Apple Watch: Asking Why and Saying No

Dan Frommer wrote in Quartz about The Hidden Structure of the Apple Keynote. His analysis covered 27 events since 2007, and included things like average length, laughs per executive, and the timing of iPhone reveals.

It’s a good read, but in light of the Watch introduction, I am more interested in comparing yesterday’s keynote to only three others: the introductions of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Specifically, I’m interested in the exact moment when Apple revealed each device:

  • The iPod was introduced on October 23, 2001; after discussing iLife and Apple digital hub strategy, the iPod section begins at 11:30. However, the iPod itself does not actually appear on a slide until 20:48, and Jobs pulls it out of his pocket at 21:07, nearly 10 minutes after he begins his introduction. The intervening 10 minutes were spent explaining the music market, why Apple thought they could succeed in that market, and what was special about the iPod

  • The iPhone was introduced on January 9, 2007. However, the iPhone itself does not actually appear on a slide until 7:03, and only then to introduce multitouch. The rest of the device wasn’t seen until 12:20. Jobs spent all of that time explaining the smartphone market, why Apple thought they could succeed in that market, and what was special about the iPhone

  • The iPad was introduced on January 27, 2010. After a few updates, the iPad section begins at 5:15. However, the iPad itself does not actually appear on a slide until 8:55. Jobs spent the intervening time explaining that Apple saw a market between the iPhone and the Mac, but that any device that played there needed to be better than either device at a few specific use cases

  • The Apple Watch introduction was quite a bit different:

The Apple Watch section began with the iconic “One more thing…” at 55:44,1 and these were the extent of Tim Cook’s words before we got our first glimpse of the Apple Watch:

We love to make great products that really enrich people’s lives. We love to integrate hardware, software, and services seamlessly. We love to make technology more personal and allow our users to do things that they could have never imagined. We’ve been working incredibly hard for a long time on an entirely new product. And we believe this product will redefine what people expect from its category. I am so excited and I am so proud to share it with you this morning. It is the next chapter in Apple’s story. And here it is.

Then came the introductory video, and we never got an explanation of why the Apple Watch existed, or what need it is supposed to fill. What is the market? Why does Apple believe it can succeed there? What makes the Apple Watch unique?2

Now it’s very fair to note that the biggest difference between the introduction of the iPod, iPhone and iPad as compared to the Apple Watch is that Steve Jobs is no longer with us. Perhaps the long introduction was simply his personal style. But the problem is that the Smart Watch needs that explanation: what exactly is the point?

To be clear, the hardware looks amazing, and I love the Digital Crown. It’s one of those innovations that seems so blindingly obvious in retrospect, and Cook was spot on when he noted that you can’t just shrink a smartphone UI to the wrist. But that was exactly the problem with too many of the software demos: there were multiple examples of activities that simply make no sense on the wrist. For example:

  • There were sixty-four applications on the demo watch, and the tap targets are quite small3
  • I can definitely see some compelling Siri use cases for the Watch, but scrolling through movies is not one of them. If you’re looking for a movie you’re almost certainly in a state of movement and mind that makes it possible to pull out your phone and use a screen much more suited to the task
  • “We also looked at how you can carry your photos with you.” Here’s an idea: on your phone!

The Maps demo was the most frustrating: it included panning around, searching for a Whole Foods – including the phone number! – all activities that by definition mean you are stationary and can use your phone. But that’s when the demo got really good:

  • While you’re actually traveling, the watch will not only show directions, but will actually use the “Taptic Engine” to indicate turns by feel. That is awesome, and an amazing use case for the watch. Who hasn’t been dashing somewhere, running into things while looking at their phone? A watch is far more suited, particularly one that doesn’t even require you to look at the screen
  • I also like that you can use the Watch to control your iPhone or any other AirPlay device. This would be incredibly useful around the house, at a party, etc.
  • The Taptic Engine makes sure only you know about a notification that you have previously agreed to receive. There are smart options for replying, as well as Siri and emoticons, but you can always use “Handoff” to compose a more extensive reply on a more suitable device

There is a clear pattern to these examples:

  • The bad demos are all activities that are better done on your phone. They are also the activities that make the Watch seem the most like a real computer
  • The good demos are all activities that extend your phone in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. They are also activities that make the Watch seem less capable as a self-contained unit

This is why I’m worried that the lack of explanation about the Watch’s purpose wasn’t just a keynote oversight, but something that reflects a fundamental question about the product itself that Apple itself has yet to answer: is Watch an iPhone accessory, or is it valuable in its own right?4

The question is likely more fraught than it seems: the entry price for Apple Watch is $350, nearly half the price of an iPhone (and $150 more than the up-front cost for a subsidized consumer). Moreover, I suspect Edition models will go for ten times that, if not more. Surely such a price demands a device that is capable of doing more, not less.

In fact, I would argue the contrary. Swiss watches are less accurate, but the benefit they confer on the user are so much greater. Those benefits are about intangible things like status and fashion, but that doesn’t mean they are worth less than more technical capabilities like telling time accurately. Indeed, they are exponentially more valuable.

Moreover, it seems clear to me that Apple wants to play in this space: Jony Ive wasn’t joking when he allegedly said that Switzerland was in trouble. I believe Apple’s long-term plan for Apple Watch is to own the wrist and to confer prestige and status with options like premium bands and 18-karat gold. To do that, though, they must compete not on technical merit but on the sort of intangible benefits that they always win with; chief among these is the user experience. A premium smart watch will win by yes, being fashionable, and yes, conferring status, but above all by doing a few things better than any other product on the market, and – this is critical – dispensing with everything else in the pursuit of simplicity.

To me the instructive Apple product is the iPod. What made the iPod so revolutionary was not just its size and industrial design; it was that Apple’s MP3 player did less than its competitors, thanks to its symbiotic relationship with iTunes. Sure, you couldn’t really make playlists5 or buy music, but that’s what your computer was for. What remained was the very essence of a music player, and it was because of that simplicity that the iPod became such a success.

It’s worth noting, of course, that the iPhone is in many ways the evolutionary iPod – Steve Jobs even introduced it as such in the above video. Similarly, I’m pretty convinced that one day our primary computing device will be something that we wear on our body. But that is many iterations and technical (and battery) advances down the road. Why is Apple in such a rush to get there by 2015?

Ultimately, I’m bullish on the Apple Watch. I think the Digital Crown is a big deal, and it’s a perfect companion for the 5.5″ iPhone especially (the device that many fear will cannibalize the iPad itself necessitates another iOS device). I also think the customization and segmentation is really smart and will enable Apple to sell at multiple price points (my piece about the Veblen goods is very much applicable to Watch). Moreover, some of the demos were quite compelling, including the fitness applications and the very personal messaging; it was telling that Apple gave that functionality a dedicated button. I plan on buying one as soon as they are available.

But I’m already a watch wearer, and a geek to boot, and heck, I can probably expense it. To ensure the Watch’s success broadly Apple needs to really articulate “Why”, not only externally in their advertising but internally to their product managers who ought to remember that Apple’s greatness is built on saying “No.”

Note: I wrote about the iPhone and Apple Pay introductions in the Daily Update (members only)

  1. I admit, I got chills 

  2. In fact, somewhat bizarrely, Cook’s first words after the reveal were about Apple Watch’s accuracy:

    Apple Watch is the most personal device we’ve ever created. We set out to make the best watch in the world. One that is precise. It’s synchronized with the universal time standard and it’s accurate within plus or minus 50 milliseconds.

    What makes this so strange is that accurate timekeeping was the big selling point for Quartz watches. The Quartz crisis caused a significant decline of the Swiss watchmaking industry, but the primary reason for the success of the Asian manufacturers that adopted the technology was that they were so much cheaper. Today the watch industry is bifurcated between high end (relatively inaccurate) mechanical watches and inexpensive Asian offerings; I’m quite confused why Apple would be effectively aligning themselves with the latter, and with their first slide to boot! 

  3. I suspect the demo unit was “on rails”, meaning the watch was programmed to step through the demo step-by-step; it’s telling that Kevin Lynch didn’t have a single mis-tap, and the Maps demo was obviously simulated 

  4. The Watch does require an iPhone for full functionality, especially connectivity 

  5. Yes, I know you could push the middle button in a pinch