Apple has become a perennial hit maker, the company other companies copy. Apple really gets design. In the past 14 years, it has given us the iPod (the prototypical MP3 player), the iPhone (the prototypical smartphone), the Macbook Air (the prototypical laptop), and the iPad (the prototypical tablet).
Before the iPad came out, you’ll recall, a lot of smart people doubted there was a market for what was being billed “a big iPhone.” After all, Microsoft had failed at tablets in the early aughts. And Apple had failed at tablets before that.
But just because a lot of people were wrong about the iPad doesn’t mean that the Apple Watch will similarly rise above expectations. The Apple Watch is Jonathan Ive’s new Newton. It’s a potentially promising form that’s being built about 10 years before Apple has the technology or infrastructure to pull it off in a meaningful way.
As a result, the novel interactions that could have made the Apple watch a must-have device aren’t in the company’s launch product, nor are they on the immediate horizon. And all Apple can sell the public on is a few tweets and emails on their wrists–an attempt at a fashion statement that needs to be charged once or more a day.
There’s only so much you can do with sapphire glass and power-efficient microprocessors. Current reports say the Apple Watch could burn out in times as short as 2.5 hours before needing a recharge. Best-case scenarios (you know, when you use it a lot less), might stretch its life to 19 hours. But a loyal user of the Apple Watch would be forced to take it off and recharge it four times during a workday. That’s absurd.
In response, reports suggest that Apple has pulled a lot of the power-draining specialty hardware from the watch–namely sensors to measure “blood pressure, heart activity, and stress levels, among other things.” That’s deep health mining stuff–much deeper than the heart rate and accelerometer-based movements the Apple Watch that ships will offer. In this sense, the Apple Watch will no longer stand out from any other fitness band on the market.
But health is only one aspect of what battery technology limits. Have you ever used an Android Wear smartwatch, like the Motorola 360? It’s a beautiful little piece of hardware for sure. But it sits on your wrist totally lifeless 99% of the time, because making the face glow drains power. The Apple Watch will work the same way. It sits on your wrist dead to the world until you lift it up and look at it. Apple even introduced a time-only Power Reserve mode so that, if your smartwatch is too low on energy to be smart, you can resuscitate it to see the time. That’s not a solution, but proof of the platform’s silly limitations. Analog watches have omnipresent dials that define their design and allow them to function on almost no power, but a “smart” watch that can’t shine its own face is neither functional nor fashionable. It’s just a time coffin that lives on your wrist.
Battery is just one notch against the Apple Watch’s widespread adoption. The other is the chicken-or-egg problem of infrastructure. Does Apple sell the watches first, or do they create the most optimal watch experience first? Nowhere is this issue more clear than in comparing what Apple is doing to Disney’s smartwatch-enabled fantasyland, Disney World.
Over several years, Disney spent a billion dollars developing MagicBands–radio-based wristbands that allow Disney World visitors to pay for things and unlock their hotel rooms by doing nothing more than waving their wrist. That experience can be magical. When you sit down at Disney’s Be Our Guest restaurant, the MagicBand signals to the kitchen where you’re sitting, so the food just magically arrives.
In their most ultimate, must-have form, it’s easy to imagine Apple Watches working the same way–ferrying us through life’s turnstiles one wave of the wrist at a time. An Apple Watch could theoretically check you into a restaurant, send your dietary restrictions to the kitchen, and pay for your bill–all based upon a single scan taken when you walk through the restaurant’s front doors. Google has played with an interesting idea in this regard. The company has designed a neat tool for smartwatch interactions–a blue “easy button” that would change based upon your context. On a subway, a tap would buy you a ticket. At a Coke machine, it might buy you a Dasani.
But you know what? The real world isn’t Disney World. That’s why Google’s easy button might as well not exist. Even Apple Pay, Apple’s iPhone-based payments standard, doesn’t have enough retailers supporting the product to be any bit as ubiquitous as paying with a credit card. Some of that is just the nature of the competitive payment industry. Some of that is consumer apathy. Still, think about it: If hundreds of millions of smartphones can’t get wireless payments figured out, how are a few million smartwatches going to create Disney-level magic?
They can’t. And so what we’re left with is the Apple Watch as it is today–a platform for what the industry calls “lightweight notifications.” That means texts. That means two-line emails with the important stuff cut off. And that means what song is playing on Spotify. Not much else.
Current estimates say Apple is building 5 million or so Apple Watches for launch. Every news station in America will rush to capture the lines forming around the block at the Apple Store. We live in the Apple era. By real demand or smart PR, the first run will surely sell out.
As a point of comparison, Apple sold 100 million iPhones in three years. Then the company sold 100 million iPads in two years. I can imagine a Disney-inspired world where we all have to have smart watches, because they serve as our IDs, our credit cards, our health trackers, and our car keys. But that world is not two to three years away. It, like every other meaningful wearable technology to come, lives in the year 20XX, where the next breakthrough battery technology is waiting. And by the time we get there, will we still even want a watch? Or will any number of alternatives look more attractive?
When I look at the Apple Watch, I’m not seeing an empathetic creation for the masses. I’m seeing what the New Yorker’s more than 16,000-word story on Jonathan Ive would only hint at–that Apple may have built out the watch to satisfy the urges of a designer who has become more obsessed with Bentleys and Rolexes than making attractive, functional technology that will actually make life better for the 99%.
The Newton, Apple’s original, failed tablet, didn’t sell because tablet technology wasn’t polished, and we didn’t have the wireless networking infrastructure to make its experience particularly meaningful. Sound familiar? Meanwhile, the iPhone was a mega success, not just because it put the Internet in our pocket like every other smartphone out there, but because it had an interface that made the world’s information truly searchable and legible from anywhere. Whether it was the original Mac or the iPod, Apple’s best moments haven’t been about building elitist filigree but about democratizing meaningful function, and releasing a technology only when the time was right.
So I ask you, even if the Apple Watch as it’s designed today were to sell 50 or 100 million units, will your lives be any better for it? And if not, what does that say about how Apple is designing our tomorrow?