Thoughts on the Apple Watch

I don’t wear a watch. I don’t own a “wearable”. But I want the Apple Watch. Before yesterday I didn’t expect I would, but a few things about the “why” for the device have started to crystalize.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the previous category defining products Apple has launched.

The Mac took the extremely geeky concept of the PC and made it far more approachable for everyday people. The team at Apple was already well aware of the problems of command line interfaces and the general dismissiveness the general public had for the need of a PC. The PC was a niche product in 1984. Most people had never used a PC. Apple took a leap and bet that eventually it wouldn’t be niche. They believed everyone could benefit from a PC. They took the stance that the interaction model and UI would be critical to eventual adoption – breaking from command line, and moving to a windowing environment and the mouse. The Mac was also a platform. Apple made some apps to start, but the value of the Mac, the problems it solved were eventually identified and solved by third party developers. Apple provided the hardware and direction on how to design great software; third party developers took care of the “last mile”.

Seventeen years after the Mac debut Apple introduced the iPod. The iPod was different from the Mac. The iPod solved a very specific and universally important problem – MP3 players were junk, but everyone loves music. Millions of people had experience with portable music, starting with transistor radios, then Walkmen, then CD players. Apple carefully addressed the challenges of capacity, navigation, and portability. The iPod was a fresh take on an existing product category.

Six years later and iPhone is announced. iPhone was instantly recognizable as a huge advance over the smartphone of the day. While most people had feature phones, Apple employees and execs were Blackberry users. They were intimately familiar with the failings of the devices, and knew they could do better. Apple seemed to treat iPhone more like iPod than Mac at the start. It was an appliance. All the apps were from Apple and the use-cases were clear and defined. They were solving very specific problems. And everyone already had a phone, so why would’t you want an incredibly capable phone with a built in browser, iPod, email, calendar, maps etc.

Three years later and it’s time for iPad. iPad confused people. It was jeered as a big iPod touch. It didn’t do anything new. The refrain seemed to be “Why do I need this?” People could already do email on their Mac or iPhone. People could already browse the web on their Mac or iPhone. Even Apple seemed to be confused about what made it a must buy. The introduction was simply a demo of apps, already on iPhones, just optimized for the larger screen. And yet, today it is clear iPad will continue to eat away at the desktop and notebook market. And nearly everyone who uses a PC today would be able to do everything they need with an iPad. Why? First, the iPad is a platform. It’s defined by the great apps third party developers have created to solve all sorts of needs, from DJ apps, sales catalog apps, X-ray imaging apps, professional photography apps, etc. Second, the iPad is more convenient and simpler than a PC. While it’s true you can do many of the same things on your Mac, the iPad is often more convenient and a better experience. It’s in the details. It wasn’t obvious on launch day that all these micro experience improvements and multi-touch interface and form factor would be enough to warrant buying. But buy they have, 225 million to date. More iPads have been sold in the past 4 years than all Macs…ever.

Which brings us to yesterday and the introduction of the Apple Watch. Apple didn’t explain the why for the product well. They spent a lot of time talking about the physical design and on the least interesting part of the product, the watch app. But the more I think about it the more I’ve come to believe three things.

1) The team at Apple must believe there is real merit in having a computer on your body – in addition to in your pocket. I believe they’ve come to this realization through their own use of wearables that’ve been on the market for the past few years. Similarly to how they were pioneers of computers in the 70's and early users of smartphones in 2002. I’d bet they understand the problems with the current crop of devices and also have a head start in understanding the possibilities. Hell, we know Tim Cook is an avid runner and as a Nike board member, was intimately aware of the Fuelbands success and failures. While most people don’t have a wearable today, it seems Apple’s bet is they eventually will. Because like the PC, MP3 player, smartphone, and tablet before them, wearables suck. But Apple believes they can make them great too.

2) Just because you can do it on your phone, doesn’t mean you wouldn’t prefer to do it on your Apple Watch. The iPad proved this. While some things still require a PC a lot of things don’t. And more and more don’t, even things no one expected four years ago. I don’t use the calendar on my iPad much, but that’s Ok. There is a lot of other stuff I do use, a lot. The first things to get peeled off the phone to the Apple Watch will be 10 second tasks. Things you currently have to pull your phone out of your pocket to do in less than 10 seconds. Change a song, check a new message, see if someone’s emailed you, check tweets in line, summon a car, open up Passbook etc. These being more convenient being on your wrist, however slight, will win. Convenience tends to win. None of these use-cases is all that exciting in a demo. Nor are they compelling on their own. And you won’t know how great they are until you actually use them.

3) It’s a watch because that’s the only socially acceptable anchor. We’ve never worn computers on our wrists, that’s weird. But we’ve worn watches for a century. It isn’t weird to see someone with a watch on their wrist. It isn’t weird to see someone with an electric bicycle. It is weird to see someone on a Segway. Social norms can make or break a technology, especially technology that is visible to others. Apple has anchored to the watch because it is safe. The same way iPhone is barely a phone, and it may be one of the least interesting parts of the device. The Apple Watch is really a tiny computer on your wrist. All the interesting things that have come as a result of having an internet connected computer in your pocket have little to do with the device being able to make and receive phone calls. So too, the Apple Watch being a watch is a trojan horse. It’s just familiar enough not to be rejected instantly but ambitious enough as it becomes it’s own new platform.

I’m genuinely excited by what the Apple Watch will enable. It will start with convenience for existing Apps, making it hard to remember how barbaric it was to pull out your phone fifty plus times each day. And eventually it will enable new experiences only possible with a persistently accessible and glanceable device.

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