Steve Jobs used to introduce new Apple products by comparing them to objects similar in size. The iPod in 2001 could fit in your hands like a “deck of cards.” Four years later, the iPod Nano was as narrow as a “No. 2 pencil.” He hid a MacBook Air inside a standard office manila envelope on the lectern at the company’s media event in 2008, unfastening its red string to reveal what was then the “world’s thinnest laptop.” When his successor as CEO, Tim Cook, announced Apple’s first new product release since Jobs’ passing in 2011, there was no object comparison. The Apple Watch is a watch.
Jobs’ comparisons did more than suggest the shape and weight of new devices. He seemed to boldly assert that these gadgets were classics, perfected in form for obvious use. A MacBook Air was not cluttered, busy, trendy or unnecessary; but designed to be as simple and purposeful as a manila envelope. The Apple Watch does not metaphorically tell time like an iPod “shuffles” songs. It is like a blinking digital deck of cards designed to compete with an ordinary Bicycle stack.
The iPod launched when the future of the company was in doubt. In 2002, Apple didn’t even rank among the top 100 most valuable companies, but competitor Microsoft topped the list. Now Apple is the world’s biggest company, worth $774bn, twice as much as Exxon Mobil, second on the list. Absent now of any underdog pretensions, Apple is no longer trying to win us over. Now its product releases set the agenda. But isn’t top-down decision-making the opposite of personal style? Just the idea of an “Apple Watch” seems about as preposterous as an Exxon Mobil branded line of sneakers.
Jonathan Ive in a profile in the New Yorker complained about a rival product that lets consumers customize colors and materials of mobile handsets. According to Ive, that is “abdicating your responsibility as a designer.” The company culture is famously designer driven, and the vision of Ive, head of both hardware and software, has come through in every product release over the past decade. Industrial design was usually an afterthought in computer manufacturing, but not to Apple. The crafted smooth edges, fine materials, and typically white, black or silver exteriors result in generations of the iPod, iPhone, and Mac that continue to look elegant and refined even when the technology inside needs an upgrade.
But as trends point toward frictionless transitions from on and offline environments, the very idea of a gadget as a centerpiece feels like a nostalgic turn. Wearables are ideally unobtrusive in form. For those of us overwhelmed with notifications, who hardly put down our phones, Apple has the counterintuitive proposal that the solution is another screen, and one to wear on the body at all hours. Apple Watch offers truncated smartphone functions on a much smaller screen, but it is still a screen. It was not built to latch on to the doubled up straps of an Hermes Cape Cod or slide underneath a vintage 80s Swatch. The Apple Watch is designed to replace objects we cherish that express our personal style.
Ive himself looked uncomfortable in an Apple Watch, which he wore to an interview with ABC News last autumn. His watch was fastened slackly and the face slipped lopsidedly above his wrist bone. The watch comes in two case sizes, and his appeared to be the larger version, a 42mm 18 karat gold square fitted with the white “sport band,” a set up that costs $12,000. It is an enormous watch and its poor fit made it all the more distracting, as he waved his hands animatedly while describing the product’s features. Customization of an Apple Watch is only a token gesture, which is why his $12,000 watch looks nearly identical to a model that costs $350. Perhaps George Jetson’s timepiece was an inspiration, but the way Apple is rolling out this product seems like another science fiction design trope — that in the future we will all wear the same space age attire.
I must admit, there’s something exciting about the “Taptic Engine,” its name for the watch’s haptic feedback system. Unlike a noisy phone vibration or ring, the taps call someone’s attention instantly and privately. Apple’s strength has always been with its breakthroughs in user interfaces. It perfected the mouse, the iPod click wheel was a tremendous innovation in navigation control, and the touch interface, first for the iPhone and later the iPad, has forever changed the way we interact with digital images and the internet.
Apple perfected small details that let people feel in control of their devices, like its accelerometer that rotates to portrait automatically when a device is turned. An iPhone literally follows your lead. This is why the inelegance of the Apple Watch is so striking. Its ponderous clasps, the corny immaterial faces — one of its options is an animated Mickey Mouse stamping his foot in time with each passing second — deny the myriad ways people chose to wear a piece of fashion. Apple refuses the possibility that you know what looks better on your wrist than Jonathan Ive. The website says “There’s an Apple Watch for everyone,” but what they mean is, “There’s an Apple Watch for everyone who loves novelty ties.”
A product the company introduced in 2007 — same year as the iPhone — seems better positioned to integrate with contemporary values of seamlessness and inconspicuousness. Instead of a brand new television set, Apple TV is a small product that attaches to a device someone already owns. It is curious why this was not the company’s approach to the Apple Watch. At the media event, Tim Cook continued to describe the watch as “individual” and “personal,” as he shared the stage with other middle aged white men trying to sell us this boxy watch. I might carry the same phone as a Cupertino executive but I can’t for the life of me imagine we have anything in common in our wardrobes.
Plenty of people doubted the iPad too and wrongly predicted it would flop. But the iPad was marketed with a full range of product demonstrations resolving a multitude of possible uses. The iPad was sold as a vessel for a person’s hobbies. Interested in games? Here’s how you’ll grip the bezel and navigate with the accelerometer. Want to learn to play piano? Here’s another app. Another demo played up the reading experience with digital books and magazines. The iPad was sold as the product of your imagination, but the Apple Watch is someone else’s dream. It is a visual reminder that Apple isn’t designing for your needs, but persuading you to worship its industrial design as much as its executives.
The Apple Watch looks like an Apple product. In 2015, its signature smooth edges look designed for an era that has passed. It had a good run, but the company needs loosen its reins and adapt to a changing world that demands the kind of customization that Ive loathes. Apple developed something that is not a fashion accessory but a uniform, something hostile to our personal taste rather than encouraging of it. A new company as hungry and agile as Apple used to be, might see this moment as an Apple Watch-sized opportunity.