Apple Gets Intimate
There was plenty to process at the Flint Center in Cupertino, California, today. The event was Apple’s stab at making history again for the first time, so to speak, an ambition it signaled from the get-go with the selection of the location—the site of the original 1984 Macintosh launch and then the 1998 iMac announcement that marked Steve Jobs’s revitalization of the company. Job’s successor Tim Cook flatly proclaimed the day as the next chapter in the company’s epic story.
Thus followed a triptych of big products: the iPhone 6 family (bigger, thinner, more expensive); an Apple Pay system that eliminates the truly first-world problem of credit card swiping; and Apple’s long-awaited entry into the much discussed but as yet not beloved category of digital wearables. All were big bets backed with gangbusters tech innovation, just what you expect from Apple.
But the most telling image of the day was a beating heart.
This was one of about a zillion features promised in the Apple Watch, a product the company considers so monumental that it brought back the dormant Steve Job trope of unleashing pandemonium by saying he had “one more thing” to announce, which would always turn out to be the best thing of all. At the very utterance of the phrase, the auditorium, packed with Apple employees, cheered as if Cook had hit a walk-off home run in a World Series final.
Everybody knew that an “iWatch” (as pundits had inaccurately christened it) was coming. What people did not know was how Apple had been planning to turn the category around. A lot was riding on the effort. Cook is under increasing fire for the lack of a groundbreaking new product since Jobs’s death in 2011. Apple is built on continuing innovation, but critics fretted that without the firm’s legendary leader, an era of mega-hits might be over. Where was Cook’s iPod, Cook’s iPhone, Cook’s iPad? Perhaps directed by intentional leaks from Apple itself, observers concluded Cook’s answer to those of lost faith would be the watch. If Apple could do with wearables what it did with MP3 players or cell phones, Cook would silence the critics—and Apple’s future would be secure.
So the stakes were huge. But the words that Tim Cook dwelled on most when talking about the Apple Watch were not the hyperbolic exclamations like “incredible” and “amazing” (though those words were certainly uttered with some frequency today). His language reflected a softer tone. The magic terms were “personal” and “intimate.”
“Apple Watch is the most personal device we’ve ever created,” said Cook.
Think about this. Apple is one of the world’s biggest, most profitable and most powerful companies. It is a corporate Leviathan. Yet it has staked its claim on intimacy, tapping the private impulses of hundreds of millions of users. It is a mass production company that embraces the artisanal.
After the event I talked to Kevin Lynch, the former Adobe chief technology officer who joined Apple to work on the watch and demo’ed the device on stage. He confirmed that the intimate nature of this creation—a piece of metal fused virtually to one’s body—was a foremost consideration in the design process. “We thought about it all the time,” he says, “It’s on you.”
Apple’s design czar Jony Ive, who I also collared for comment after the event, explained the watch was a continuation of a desire Apple has had for years, to reduce friction between technology and human nature. In a sense, he indicated, the Apple Watch is the culmination of decades of effort to forge an emotional connection with users. “It’s really what we’ve been doing all along,” he told me, “taking the complex and making it personal.”
That drive defines Apple’s new effort. Sure, the Apple Watch does stuff that you expect it to do — make a call, find a movie time, check the weather, locate the nearest Whole Foods. But Apple recognizes that a gadget worn on the body, specifically the wrist, requires new thinking. Thus Apple’s designers hunkered down with horologists to figure out an appropriate interface; the key is transforming the watch dial (it’s called “the crown,” who knew?) into the main control device—just as the click wheel was the central control of the iPod.
Apple also understood that siting four sensors on the back of the watch, directly on the skin, distinguished this from any previous device it made. It can signal you sub rosa—pssst, a call is coming, but that’s our little secret. When it “pokes” you, it’s not virtual. You feel it. This opens all sorts of possibilities. For instance, when using Apple Maps for walking directions, the watch nudges you when it’s time to make a turn. Like a buddy, turning you shoulder to shoulder.
Here’s another change for Apple towards the personal: the only other physical control besides the crown is a button that calls up a selection of one’s friends for instant contact. Apple has been famous for neglecting the powerful and transformative rise of social networks, and now, with its wearable, it is allowing users to create their own little Dunbar-limited covens, ready for connection at an instant.
But the apotheosis of Apple’s ambitions of intimacy is the aforementioned heartbeat feature. An Apple Watch owner can chose a person to receive pulse data from the wrist sensors. The recipient then views an illustration of a heart that echoes the sender’s fibrillations in real time. (This works on another Apple Watch or an iPhone or iPad.)
It’s a simple thing—and probably a harbinger of much more complicated biological monitoring that Apple developers will roll out using the watch in concert with with the company’s Health Kit tools. But the idea is at once thrilling and disturbing. During the hands-on period after the event, I asked people whether they would feel comfortable sending their heartbeat to strangers. I found general agreement that such sharing might best be confined to loved ones. (Cardio patients might think otherwise; I spoke to a doctor advising Apple who claimed that via this feature, he could detect an “A-fib,” an abnormal rhythm that might indicate a serious problem.)
And here’s a scary thought—what if some malfeasant nerd managed to figure a way to capture that data? Stealing nude photos from one’s phone is a despicable violation, but a rather pedestrian and thuggish one. Hacking a bio-rhythm is somehow more chilling —a Hannibal Lecter of a data crime. Can you imagine the black market for Jennifer Lawrence’s heartbeat?
That’s an unlikely scenario. A more likely—indeed, an inevitable—scenario will be moonstruck lovers sharing each other’s rhythms, sitting perhaps for hours staring at an animated drawing of the organ that symbolizes love, connected by a yearning pulse of an absent soulmate.
Apple somehow understands this. And that’s why Tim Cook might have delivered his category-buster after all.