The Watch

by Todd

All around town technology watchers are asking one question: what do you think of the watch? People don’t even say “the Apple Watch” or torture themselves figuring out how to make the  with a keyboard. They just say “the watch”.

Speaking of names briefly, we saw two new products announced in this keynote but no i-name in sight. It’s unlikely that iPhone, iPad, iTunes, iPod or iMac will be renamed, but the new direction looks clear. What started out as a frustrated nomenclature for Apple TV because of a trademark conflict has ended up embraced in Apple Watch and Apple Pay. Times change.

But by any name the Apple Watch does impress, with particularly high marks on the interaction design for a tiny screen; I don’t think anyone expected a radial hardware control used in tandem with touch. But with the crown a mainstay of pre-digital watch design, this feels like it should have been obvious. And in design that’s a sign of master work, to arrive at something seemingly obvious at the end of the process.

But let’s not get lost in design details, when there’s a whole new product to take in. Let’s start from a mid-level picture, somewhere between the shape of whole markets and the nitty gritty.

So very personal

The positioning of the overall experience uses the familiar and very effective tent-pole propositions that we’ve seen in other Apple product launches, but wraps them up in emphasis on the personal, intimate nature of the product.

Sure, it’s touching your skin, that’s personal. But here personal and intimate have more to do with the nature of information that the device works with, and how it’s delivered. Despite being visible on your wrist it’s built for discretion, where the screen turns on when you look at it. It puts contact with those important to you within even shorter reach. It traffics in data about your most vital of vital signs, your heartbeat. This is truly personal, some might say private stuff.

Apple Watch arrives at a time when our screens can say a lot about us, when others easily notice notifications and activity. The prospect of communication and information that can’t be betrayed in an offhand glance offers a bit of refuge from our usual life with screens. Moreover, it offers the chance to steal a moment but not being seen to do so as obviously as with a phone.

In the frame of the personal, Apple Watch offer moments of privacy while in public at a time digital life has become uncomfortably un-private. The positioning (and design that reinforces it) capitalizes on watches being tiny surfaces strapped to your wrist, creating a little window that only works for you.

Building on intimacy, the features playing with non-linguistic communication between people really stood out. Simple drawings and the rather biological but emotional heartbeat sharing are beautiful touches, despite their apparent lack of utility. People will often buy products for more ‘useful’ features, but get most of the value through these more emotional touches.

In that area, it’s refreshing to see a smart watch marketed for something other than workaholics needing to know about every email, or the dubious claim that it’s tiring to lift a phone from your pocket, or guys who use gizmos to impress women. Thinking about quiet and calm communication is a signature Apple touch, and a breath of fresh air in the wearables conversation.

So Apple Watch has a lot going for it: great design inside and out, with thoughtful touches that pluck the heartstrings. And yet, something was missing.

The slide-to-unlock moment

Apple deserves to brag when it talks about breaking new ground on interaction design with new product categories.

The iPod brought a strikingly analog gesture to the digital realm, turning the arduous prospect of moving through hundreds of items efficient and pleasurable.

The iPad redrew boundaries of things that you could do with a touch interface, where processing power didn’t matter as much as the quality of interaction.

And the ruling moment of this kind was the unforgettable gesture shown on the iPhone: slide to unlock. It was so simple, so natural, and in one quick move cut a Gordian knot of key presses with a single move, casting every mobile phone on the market into history. The difference mesmerized and spoke of incredible promise.

These were breakthroughs. They felt like they took us across the line into something really new. Apple Watch, on the other hand, feels like it lands on the near side of the breakthrough line. It’s not that it has too little, it’s that it has too much that simply extends the ordinary, rather than opening doors to the new.

Slick new tech seeks use case soul mate

There’s belief that the wearables category is inevitable given converging trends in sensors and connectivity. In other words, because this tech is possible, we should be able to find good use cases.

What I hoped for from an Apple wearable was a clearer idea of those use cases, things that couldn’t be done by phones. Phones, which so far seem adept at subsuming almost every trick that narrow-purpose wearables come up with. Something that didn’t just extend the presence of my phone into another screen.

Some experiences can’t be honestly evaluated in the abstract; they need to happen to you to really understand them. That’s fair, so D&S will likely even do a companion Better Every Time app for it, to see what that’s like and indulge some honest curiosity.

On first impression, though, my hope for a new class of capabilities was met with beauty and some novelty added to a hundred year old form factor. But hey, beauty and novelty will get you a long way, and that’s not a put-down. Where I’m rooting for Apple Watch is in adding substantial and essential. Something that can justify adding a new screen to my life, and even make a watch wearer out of me.