Tim Cook talks Apple and Apple Watch

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Apple CEO Tim Cook talks about the new Apple Watch during an Apple event on Monday, March 9, 2015, in San Francisco. | Eric Risberg / AP

At this point, the Steve Jobs era is far enough in the past that it’s almost dumb to note that Apple under Tim Cook is quite muchly different. Still, I’m a member of the old guard and I’m adjusting to this weird company that regularly makes its top-tier executives available for substantive interviews.

Here’s another Tim Cook interview, this time with Fast Company. We’ve seen enough of these that fresh insights are harder to come by, but it’s still interesting to note that Tim chooses to reiterate certain core values of the company:

Steve couldn’t touch everything in the company when he was here, and the company is now three times as large as it was in 2010. So do I touch everything? No, absolutely not. It’s the sum of many people in the company. It’s the culture that does that.

That sort of thing is why Apple’s product line always seems cohesive. Apple is tens of thousands of people, but you don’t get hired or promoted into a serious decision-making mode unless your style of thought — not your ideas, but how you develop and evaluate ideas — is very much in harmony with Apple’s. Which doesn’t mean that Apple is filled with yes-people. You can kick over anthills at Apple, but only if you can explain why Apple’s current anthill is garbage and propose a better one, in a way that other people at Apple will instinctively understand. It’s unlikely to be necessary, because I can’t think of a company less willing to not notice or tolerate a dumb old anthill smack-dab in the middle of the reception area than Apple. By the time you’ve laced up your favorite REI Anthill-Kicking Boots, the thing has already been methodically leveled and something tasteful left in its place. It amazes me that Apple builds and nurtures teamwork so well despite their growth. Their best product is “the entire Apple line.” Their second-most innovative product is “the structure that nurtures people to create that product line.”

A couple of quotes about the smartwatch market leaped out at me — I gotta make a couple of comments on them, though:

You look at the watch, and the primary technologies are software and the UI [user interface]. You’re working with a small screen, so you have to invent new ways for input. The inputs that work for a phone, a tablet, or a Mac don’t work as well on a smaller screen. Most of the companies who have done smartwatches haven’t thought that through, so they’re still using pinch-to-zoom and other gestures that we created for the iPhone. Try to do those on a watch and you quickly find out they don’t work. So out of that thinking come new ideas, like force touch. [On a small screen] you need another dimension of a user interface. So just press a little harder and you bring up another UI that has been hidden. This makes the screen seem larger, in some ways, than it really is.’


Tim Cook at the Apple Watch launch event in September. These are lots of insights that are years in the making, the result of careful, deliberate . . . try, try, try . . . improve, improve, improve. Don’t ship something before it’s ready. Have the patience to get it right. And that is exactly what’s happened to us with the watch. We are not the first. We weren’t first on the MP3 player; we weren’t first on the tablet; we weren’t first on the smartphone. But we were arguably the first modern smartphone, and we will be the first modern smart watch — the first one that matters.

First, I can’t think of any smartwatches that use “pinch to zoom.” Their main competitors today would be Android Wear devices and Pebble, and neither of them use that gesture.

If we go broad, it’s also hard to say that they use any gestures that were created for the iPhone. The UI is almost entirely clickybuttons (for the Pebble) and touchscreen taps, both of which are so straightforward that it seems incorrect to associate them with any one of the iPhone’s predecessors, even. “Swipe” is an important gesture on Android Wear, but it wasn’t created for the iPhone. Although the iPhone was certainly the first device to embed it in the popular consciousness.

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I’d also challenge the description of Apple Watch as “the first modern smartwatch.” That plaque definitely hangs on a wall somewhere at Pebble HQ. If Pebble ever gets caught up in some sort of blood doping scandal and is disqualified post-race, then it goes to Motorola for the Moto 360. I don’t consider that quote to be misleading — it’s a malleable idea — but it’s something that stood out as Worthy Of Comment in the runup to the release of Apple Watch. We’ve seen excellent smartwatches in the past year or two and Apple is simply entering an existing market with a product that they think works better (for users and for Apple’s interests).

As for “the first one that matters,” well, that’s true. Apple Watch is guaranteed to be the first smartwatch to matter to the market. It’s impossible to lock down the number of Android Wear watches that have been sold since they first became available late last year, but it’s clearly well under a million units sold. Apple will probably sell more than that many solely via pre-order, and I bet sales during the first week will be iPad-like in scale.

Apple Watch can’t be the first smartwatch that matters to individual consumers, though. I know plenty of people who still wear their Kickstarter-edition Pebbles every day and it sure isn’t because it’s the most fashionable watch they own. And I’ll point out that the Moto 360 hasn’t been off my wrist since September (barring sleep, showering . . .).

If you’ve got a prejudice against Apple, it’s cheap and easy to ding them for their skill at generating buzz and hype before a product has even proven itself in meatspace. That’s silly. I see their ability to promote their work as part of what makes Apple such a good company.

You can end the sentence “What good is a new technology if . . .” in many ways. Surveyyyy says!

“. . . nobody can afford it”

“. . . you can’t rely on it to work whenever you need it to”

“. . . it’s so complicated it’s not really worth it”

Let’s throw in “Nobody knows about it or cares that it exists.”

Creative work needs to be placed in front of an audience. Your novel isn’t doing anybody any good if you threw it in a drawer after you finished writing it. So “ability and desire to promote” shouldn’t be seen as something tacky, or as a distraction from the work. Look: if you’re designing something for a mass audience and you can’t figure out how to explain it to someone, that’s a huge alarm bell that you’ve screwed something up the design.

That’s particularly important with a whole new category of device. Android Wear has sold (probably) just three quarter of a million units, based on the number of times its required companion app has been downloaded. It’s not because everybody saw it, tried it, and then shrugged. It’s because it’s almost a secret product. Only nerds have heard the story. People see the Moto 360 on my wrist and ask “What’s that?” They don’t ask “Oh, is that one of those things I’ve definitely heard about?” Whereas Apple Watch launches in a world that’s seen the commercials and seen the coverage in the mass-media and they’ve heard the monologue jokes.

Apple also brings a level of credibility to this product category that was lacking in other makers’ efforts. Android Wear and Pebble have enough faults to merit negative reviews, but some of our lazier tech commentators punched the “meh” button and moved on as soon as they got bored or something didn’t work they way the expected or hoped to. The Apple Watch has enough momentum behind it that if the reviewer feels, for example, overwhelmed by a flurry of notifications and alerts on their wrist, they’ll dig a little deeper and figure out how to turn the faucet down to a manageable trickle instead of dismissing the Apple Watch as a fundamentally borked product.


An Apple employee demonstrates how to use an Apple Watch during an Apple media event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California on March 9, 2015. | Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images

(Still, Apple has its work cut out for it. Many of these same people dissed the iPad at first. Their hearts were irrevocably broken when they pulled it out of the box and failed to see any USB ports. “You promised me a revolutionary new step in computing, Steve!” they shrieked. Then they collapsed into a nearby fainting couch and died three days later, following the fine example set by the second female leads in 19th-century romantic novels. Had they survived and actually tried the iPad, they might have discovered that a USB port isn’t quite the dealbreaker that they traditionally imagined it to be.)

Initially, at least, there’s no competition between Apple Watch and Android Wear; they only work with iOS and Android, respectively. Pebble is multiplatform, but its approach is so different from those of Apple and Google that it’s practically a category of its own.

Thus, I think all of the attention that Apple is bringing to this whole product category will be good for everyone. You don’t have to own an iPhone to benefit from Apple Watch.

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