OPINION: The Apple Watch is, well, just a watch

24 February 2016, 03:45

Everybody expected Apple to give them an iPhone on their wrist. 

Apple gave them a watch. 

It wasn’t the Apple Pip Boy. It wasn’t the Apple Wristlojackimator. It was a Watch. To create it they even pulled in a guy known for creating traditional watches. At news events and within marketing materials, Apple spends as much if not more time talking about watch straps, or material science, as they do about the “smart” functions of the Apple Watch. This is how traditional watch marketing works. 

Apple didn’t have to set the default view of the Apple Watch as a clock face or digital display. They could’ve created some kind of daily desktop view, showing appointments and reminders and wifi strength and iCloud Drive status and… oh yeah, if you squint at the top right you can see the time too. 

But they didn’t. They offer a variety of watch faces, many of which do little more than show the current time and date. 

This is because the Apple Watch is, well, a watch. 

And I think this is where Apple forgot who they are and what they do. 

For people who’ve dropped their Watch into a dusty drawer proclaiming it not useful enough, Apple’s quite valid response might be, “Have you tried using it to tell the time?” 

The folks who are vociferous about loving the Apple Watch tend to be “Watch people” – people who love watches, and already have the best traditional models. Personally, although the last time I wore a watch was 20 years ago prior to the Apple Watch, I’ve come to accept it as invaluable only by realising that nine times out 10 I’ll be looking at it to see what the time or date is. That’s the reason I tie it around my wrist. 

I suspect this statement will sound awfully strange to people at Apple, who might wonder what else I was expecting. 

It will sound equally strange to the people whose Apple Watches reside in that dusty drawer. 

Apple’s design process is to iterate and refine. The current MacBook Pro shows a clear lineage right back to the first unibody aluminum model of almost a decade ago. The iPad today looks essentially identical to the iPad introduced five years ago. 

As users we have to hope that Apple’s iterating towards functionality with the Apple Watch rather than, erm, yet more watch designiness. Sure, they have a strong team working on the Watch OS and that’s certainly very important. But what matters here is (a) that Apple is a hardware company first and foremost (never forget this when considering Apple), and (b) that the collective will of Apple, laid down by its executive management, is clearly saying: The Watch is a watch. And watches are about fashion, and about design. Apple worked extraordinarily hard to target the Watch at a fashion segment and continues to do so

So the question becomes: Who’s going to give first? Are we the public going to alter our perceptions? We we going to accept the Apple Watch first and foremost as a horological device that has some useful extra functionality? Or is Apple going to iterate more towards usability and functionality? Or will be it, as Abe Simpson said, a little bit of column A and a little of column B? 

Another way of expressing the above is to say that Apple has failed to define a new product category with the Apple Watch. This is what Apple does, of course. Economics textbooks of the future will focus on this extraordinary and even magical skill. 

As mentioned Apple’s product design method is one of iteration. With its new products Apple’s genius is that it iterates while simultaneously destroying. Sure, the iPhone came after a history of failed smartphones, but to call it a smartphone is stunningly naive. The iPad came after a history of failed slate tablets but to call it a slate is also naive. Once the iPhone came into existence, Blackberry and Nokia were dead men walking. Once the iPad came out, Microsoft began its long descent to the bottom of the ocean. 

The Watch didn't manage to create a new product category (where are the sneakily similar clones from other manufacturers?) – but I'm not sure it ever intended to. During initial marketing those at Apple behind the Watch were very keen to emphasise how much they liked the existing watch range of the world — stark contrast to the iPhone and iPad, and the disgust with which people like Steve Jobs and Jony Ive talked about existing hardware from other manufacturers. Did the Watch evolve out of the watch world, rather than shunning it — as is perhaps necessary for Apple success? The Watch Sport strap looks astonishingly similar to some of Marc Newson’s older watch designs, for example. You might ask how a watch can NOT look like existing watches – but then you might've asked the same about the iPhone before it was launched. Where's the built-in keyboard? Where was the stylus on the original iPad? Where's the desktop tower on the iMac?

It needs to be said once again: the Apple Watch is, well, a watch. And perhaps that means something has gone wrong. We Apple fans of the world have to hope Apple has realised this with the up-coming Apple Watch 2, but do you know what? I don't think they have. 

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From my perspective there is one crucial area that the Apple Watch fails as a watch: battery life. We used to expect to wind our watches weekly, then replace a watch battery every year, then every five years – now, for some watches – never. Battery hungry features that include high resolution colour screens, multitouch etc. means the device is compromised in a crucial manner.

— Pieter Eksteen · Feb 24, 11:08 AM · #