Fri Sep 12, 2014
“One more thing…” he said, evoking the classic Steve Jobs catchphrase for the first time since Steve’s death. Tim Cook’s excitement was palpable, his voice shaking with emotion. When he introduced the Apple Watch as the next step in Apple’s story, I believed. Apple was about to change the world again.
Of course, after all that hyperbole, the big reveal was a huge disappointment. I guess I was expecting the unexpected, and didn’t get it. It’s my fault really. The Apple Watch announcement may have surprised, you know, the less tech-savvy muggles who don’t follow tech news and rumours as obsessively. Also, it didn’t help that the very rumour of an Apple smartwatch lit a collective fire under the asses of Google and friends and spurred them on to bring smartwatches to the market first. And pretty good ones too - The beautiful Moto 360 went on sale a mere few days before the Apple announcement and promptly sold out. You can tell Motorola put in some serious late nights to bring the Moto 360 to fruition - and sometimes, such urgency can produce something remarkable in a short amount of time.
By contrast, the Apple Watch was in development for at least three years - and it shows. The patient approach is both good and bad. The good is that Apple was able to perfect the little details and establish their supply lines in rare materials, such as the scratch-resistant sapphire used to house the watch face. The bad is that they must have committed to a bland, bulbous square form-factor early on. Only very recently have experimental curved displays come into the market - and the classic round design of the Moto 360 is absolutely the right form-factor for a smartwatch. Especially in a world where wearables either have to mimic their analog counterparts or fail to garner mainstream acceptance. A square digital watch evokes the nerdy calculator watch from the 80s, and this is not a good thing. In the fashion world, the round form factor of a classic mechanical timepiece is timeless.
However, Apple got a lot of things right. I am sure the device will be manufactured to the highest standards with the usual seamless finish and polish that Apple is famous for. The variety of colours and watch straps available for customization is impressive and well thought out. The “taptic engine” sounds like an unobtrusive way of alerting the user to new notifications. I especially appreciated the scenario where you can follow map directions by turning left or right based only on the sequence of “taps” you feel on your wrist. On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of the “digital crown” simply because the watch has a touch-screen interface as well - I think a mix of two UI inputs can be fractured and confusing.
Looking at the bigger picture, I don’t think Apple - or anybody else for that matter - has answered the question of why we really need smartwatches in the first place. If the goal is to wrench people’s eyes up from their smartphone, then smartwatches fail horribly. Buzzing your wrist for every tweet and email that come in is not going to ease anybody’s anxiety nor give them a break from technology. If the goal is to enhance communication, then smartwatches are woefully inadequate, unless you’re comfortable talking into your watch in public like Inspector Gadget. Apple is trying to convince us that tapping and drawing is a cool new form of communication, and maybe I’m just old fashioned, but that doesn’t appeal to me. Nor does sending anybody - anybody - my heart rate. Can you imagine any scenario for this that isn’t R rated?
Fitness tracking seems like the only reasonable use for a smartwatch, but even then, its utility is limited. I certainly don’t want a watch bugging me to stand up every hour when I’m in the middle of something. And really, are we that out of touch with our bodies? When I’m running, I don’t need to be told when I’m out of breath, or that my heart is beating faster than usual. And to check your pulse, all you have to do is put a finger on the carotid artery conveniently located on your neck. It’s not that hard. Tracking your fitness stats is useful for reaching your fitness goals, but after a while everybody plateaus and pushing past that ceiling requires specialized training. Also, fitness tracking may be useful for the motivated, but is no panacea for an unhealthy lifestyle.
In a few years, smartwatches will be thinner, have better battery life, sport a more diverse design, and be more autonomous (no tethering to a smartphone in your pocket). When that happens, they will start to eat away the market share of mechanical watches in the same price range. There will be more useful sensors, and integration with the “internet of things”. And with some trial and error, we will figure out what we can really use them for and how they can usefully augment our lives. But we’re not there yet. So keep calm and carry on, world.