The Apple Watch is part of an ecosystem in progress. Some think that Apple’s presentation of the Watch has been vague about the purpose of this new device. My impression is different. What Apple has come up with is a device that cannot be easily labelled, because it’s not just a digital watch, and even calling it a smartwatch may be reductive. Giving an ‘explanation’ like You’ll want this device because it does ‘this’ or it does ‘that’ would have been patronising on Apple’s part (in the “We’ll tell you why it’s perfect for you” attitude that I haven’t always liked), or merely simplistic and I daresay self-defeating. And if you think about it, if you try to sell the Apple Watch by focusing on this or that particular feature, it’s going to be a hard sell. A cool watch with customisable faces? Yeah, no thanks, I’ll keep my Swatch (or whatever watch you own). A fitness device? There are cheaper ones, thanks, and I’m also not really interested in all that ‘quantified self’ stuff, so I’ll pass. A cool gadget to listen to music while out and about? My iPod shuffle does the trick, and it’s as wearable as the Watch. And so on and so forth.
The fact is, the Apple Watch is all that, and more, and a lot of this ‘more’ is out of Apple’s hands because who knows what kinds of apps and uses developers will come up with over time. How do you convey this level of versatility? By giving hints, by giving a feeling — and the presentation actually did a nice job in giving the audience a feeling instead of an explanation. Apple offered an extended overview of the design process (the video narrated by Ive), and an extended overview of some of the things the Watch is capable of (the demo by Kevin Lynch, and the health & fitness video). All this combined, to me, felt like a big preview of the ‘shape of things to come’; it was like a giant trailer of a much anticipated movie that will come in early 2015.
The shape of things to come is, in my opinion, an extension of the concept of personal computing. An evolution of the Apple ecosystem that (literally) has come to surround the user. If you let Apple’s ecosystem into your life, you spend a lot of your waking hours surrounded by Apple devices: you work on your Mac, you have an iPhone in your pocket practically all the time, and you may also use an iPad to play, read books, watch movies, or maybe catch up with the news & feeds while having your morning coffee or tea… At the WWDC 2014 we’ve seen one important thing Apple is seriously working on: integration. OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 are going to be collaborative, interconnected operating systems. Apple is aiming for a seamless experience, so that users can follow their workflows across devices. With the Apple Watch and its symbiotic relation to the iPhone, that interconnectedness is going to increase.
How intrusive the Apple Watch is going to be, as I mentioned in my previous article, depends entirely on the user. Apple has planted the seed for a possible shift in mobile communication and app experience that isn’t exclusive to the smartphone, but the company isn’t forcing anybody to jump on the bandwagon. Apple seems to be fine with people reacting along the lines of “Why should I buy that thing?”. This is just the beginning of the roadmap, and the vibe I got towards the end of the presentation was, Just wait when we ship this product, and when new third-party apps are available, then we’ll see.
When the iPhone was a novelty, for the first year or so, the only apps you could use where those built by Apple. Developers were initially encouraged to build Web apps and when finally Apple opened the iPhone to third-party development with native apps, that was the moment the iPhone really started to take off. With the Apple Watch, Apple is giving WatchKit in the hands of third-party developers months before the actual launch of the product. This is, at least theoretically, a win-win situation: Apple gets to offer a device that’s potentially much more capable and versatile than it is now; developers get a new playing ground with which they can add a layer of depth to their existing iOS apps and/or create new way to use the Apple Watch by taking advantage of the sensor technology it provides; customers, finally, can end up with a device that makes more sense and is more useful to them than it seems now.
With the Watch, Apple wants to use the lesson learnt from the success of the iPhone and how crucial a factor third-party developers were in ensuring that success, to jump-start things when the Apple Watch will officially debut in 2015.
The single aspect of the Apple Watch I’m possibly most curious about at the moment is its future iterations and refresh cycle. Instinctively, I’d say it’s going to be a bit slower than, say, the iPhone’s or the iPad’s. I don’t see the Apple Watch as a device people change as often as they change iPhones. 350 dollars is going to be the entry price, I believe, and it will be the price of the Sport line. The Apple Watch and Watch Edition lines are going to be more expensive. With such pricing, I don’t know how many customers are willing to upgrade to a new-generation Apple Watch every year, while it’s obvious that Apple will update the device at regular intervals to include hardware advancements (e.g. a more efficient battery, more radios to make it less dependent on the iPhone, etc.).
However I also believe that Apple is also aiming to offer a device which, like more traditional watches, is meant to stay with the user for a longer time than the typical upgrade cycle of smartphones. I don’t think that, say, a second-generation Apple Watch will render the first-generation Watch outright obsolete — it’ll have nicer additions or perhaps a slimmer design, things that can entice new customers. But the previous-generation Apple Watch will continue to work just fine, a bit like what happened with Amazon and the Kindle family of products, if you like. Or, of course, with the Macs, where a 5-year-old Mac like my MacBook Pro can support the latest version of OS X and still be put to good use.
The Apple Watch is going to be a whole new category of product for Apple, and at this point I’m not entirely sure we can measure it using existing product lines with different refresh cycles, involving different hardware technologies and manufacturing processes, and driven by different market strategies. If Apple wants to offer a product with the same ‘built to last’ feel that high-end watches have, then perhaps it won’t roll out product refreshes as often as the iPhone and iPad. (Though Apple might introduce new collections/editions to address an even wider audience, for example.)
I ultimately think that, to have a better understanding of the Apple Watch’s nature, we should really see it in the context of the Apple ecosystem, and not only as a standalone device. The more you isolate it, the less sense it makes because the use cases become limited. Instead, think about what it can do by talking to other Apple devices. For now, we know that it’s going to interface with the iPhone. But what about the Mac? It could be used as a proximity device to lock/unlock the Mac screen, for example. What about the ‘connected home’ environment? A lot of use cases brought up by Craig Federighi when talking about HomeKit during the WWDC 2014 keynote can be applied to the Apple Watch as well (you could use the Watch to control locks, lights, cameras, doors, thermostats, plugs, switches, etc.). Also, imagine what the Apple Watch could do together with an updated Apple TV: I’m not only thinking of using the watch as a remote, but also as a possible game controller, Wii-style. Sure, it’s all in the realm of the ‘maybe,’ for now, but these few examples don’t look that much far-fetched to me.
I’m sure I’ll have other considerations to make further down the road. For now, here are a few links to articles on the Apple Watch I’ve enjoyed most so far:
- Owen Williams, People are reacting to Apple’s Watch the same way they did to the iPod in 2001
- Michael Lopp (Rands), Not a Hobby
- Jean-Louis Gassée, Apple Watch Is and Isn’t…
- John Gruber, Apple Watch: Initial Thoughts and Observations
- 1. Some people have already started to worry that the Apple Watch is going to be even more distracting than the iPhone, what with all those notifications and taptic feedback. But it’s my understanding that you can specify which apps and services should send you notifications, so you can tailor how much or how little nagging you want to receive on your wrist. ↩