maybe, but nearly all of the people harping on the shape are tech nerds. We claim that “normal people want round watches,” but what we mean is whoa, man, Motorola made a round display. That’s an impressive technical achievement, but square watch faces have been a thing for almost as long as watch faces have. What “normal people” want is wristwatches that aren’t the size of pocketwatches. The Galaxy Gear is a staggering 37 mm × 57 mm rectangle; even the comparatively svelte Motorola 360 has a 46 mm diameter—making it larger than either of the two Apple Watches. 1
The fashion world, as Reuters put it, is “divided,” but none of them seem to be saying, “Square? Ew.” As “watch guy” Benjamin Clymer writes in Hodinkee (“one of the most widely read wristwatch publications in the world”), while the Apple Watch “is not perfect, by any means,” they get “more details right on their watch than the vast majority of Swiss and Asian brands do with similarly priced watches, and those details add up to a really impressive piece of design.” He praises it for both restraint and respect: “in its own way, [the Apple Watch] really pays great homage to traditional watchmaking and the environment in which horology was developed.”
At risk of getting even more meta, though, here are two other intriguing things about the Apple Watch, neither of which is truly about the watch.
Apple has long been one of the few tech companies that pays the same respect to exterior design as they do to internal engineering. This is something Apple fans love about the company—and something Apple critics hate. They prioritize industrial design in a way no one else does: they want their laptops to be as thin and light as possible and if that means having no optical drive, no swappable battery, few USB ports, and even redesigning the damn power connector twice, so be it. Is that no compromise design, or is it all compromise design? You can make a case for both, but it’s a mistake to treat this as an either/or scenario. Design is a feature, and it’s one a sizable minority is willing to pay for.2 If it’s not a feature you’re willing to pay for, though, it’s suspect—and the techie culture has long been deeply suspicious of prioritizing aesthetics. You can tell a techie that Apple does material science like no other consumer company and they’ll appreciate it, but they’ll still think the only reason you bought that 13″ MacBook Pro instead of the Dell laptop that’s got a 17″ screen and 37 USB ports for half the price is because you’re an iSheep.
But with recent moves—hires from Tag Heuer and Burberry, buying Beats, and now the watch—Apple is embracing the fashion label like never before. I’ve thought for years that Apple’s true target wasn’t Microsoft or IBM or Google but Sony. Now that Sony’s all but abandoned the “lifestyle electronics” market, well, capitalism abhors a vacuum.3
This gives Apple’s critics ammunition like never before, too. The digs against the Apple Watch from the nerd herd have been fast and furious. (“Not round. Less battery life than a Pebble. Doesn’t work with Android. Lame.”) This may give Apple’s longtime fans some qualms, too, though—those who understand the Mac understand that it’s not just the “computer for the rest of us,” it’s the kickass Unix workstation for the rest of us. The silver lining is that Macs are selling at higher volume than ever, and that iPads are not going to eat the Mac’s lunch any time soon.
The second intriguing thing is how much Tim Cook has staked on the Apple Watch. He’s introduced it in such a way that clearly places it on the same level as the Mac and iOS devices. This is something I’m not so sanguine about. My own biggest criticism of smartwatches is that they seem to be solutions in search of problems. Apple has a remarkable track record of solving problems that people didn’t know they had (which is another thing that makes the most hardcore techies hate them, as they still can’t forgive Apple for moving the world away from the command line), but just what problem have we had that the Apple Watch solves? I don’t see an obvious answer to that.
But I don’t think Apple does, either. Go to Apple’s web site and click on the various product categories. All of them have headlines: “The notebook people love” (MacBook Air), “More power behind every pixel” (MacBook Pro), “Bigger than Bigger” (iPhone 6), “Small wonder” (iPad mini), “Engineered for maximum funness” (iPod touch). Except one: the watch. As terrific as the Apple Watch’s design is (and it is), Apple needs to be able to tell us why we want it. Right now, they can’t. And that’s not a good enough foundation to build the “next chapter of Apple” on.
In terms of area, things are murkier. The Moto 360 covers 16.62 cm²; if the 42 mm Apple Watch were square it would cover 17.64 cm², but it looks higher than it is wide. I suspect the actual area it covers is about the same as the 360. ↩
I’d also argue that part of the reason Macs cost more than PCs is not because Macs are overpriced but because PCs are underpriced, but that’s another topic. ↩
The one big market that Sony is in that Apple isn’t is, yes, game consoles. I think 2015 may be interesting. ↩