The Unrestrained Apple Watch

A primer: The Apple Watch “Reveal” video. (MOV format; play it via Safari, QuickTime or VLC for best results.)


Mixed Signals

Here are some of my stream-of-consciousness-ish recollections starting about 55 minutes into the (will-they-ever-get-it-right) live stream, when Apple Watch was first introduced:

Tim Cook seems pretty darn excited (note: I’ve been following Tim Cook since the earnings conference calls of quite some years ago). Hey, did he almost trip over his words when he said “the next chapter in Apple’s story”?

That looked like the vented Mac Pro base just then.

So that’s the zoom dial? Is that like two dozen apps on the screen? And four data displays around the clock face?

Whoa. Metal mesh waterfall. And of course, it’s magnetic. I want one.

Wait, they have a blooming flower home screen?

Wait, they have two kinds of gold cases?

Wait, the Mickey Mouse face is doing a Steamboat Willie jig? On that battery budget? Man, everything looks so…animated. Moreso than iPhone, even.

Precise, custom, new communication, sure, health and fitness. That…doesn’t sound like that’s all it should be doing.

That does look like two dozen apps on the screen. Almost as much as iPhone. What the heck?

You can still tap the screen, right?

Huh, so Jony’s not actually “in” the video. OK, that looks like even more apps than the last screen.

3D…animated…butterfly?

This is an utterly ridiculous amount of apps being panned through right now.

There’s nothing “lightweight” about these animations and…white glove…and…3D…smiley face?…Jony. It makes iOS 8 look…traditional.

Whoa. Everything’s just too…slick. Too fluid. I bet they don’t go into battery life today.

Achievement badges? Mylar heart balloons? Incoming phone calls? Wait, this thing is a camera control? Jellyfish?

Feature list “a mile long”? For a first-gen device?

So about the mini-Passbook bubble app…back when Kevin Lynch was doing the demo? Oh, so it does have Apple Pay!


A Relative Lack of Restraint (with all that implies)

As you might be able to tell, I came away somewhat puzzled. I wasn’t conflicted in my humble home gamer’s assessment of the device’s chances in the marketplace.¹ But I wondered why Apple’s presentation seemed a bit disorganized, and the product seemingly less focused than, say, the iPhone and iPad before it.

I think I’ve found the right word.

It’s not an “excuse”, but an explanation as to why this new product category is almost overflowing with functionality by Apple standards, with a “post-iOS”, extra-lively interface that can’t possibly be optimally efficient for such a small battery.

A plausible explanation as to why the home screen is crammed with apps close to the point of distraction. Why the presentation ran so short on time, Apple Pay got one photo’s worth of attention. Why Apple chose to announce its new wearable last week, when they could’ve had a perfectly fine (if somewhat more subdued) iOS 8 recap + iPhone 6 intro + Apple Pay intro at Apple Town Hall or Moscone West and waited a month or so to unveil a that-much-further along Apple Watch.

It’s because the Apple Watch is an unrestrained device.

That term seems to fit best now that I think about it. The tightly scripted messaging and product communication that was a hallmark of the iPod, iPhone and iPad product introductions might have slipped a bit because Apple’s team literally could barely contain themselves.

Sure, Apple calling Product X the Greatest Thing Ever is nothing new. But the Greatest Thing Ever, in its first-generation, didn’t come packed with fitness sensors, four sapphire lenses, and an advanced MagSafe induction mechanism.

It didn’t come with a Milanese steel mesh magnetic band. (No other smartwatch does, not that I know of anyway.)

It didn’t come in three actually different metal types/alloys. (No other smartwatch does.)

It didn’t come with a level of watch face “widget” customization that one tends to associate with Android smartphones, with animations bordering on outrageous for the class (granted, half of the target demographic might be very pleased with the floral and butterfly choices).

It didn’t come with a system-in-package design.

It certainly didn’t come with NFC and its own Secure Element technology after pre-negotiation with banks and card issuers. (This probably surprised the Android Wear crowd.)

Consider also, management changes aside, that Apple is a far stronger company than even a few years ago. Remember, shortly before iPad’s introduction, Apple had completed a fiscal year with just under $45B in revenue – Apple’s poised to ring in four times that already lofty sales number at the end of fiscal 2014.

So things that might have been “intemperate” for $45B Apple (such as giving out dividends and daring to market products made out of gold) are suddenly within “easy” reach now. Apple knows it’s in a position of strength and with unprecedented branding power, so rather than coast, it has chosen to secure its future by making its boldest bets yet.²

Two other quick points. First, I linked to the high-bitrate MOV file specifically because of Apple’s desire to showcase Apple Watch in the best possible light – an unusually high-framerate video (a full 60 frames per second), that, while mostly about the hardware and watch bands, also made some very lofty claims about the smoothness and sharpness of the UI. It would’ve been fine at 30 frames per second, even 24, yet Apple deliberately went with a version that looks better than the keynote stream version. Apple wants you to take notice. It wants you to see the fluidity of the software. It’s intentionally setting expectations high.

Second, there can be downsides to being unrestrained. The product message suffered (although most people probably missed the keynote). The default app interface looks very dense and busy for such a small screen. The press demos were…well, the press didn’t actually get to do anything other than wear the Apple watch, really. Apple said very little on battery life.

But all told? If you’re an AAPL shareholder or just someone who doesn’t mind Apple continuing to do well and push personal technology further, I suspect you’ll appreciate the lack of restraint, imperfections and all. Apple Watch is months away from shipping, and the product and marketing message will be refined in time for launch.³ Two recent additions from AnandTech alone (Brian Klug and Anand Lal Shimpi himself, experienced reviewers/technology nerds that Apple wasn’t known for hiring) could have a significant impact on this curation process (assuming they have time to contribute their feedback – personally, I’m hoping they’re on the Apple Watch team).

Jony Ive’s team is bringing its accumulated experience and unlimited financial resources to bear. Kevin Lynch’s team introduced ephemeral pictorial/haptic and…er…heartbeat communication with an unnecessary amount of sparkle and animated effects basically because they could (though Stefan Geens’ note on Chinese language input is very intriguing). The hardware team built in all sorts of different technologies from resin packaging to force touch to “taptics” that may extend to other Apple hardware, including existing product lines. They apparently added in a convex back (vs. a flat back a la Moto 360 or concave shape a la Galaxy Gear S) to ensure Apple Watch can maintain skin contact for ongoing wearer authentication purposes. Maybe you disagree, but this is the kind of fearlessness and experimentation (with accompanying risk of failure/consumer “rejection”) that’s refreshing in a company of Apple’s size.

Keep in mind, this is the same company that built the iPhone, but with 7 years of learning, building, growing and confidence behind it since that point. Apple expects more from its new initiatives, and it shows – the same way Apple Pay is about the farthest thing in new service scope (covering the biggest three US card issuers and eleven major banks) from the laboratory music industry experiment that was the iTunes Music Store.

Apple’s still thinking different(ly) as always, but on a grand scale commensurate with its scale. And, keynote hiccups, unfinished software and lingering questions be damned, Apple could not and would not wait a moment longer to introduce the Apple Watch to the world.


 

Which, in case you were curious, is:

“Pricey” first-gen “tethered” device with likely “disappointing” charge-nightly battery life that could do exceptionally well in Asia, particularly China, if deemed appealing enough. Will appeal to a decent segment of higher-discretionary-spend iPhone 6 owners, fitness buffs, and a “small” segment of the not-at-all-small addressable market of 200 million iPhone 5-types. My wild guess is that it will ultimately sell “well enough” (>10M units) in its first generation. Few of the actual buyers will have issues with the industrial design (Ive + Newson and Co., after all) and many buyers won’t be satisfied with just one set of watch bands (see: average selling price, margins).

Hiring a slate of fashion-oriented executives, acquiring Beats, legitimizing contactless payments and hundreds of millions of Android smartphones by releasing a competing payments platform, and launching a jack-of-all-trades-type smartwearable in an incredibly nascent market seem fairly bold to me, at least.

3   Whether these refinements meet with the satisfaction of various reviewers is anyone’s guess, of course.

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