What I Got Wrong About Apple Watch

While I stand by last week’s opinion that the Watch presentation was poor, I’ve somehow, at least in my little corner of the Internet, become the face of people who don’t believe in Apple Watch at all. The biggest problem with that view is that I’m actually a big believer in the category, having written favorably about watches and the potential for Apple specifically here, here, and here; I even tried to buy a Pebble!1 I’m tired of how the phone pulls me away from my family, and time and notifications seemed like more than enough justification for this watch wearer. I presumed the Apple Watch would be similar, but significantly better executed with superior industrial design, plus a few additional killer features that made you just have to have one. In fact, that’s exactly how I suggested that Tim Cook should have introduced the Watch.

I must admit, though, even as I posted that article and recorded an episode of Exponent that was probably more critical of the Watch itself than I intended,2 there was a part of me that wondered if I were being Tony Fadell to Tim-Cook-and-company’s Scott Forstall. From a 2011 BusinessWeek profile of the then Senior Vice-President of iOS:

Around 2005, Jobs faced a crucial decision. Should he give the task of developing the [iPhone’s] software to the team that built the iPod, which wanted to build a Linux-based system? Or should he entrust the project to the engineers who had revitalized the software foundation of the Macintosh? In other words, should he shrink the Mac, which would be an epic feat of engineering, or enlarge the iPod? Jobs preferred the former option, since he would then have a mobile operating system he could customize for the many gizmos then on Apple’s drawing board. Rather than pick an approach right away, however, Jobs pitted [Forstall and Fadell] against each other in a bake-off.

Forstall, who was head of the OS X project, obviously won, leading to the creation of a device that Blackberry executives didn’t think was possible. As a former Blackberry employee recounted:

RIM had a complete internal panic when Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, a former employee revealed this weekend. The BlackBerry maker is now known to have held multiple all-hands meetings on January 10 that year, a day after the iPhone was on stage, and to have made outlandish claims about its features. Apple was effectively accused of lying as it was supposedly impossible that a device could have such a large touchscreen but still get a usable lifespan away from a power outlet.

The iPhone “couldn’t do what [Apple was] demonstrating without an insanely power hungry processor, it must have terrible battery life,” Shacknews poster Kentor heard from his former colleagues of the time. “Imagine their surprise [at RIM] when they disassembled an iPhone for the first time and found that the phone was battery with a tiny logic board strapped to it.”

For my part, I’ve certainly been operating under the assumption that the wrist is not yet ready for full blown computing, which is why I thought the “iPod” version of a Watch needed to come first. From a piece I wrote in March:

Imagine a device that initially launches with limited functionality and is dependent on an iPhone (similar to the iPod, or the first iPhone). Perhaps it monitors fitness and health, and slowly, year-by-year, adds additional functionality. More importantly, assume that Moore’s Law continues, batteries make a leap forward, flexible displays improve, etc. Suddenly, instead of a phone that uses surrounding screens, like the iPhone does in the car and the living room, why might not our wrist project to a dumb screen (with a phone form-factor) in our pocket as well? Imagine all of our computing life, on our wrist, ready to project a context-appropriate UI to whichever screen is at hand. Moreover, by being with us, it’s a perfect wallet as well.

To be clear, this is certainly years off…

What, though, if it’s not? What if it is, once again, a “battery with a tiny logic board strapped to it”?

The S1 computer-on-a-chip at the heart of Apple Watch
The S1 computer-on-a-chip at the heart of Apple Watch

And what if that logic board, – which Apple calls the S1 – is even more ahead of the industry than last year’s couldn’t-possibly-have-existed 64-bit A7? What if Apple skipped the iPod-stage of wearables and went straight to the iPhone stage?

John Gruber captured this possibility in Apple Watch: Initial Thoughts and Observations:

Apple Watch’s third-party integration is clearly deeper than just showing notifications from apps on your iPhone. And though it depends upon a tethered connection with your phone for Internet access, it’s far more functional while out of range of your phone than any smartwatch I’ve seen to date. It’s a full iOS computer. If it actually doesn’t do much more, or allow much more, than what they demonstrated on stage last week, I am indeed going to be deeply disappointed, and I’ll be concerned about the entire direction of the company as a whole. But I get the impression that they’ve only shown us the tip of the functional iceberg, simply because they wanted to reveal the hardware — particularly the digital crown — on their own terms. The software they can keep secret longer, because it doesn’t enter the hands of the Asian supply chain.3

I still believe that Tim Cook missed an important opportunity to explain why the Watch existed, but, after an avalanche of tweets, emails, Gruber’s exceptionally insightful piece, and most of all, Apple’s incredible track record, I’m slowly coming around to the position that maybe, just maybe, I ought not be bullish on the Watch simply because I’m bullish on the category, but rather because it’s actually the exact product necessary to make the category succeed.

One tweet I found particularly persuasive was this one:

This makes the Pebble sound a lot like a smartphone circa 2006. The thing is, though, the iPhone was never targeted at 2006-era smartphone users: it was targeted at everyone, and that meant it had to destroy our expectations of what a smartphone was in order to build a new one that happened to look exactly like an iPhone. Similarly, to be the sort of tentpole product Cook promised the Watch would be it must target more than current watch wearers: it must be a product so good that non watch-wearers will put something on their wrists, put up with nightly charging, spend hundreds or thousands of dollars every few years, and all the other sorts of behavior that no one thought any rational phone buyer would tolerate just eight years ago. In other words, it must swing for the fences, just like Apple seems to have done.

Interestingly, I suspect this reading of the Apple Watch’s capabilities suggests that from Apple’s perspective the true new iPhone is the Plus. Numerous reviews have noted that the Plus is really more of a truly portable computer than it is a phone, the only tradeoff being its reduced portability. It is, in other words, the evolutionary iPad, but with guaranteed cellular connectivity and pocketable in a pinch. That leaves room for a device where portability is paramount, and computing only needs to be good enough given those constraints. It leaves room for an Apple Watch.

One final note: if I am (now) correct, and Apple has created something that most observers – including myself – didn’t think was possible in 2015, well, then this really is a Tim Cook breakthrough. The idea of a watch as a full-blown computer is not novel, but to create the future five years early in three different editions with all kinds of unique bands – and a buying experience to match – is something only Apple and their once-in-a-lifetime operational genius of a CEO could do, if indeed that is what they have done.

  1. Unfortunately I was defeated by their refusal to accept a U.S. credit card for a non-U.S. shipment (a nice example of the tradeoff between security and user experience, I might note) []
  2. I am a passionate person, and that sometimes gets me in trouble on podcasts in particular []
  3. The Wall Street Journal had a piece today about how exactly those leaks happen []