Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Watch

Tech 5 min read

Last month, Apple announced their entry into the wearable computing device market with the Apple Watch, which will be released early next year.

I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on the product, and its category of devices in general.

Let’s begin by putting aside the curmudgeonly arguments: I’m ideologically OK with smart watches. I do think that they take a smartphone’s social impression of “I’m bored with your company”, and amplify it to level of “I actively want to leave”, but that’s your issue to deal with. As ever, the use of mobile devices (and indeed any human behaviour) should always be moderated by politeness.

The Apple Watch is a satellite device, for the iPhone that’s already in your pocket. There’s no on-screen keyboard - though it can take Siri dictation for certain tasks - and it appears to be designed primarily as a notification and display system, allowing only cursory replies to messages and such if you aren’t currently at liberty to speak to your forearm.

The display is touch sensitive, and also distinguishes between taps and prolonged presses. The main hardware control is essentially a click-wheel, allowing zoom-based navigation and presumably continuous adjustment of on-screen values and options. It’s an elegant solution for the difficult problem of a very cramped display, and I have no doubt that it works fluidly and will become second nature after a day or two.

Apple Watch will be available in three primary editions, which boil down to: basic, sporty, and luxury. Two different case sizes and a host of strap/band options give a large number of customisation options to choose from, before even considering the software interface. Things we wear on our bodies are very personal, so it was sensible and inevitable that Apple wouldn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. We’ve seen a slight bowing to personal taste in recent years with first white and then also gold iPhone casings, with rumours of gold options on full-size iPads soon, and possibly even colour options on laptops in future.

So far, so… fine. As consumer electronics products go, it’s a very desirable offering - as usual. It’s not something I’m going to buy, though.

It’s big and bulky, for one thing (and I have small wrists), and it’s another device I need to charge every night. It’s also a 1.0 release, and is clearly going to age rapidly and unfavourably. But my early-adopter syndrome could forgive all of those things, for any other device.

The real problem is that it is a device.

I’m a wristwatch wearer, and have been for many years.

Wristwatch

I wear a gold Rotary, which was a gift from my father seventeen years ago. It has a traditional strap (replaced a few times), and it’s shallow and has a small diameter; ideal for my slender wrists.

Tech-savvy people I encounter have often commented on my watch, usually expressing surprise that I wear one at all. You have your phone for the time, they say. I wonder what they’ll say next year.

I love wearing a watch. It has utility dozens of times a day, and mine has sentimental value too, but it’s also a comforting thing. I have the same affection for my watch as I have for the hat that has accompanied me on every overseas holiday I’ve taken in the last ten years. I’ve travelled with it, and it’s been my companion. I could say the same about a wallet, or a notebook, or a pen - but I’d never say it about the latest in a long line of mobile phones.

My watch is only incidentally a machine. Emotionally, it’s part of my clothing.

The Apple Watch isn’t a watch. Just like your iPhone isn’t a phone. Instead, it’s a gadget. A multi-function box of electronic tricks, that just happens to also offer some simple functions that are analogues of the dedicated mechanical devices of old that we’ve named these mini-computers after.

It’s important to understand what Watch is, and why it’s interesting. Apple isn’t pursuing the tech consumer crowd with this product, and that’s unprecedented for the company.

Before iPhone, there were two kinds of mobile phones: regular ones, and so-called smartphones. The latter were business tools, with plastic mini-keyboards, and advertising campaigns that focused on Exchange integration and other such soul-numbing corporate concerns.

Now, the iPhone defines the smartphone category. There are iPhones and the many similar, imitator devices, and there are also still the “dumbphones”, quickly passing from the consumer’s consciousness. Apple owns the category, in popular consciousness. Just like iPods define what a portable digital music player is.

iPhones, iPads and iPods (and Macs) have one thing in common: they’re for the consumer who’s looking for a piece of technology. People who primarily want a device, and then select that device based on reputation, fitness for purpose, price, and perhaps aesthetics and build quality. In all cases, though, they begin with the fundamental concept of a gadget. iPhones and the rest all belong to the tech sector.

There are already smartwatches available, and they’re all also gadgets. They live in the tech sector too, and they’ve been designed and marketed as such, to the same old crowd of consumers. They are geek toys, without exception.

Apple doesn’t care about that market, because it’s a tiny segment of an industry they already dominate. What Apple cares about is the wristwatch market.

Wristwatches are for everyone, geek or not, and premium watches are for the discerning, style-conscious consumer looking to advertise that they have a certain lifestyle. These buyers begin with the concept of a watch, not a gadget on the wrist.

Will geeks buy Apple Watch? Absolutely. Lots of them. Most buyers of Apple Watch will be geeks, even - and that’ll remain true for a while. But Apple is betting that things will shift, as with the iPod, and the iPhone, and the iPad. Because geeks have never been Apple’s focus, and never will be.

Apple’s products exist on a spectrum between the two natural design-tensions of functionality and aesthetics, with most existing as close to the halfway mark as possible. All other things being equal, Apple will sacrifice functionality in order to heighten aesthetic appeal (and more subtly, user experience) every time. That’s the right choice. Count the number of ports on your MacBook and compare it to any PC laptop for proof of that.

Traditional tech products exist squarely at the functional end of the spectrum, but watches exist at the aesthetic end.

A credible watch - that aims to define the smartwatch category for the next ten years - has to start at the aesthetic end, and compromise towards functionality. The target customer is the style-conscious consumer, not the tech-savvy one.

Apple’s courtship for this product has been suitably targeted. Anna Wintour (Editor-in-chief of American Vogue, and the woman on whom Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada was based) and Karl Lagerfeld were given demonstrations of Apple Watch at Paris fashion week. The Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley is writing about Apple Watch while she attends, too.

Vogue has published a hagiography of Jony Ive, and you can bet that the full-page ads for Apple Watch are already booked for 2015, complete with accompanying advertorial. These gurus are as far from Scoble and the usual nerd-toys tear-down suspects as it’s possible to get. And rightly so.

Apple Watch isn’t a new tech product. It’s Apple’s first product in a consumer category they haven’t entered before, and they’re fully aware of that.

For me, the first iteration of Apple Watch is still just an electronic device. It’s not a watch, and if I’m wearing something on my wrist, I’d like it to be a watch. I can’t bring myself to wear a gadget-box strapped to my arm. It’s declassé, and too self-consciously nerdy for my own tastes.

What I would very much like, though, is an enhanced wristwatch. Something elegant and stylish, that adorns rather than encumbers, and exposes a minimum of useful additional functions in an unobtrusive and unostentatious way. Augmented jewellery, if you like.

Apple have tried very hard to make a strong push towards that ideal, and they’ve already come closer than anyone else so far. I’ll be following this new product line with interest. In the meantime, I’ll be holding off on a purchase.

I’m just glad that, as ever, Apple clearly understands who they’re selling to.


I wrote a follow-up to this piece, after using an Apple Watch for a few days.