The future of the Apple Watch: a lesson from the Hoverboard

Physics and Marketing altered the definition of Hoverboard from the stuff of dreams to a funny looking, electric skateboard with side wheels; Usability will decide what the word watch will come to mean.

In Back to the Future III, Doc Emmet Brown, apparently drunk, in a bar, hundreds of years before his time, tells the dirty looking cowboys that in the future people run for pleasure. The cowboys laugh and ridicule him; they cannot conceive of running as a pleasurable activity.

Elizabeth Anscombe, student of Wittgenstein, philosopher in her own right, wrote that an action is not independent of description. Bring a cowboy from the 19th century to a modern gym and show him a woman on a treadmill and he’ll have no word to describe what he´s seeing. To him, running is not something you do standing in the same place, but to escape or tardiness. Technological development has enabled a modern sedentary lifestyle and forced another description upon the word running — something you do for pleasure or for your health.

Which brings us to the Apple Watch and the Hoverboard. After many years of trying to invent the Back to the Future hoverboard and with very disappointing results, we have given up and decided to call an electric skateboard with side wheels by the same name as that flying skateboard that every boy and girl dreamed about all their lives.

A movie and our imagination created the word hoverboard and a fantastic description for what it is, physics turned it into a fairy tale and marketing turned it into a funny looking electric skateboard (that blows up in your kitchen). Which brings us to the question: why do we call an Apple Watch a watch?

We are trying to do to the watch what was done to the phone — turn it into something else. Phones are now computers we keep in our pockets, with small screens when compared to a computer, large when compared to the pre-iPhone phone. We speak to the phone, it speaks back to us and, through complicated algorithms, it gives anyone access to more information today than presidents of nations had 20 years ago. The phone of today is like Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000, i.e. it is what we once envisioned a computer would become.

Just as the word computer means something today that it did not 50 years ago, the word phone also came to mean something different with the iPhone revolution. What is the future of the word watch, then?

In a word we gather all our ideas and certain rules of language learned throughout the ages. As a collective we gather all our experience in language. We don´t get to know the world through language, language is the world to us. When you think phone today certain images and actions come to mind, images and actions very different than those that would have appeared to someone living in 1970 or even in 2000.

Pebble and Android wear may have been first to market, but I would argue have not managed to make smartwatch and watch indistinguishable, contrary how the iPhone has made smartphone to mean phone.

Will the word watch acquire a new description which includes something you use to check the weather and stocks, send a message with, read email and check your heart rate? Or will the transition from smartwatch into watch end up like the hoverboard, which starts as a fantastic proposition and ends up a clunky, watered down version of what once we dreamed. If it is the latter, it won´t be for lack of technology, it will be a usability problem.Unless men start wearing short sleeves on a daily basis, then the screen won´t be able to grow as smartphone screens have grown. And a small screen is a terrific limitation.

The Apple Watch is a latecomer to the smartwatch market, and it has taken a large marketing and design effort to conceal its limitations. Apple today is not so much the innovator as the improver: it takes all the best ideas around and packages it into a beautiful, user friendly product. When Apple announced the Apple Watch some were hoping for a revolution, but this wish has come back to haunt us. Demand a Back to the Future Hoverboard, and you will get the kind with wheels that are mostly good to make youtube videos of people falling head first to the ground.

One indication that Apple may be aware of the hoverboard lesson is its hiring policy. Two years before launching the Apple Watch, Apple hired Angela Ahrendts, a former fashion, luxury brand CEO as retail chief. While the smartphone has been and still is a technological war, the ‘smart watch’ may be more of a style one. Hundreds of years of understanding watch as a style accessory that tells time will not go away so easily.

Consumers will not throw away their Rolex watches as they threw away their motorola flip phones.

The Apple Watch’s success will depend on its ability to educate the technology hungry user to accept less, i.e. instead of a revolution on a wrist, to understand the watch as a timeless style accessory that tells time and additionally give access to our connected world.

When Apple introduced the iPhone it obliterated any historical associations people may have had with the word phone. The Apple Watch lives in a difficult balance between the rich history of the watch and the precedent of the iPhone revolution.