Photo of Tim by Andy
Is the Apple Watch an unprecedented product for Apple? Not just because they’ve never made a watch before, I mean.
I’ve been trying to think of another time when Apple expanded into a product category that hadn’t really been established yet. There were personal computers before they made the Mac, and even the Apple II. Many successful smartphones preceded the iPhone. Even the iPod, as a pocket-size music player, had ample consumer precedent in the form of Mans, of both Walk and Disc.
Maybe the iPad? Though I like to argue that it was a response to the brief craze for Windows netbooks.
Smart watches, as a category, are still gestating; the alien face-hugger of innovation is still wrapped around the throat of the basic concept and the world is patiently waiting to see what bursts out of its chest. Despite solid offerings from Pebble, Samsung, LG and Motorola, the world still hasn’t decided what the natural role of a wrist-top computer ought to be.
Which means that it takes a certain amount of courage to introduce such a product. Consumers have remained aloof up until now and have offered zero guidance. Each of these makers is building a gas station at a spot in the open desert where they figure that the people with the money will one day be driving.
So you see the pickle that all of us are in, right? Huge tech companies don’t know how a smart watch should behave, consumers don’t know why they might be useful, and columnists like me don’t know how to advise their readers when a new one eats its way out of John Hurt’s chest.
I’m writing this column on my flight home from the Apple launch event. Flight attendants have just pushed the beverage cart past my aisle. I know instinctively that there isn’t enough gin on that thing to solve this problem.
Complicating matters: Apple won’t finish developing the Apple Watch and offer them for sale until early next year. At the launch event, functional watches were on the wrists of demonstrators and senior Apple execs. Journalists could try on what appeared to be finished hardware, but the devices were all looping a scripted, non-interactive run-through of the user interface and features. The onstage demo, too, was surprisingly thin on the big picture stuff.
Right now I’m thinking “that beverage cart doesn’t have enough gin … but it has some gin, doesn’t it?”
Tim’s iPhone moment
Before I get into the watch itself, I gotta talk about Tim Cook. I made a note soon after he finally started talking about the watch: “This is Tim’s iPhone moment.”
I was there when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone and I was close enough to see every nuance of his facial expressions and body movements. Here, I knew, was a happy, happy guy. Here was a guy who had spent years watching something phenomenal take shape, brick by brick, over years of secrecy … and he was thrilled out of his shorts to finally show off this phenomenal thing he and his team had put together.
Tim had on the same face-splitting grin. He seemed to be suffering the same strain to keep sticking to the script. It seemed as though, inside, he just wanted to initiate a series of fist pumps that wouldn’t end until rotator cuff surgery was needed.
It was terrific to watch. I enjoy this sort of thing. A major product announcement like this is the end result of thousands and thousands of little decisions and hundreds of weekly wars. When the CEO can still get this excited about it, not as the head of a company who’s invested its capital and its public prestige, but as a member of a group that created something they’re immensely proud of — oh, boy, that’s a company I want to hear more from.
A quiet kind of style
Apple has, incredibly, cracked what seems to be the biggest hurdle of smart watches: Apple Watches are beautiful pieces of jewelry whose styling would pass muster with almost anybody, except for those hosting basic-cable red-carpet coverage.
It’ll be available in two sizes: the big one (42 mm) and the small one (38). Apple isn’t referring to them as men’s and ladies’. They’re unnecessary terms … though, yeah, the 38 mm version is better proportioned to a lady’s wrist. All along I’ve been saying that I suspected its first wearable would be more like a fitness band than a watch, due to the difficulties of making something with a color screen that’s proportioned just as well for women as for men. Well, I sure underestimated Apple! Even the smaller one looked just fine on the wrists of the women I saw wearing them.
It’s also a very pretty object. LG and Samsung’s Android Wear devices are “Google Glass for your wrist.” Enter a room wearing them and expect the gadget to be the opening topic of conversation. The Moto 360 is quite stylish, but that could be a problem, It’s pretty, and thanks to its round screen and lovely understated metal frame, it looks like a watch. But it looks like a special watch. And like the others, its proportions are too large for a woman’s wrist.
The Apple Watch is a simple solid metal square, maybe a little on the thick side, with zaftig rounded edges. It attracts no more attention than any other square watch.
So does that mean Apple is trying to sell a boring watch without a whole lot of style of its own?
Nope! The design problem with a smart watch is that everyone has individual tastes that can even change from day to day, and a tech company can’t afford to develop a wide range of styles. They made a genius move: The watch itself is relatively plain (so as to gain acceptance from as many people as possible), but Apple designers used the surplus style budget on a collection of hugely attractive and individualized bands.
Moreover, the bands can easily be swapped out by hand. An owner might wear their Apple Watch in the office all week on an expensive-looking metal link band (it reminded me of the Hamilton watch my grandfather received when he retired in the 1950s — gorgeous). Then, he or she might swap it out for a fun red leather strap for the weekend.
And this is Apple. Many of these straps don’t close with a simple buckle or clasp. They’re embedded with a strip of strong magnets. The band wraps around your wrist and clings to itself, like Velcro without the skritching noise.
(In the demo area, I put it on, admired the perfect fit to my wrist without tearing at the hair on my arm … and then your correspondent shook his wrist violently to see if the watch would fly off. And of course it didn’t.)
Apple Watch will be available in those two sizes and in three styles. The default one is stainless steel. It’s surprisingly heavy. If you were to drop it into a sock and playfully swing it at someone’s head, they’d definitely press charges against you. I’ve held nice stainless steel watches before, though, and I can report that it simply feels like any other premium-quality metal timepiece.
The Apple Watch Sport is made out of aluminum, and it’s noticeably lighter. It also comes with a band made from a polymer that won’t get gunked or gakked by sweat and salt. At the top of the line are Apple Watch Edition, which are made out of yellow or rose gold with an exclusive range of even ritzier straps.
And it’s Special Apple 18K Gold, engineered to be more durable than the filthy crap your wedding ring is made from. Just where the hell do you come off even calling that gold, anyhow? Jerk.
I was unreservedly impressed with the styling of the Apple Watch. I’d buy the stainless steel one with the serpentine metal band even if it were just an analog timepiece, which seems an incredible thing to say about a smart watch.
Specific pricing wasn’t announced but the Apple Watch collection will start at $349. Yes, they’re calling it a “collection.” Perhaps we should periodically expect to see new hardware that adds no new features or functions, but new looks.
Oh, before I forget: Yes, the thing does tell time.
It’s synchronized to atomic clocks and everything. During the demo, Apple showed off a bunch of highly attractive watch faces, ranging from the whimsical (a dancing Mickey Mouse) to the devastatingly stylish (lovely clean screens where you expect the amount of money that was spent crafting that elegant “4” cost more than your family’s food budget for the whole decade) to the yeomanlike and functional (a screen with replaceable tiles that bear multiple kinds of persistent, useful data).
One of these watch faces uses the planet Earth as a backdrop. It is one of the most Apple things Apple has ever done. It’s not just the planet, but it’s also spun around so that you’re looking down at your current location from space. And you can tap the moon to see its current phase, but it’s an accurate representation of the moon’s surface. Annnnd you can zoom out to look at the solar system and get an orrery of the planets in their positions. …
I will acknowledge that even as a basic timepiece, the Apple Watch exceeds the functions of my Millennium Falcon watch in many ways.
But of course it’s not just a piece of jewelry. It’s also a … I want to say “computer”? Let’s check: We buy this hoping to spend some time twiddling it and getting pleasant and/or productive feedback in return. So, sure: computer.
The Apple Watch has a downright alluring collection of components. The color screen is gorgeous. It’s the sort of magazine-quality detail and rich color you would expect from the makers of the iPhone. Apple does indeed call it “Retina quality.” It has a touchscreen with a twist: it can sense pressure as well as touch and can tell a tap from a press. Think of it as a sort of “right click” expansion to the touch interface.
There’s a microphone, which comes into play when you’re using Siri, dictating text and using audio messaging. There’s a tiny speaker. There’s a haptic feedback motor, again with a nice twist: It uses a small “vocabulary” of gentle buzzes that conveys the nature of the watch’s alert, not just its presence. Apple chooses to call it “taptic feedback” and the interactions are “taptions.” You can hop on a city bus and get immersed in your book. Apple Watch will “taption” you with a signature buzz when it’s about to be your stop. Similarly, the maps app will taption you to tell you to turn right or left at the next intersection … and yes, you’ll know which based on the buzzes.
Neat. One of the things I like about wearables is doing stuff without taking my phone out of my pocket. Taptions, it seems, go a step further and let the watch be useful without even making me hitch my sleeve up away from my watch.
It’s got Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for connecting to an iPhone (which is a required presence). But you knew that.
The rotating crown on the side (the “watch-winder thingy”) is the centerpiece of the new user interface. Despite the nice touchscreen, Apple would like you to not have to touch it all the time; whenever you’re touching the screen, they point out, your finger blocks your view.
Think of the digital crown as part of the Apple Watch’s language as opposed to a specific feature. Apple is underscoring a message that the crown is as big a mechanical input innovation as the mouse, the iPod scroll wheel and the multitouch screen (an interesting thing for Tim to call out from the stage, as Steve Jobs spoke of the same progression when introducing the iPhone’s multitouch display).
The obvious use for the crown is to scroll up and down when an app needs to show you more text or buttons than the screen can hold. It’s also used for zooming in and out, or to put it in a more abstract way “I want more detail on this” versus “I want a broader grasp of this collection of things.” Given that Apple is promoting the digital crown as basic interface language, I’m sure it’ll expand and refine this point as we get closer to launch day.
But here’s an example. The Apple Watch home screen shows a big constellation of available apps and it looks like colorful polka dots. When you turn the digital crown, the screen zooms in on the apps so that the icon you want is big enough to be tappable, perhaps after you’ve given the screen a couple of flicks to move that icon closer to the center. Once you’ve targeted something, pushing the crown in selects it. The crown button also acts as a “home” button.
Alongside the digital crown, there’s a button that brings up a panel of shortcuts to your favorite people. When you want to send off an SMS to your son to remind him that curfew is 10 p.m. not 10-oh-whenever p.m., you won’t have to drill through a list of contacts to do it.
Does that seem like a lot of inputs for such a tiny device? You’ve got a touchscreen that understands two different kinds of touches, two clickybuttons, and a whirlywheel. Hmm.
All of this is being run on a single custom chip. And the thing moves like butter. The user experience is filled with creamy-smooth transitions and animations. Apple felt no need to skimp on the visual pizzazz of the interface. It’s remarkable — even a bit discombobulating — to see such professional-looking “camera moves” and the appearance of real physics happening on something as prosaic as a wrist PC.
Seriously. The effect of watching the Apple Watch in action is less like looking at a tiny screen close up and more like watching an HDTV from a distance.
I was surprised that the device can be used with Apple Pay, the new point-of-sale payment transaction system that Apple also introduced on that day: Tap your phone against one of the pads that are already set up in many brick-and-mortar stores annnd bip! Your burrito has been paid for. You can do the same with the Apple Watch.
The demo video suggested to me that the NFC gear is at the top edge of the watch and has to be aligned with the payment pad carefully (the phone demo didn’t make it even look like the phone was making contact with anything), but nonetheless, the ability to pay for a Big Mac and fries after a long jog using only the sports watch you left the house with seems very Jetsons-meets-Blade Runner.
And how does one power this fine example of California style and engineering? With an inductive charger. It clicks onto the back of the Apple Watch with magnets and holds fast without any need for alignment.
Fab. And how often will we be charging this, incidentally?
Not a peep from Apple on that subject. However, while praising the ease of the magnetic charger, Tim noted how easy this was going to be to recharge every night.
Er … what?
Yes, I scrambled to make a note of that. But the only solid answer to the question this week is “I’ve no idea how long the battery lasts and maybe, at this early stage, neither does Apple.” Perhaps Tim was speaking only of the habit of taking off a watch every night and putting it on the nightstand. If you’re going to do that anyway, why not just plug it in, whether it needs a charge or not?
Fit to be tried
Fitness is one of the Apple Watch’s reasons for existing. Tim spoke of Apple’s historical drive to make things that improve people’s lives. “More life” is generally agreed to be an improvement on “less,” and then there’s the whole healthy living/quality-of-life thing. As such, fitness and workout features were always a huge motivator for the design of Apple Watch.
The backside of the watch sports a quartet of ports for LEDs and light sensors, complementing the watch’s accelerometer and barometer. Taken together with the data fed to the watch from the iPhone (like GPS data) the device can pull together a broad and accurate picture of your activity. Not just the quantity of movement, Apple stresses … but the quality as well.
The watch sets and maintains goals for you through a cunningly simple trio of cunning nested circles. One is your progress toward not being such an unmoving sack of concrete all day: You fill in more of the circle by getting out of your chair for at least one minute every hour for twelve hours. Another tracks your activity level: Be active for at least 30 continuous minutes a day. A third credits you for doing real, heart-pumping exercise.
I’ve written before about our need (OK, maybe it’s just my need) for scores and gaming to trick me into doing something that’s manifestly in my own best interests. I’m the guy who drives on I-95 in the right lane going almost exactly the speed limit and when a traffic light turns green, I accelerate from zero back to 30 miles an hour in about three days. I didn’t become such a safe and cautious driver until I got a car gadget that shows me a “score” for efficient driving.
I’m excited to try an Apple Watch because I can see it working the same “Give him a brownie and don’t tell him it’s got a full serving of vegetables mixed into the batter” trick for my health. I’ll make sure to get out of my chair if I’m reminded to do so and if I’m told that I only need to do it twice more to reach an arbitrary goal for intangible rewards.
“Do it because you’ll live much longer, Andy” just isn’t enough to get me to take these things more seriously. But a colorful curve that needs just 20 more degrees of arc to become a full circle? I’m off the couch, my shoes are on, and I’m out the door.
You think I’m being sarcastic. I’m pleased to hear it. It indicates that you have an image of me as a serious and mature adult who long ago abandoned the sort of unhealthy habits that most of us shed by age 20. This is incorrect, but I’m relieved that I’ve given this impression.
Oh, and about that air pressure sensor: The watch uses it to sense your changes in elevation. As it calculates the number of calories you’re burning today, it’ll give you full credit for walking up a flight of stairs or riding your bike across medically contraindicated terrain.
There’s all of that daily routine fitness stuff and also, of course, an app for monitoring your progress through the goals of your workout session.
I have tried various fitness bands. I abandoned them forever the first time I couldn’t find the USB charger for it and then thought “Hell with it.” Tapping a rubber bracelet and watching a couple of white LEDs climb from one side of the band to the other just isn’t enough fun to create the desired change in my behavior.
I’d love to hear about the psychology that went into these two fitness and workout apps, apart from the engineering of the hardware and the design of the software. I bet it was as much work as any other part of the watch’s development.
Fun fact: I did a half-marathon as my incentive to upgrade my Regular Walking Constitutionals to Scheduled Runs. I prepared for months for this event. I had chosen it specifically because a full marathon was going on concurrently and the finish area would undoubtedly remain open until I completed the route.
How did I do? I’ll put it this way. Somewhere around mile 10, an impeccably fit jogger on the marathon course passed me, turned and said “You’re an inspiration!” She was being so very kind and thoughtful and encouraging, but yes, it hit me: The mere fact that this body is on this course is considered an inspirational story.
But I finished! I pushed through to the very end, crossed the line, stepped up to the table to collect my very first finisher’s medal, possibly the first of many … and they didn’t have any.
They said they would. They had them for a whole bunch of people. I guess they ran out.
And then I stopped running. For reasons that went beyond the medal, I assure you. I came to accept that I like walking much better than running (good exercise without the constant focus on how much air I’m not getting, and OH MY GOD THE SOUL-CRUSHING BOREDOM OF RUNNING).
Still: I stood there at the finishers’ table with sore legs, feet that were starting to hurt, covered with stink, and only just starting to breathe normally again, and I was told (in so many words) that the race coordinators just couldn’t be arsed to buy enough finisher medals for everyone. It truly inspired me to not ever try that again.
The point is that it’s a rare bird who enjoys exercise. We need some sort of external motivation to do it. Ideally, it’s not the one where the doctor asks you to come back to the office so they can discuss the test results with you in person. Even when we get into the habit, it’s only an unsteady temporary truce between our desire for good health and our desire for a “House Of Cards” binge with a box of pizza rolls.
A well-made app and gadget like Apple Watch can help solve this problem in myriad ways and it’s the residue, no doubt, of hundreds of subtle discoveries of what gets people motivated and keeps them on the right path to health.
I’ll make one last cautious note about the fitness features. I have no doubts as to Apple’s sincerity about wanting to make people’s lives better. It just seems a shame that Apple couldn’t figure out a way to create a powerful fitness band like this that costs a fraction of Apple Watch’s $349 and doesn’t require a second expensive gadget.
This is in no way a moral failing. I’m just a little dazzled by the positive benefits of something this good and I wish it were accessible to more people. It’s even worth noting that Android phones are a much bigger force with lower- and middle-income consumers.
Well, Apple is indeed speaking of Apple Watch as a line. Perhaps there’ll be room for an ecumenical and economical fitness-only edition in the future.
The whatsit of this watch
Fitness was the only whole beginning-to-end story about Apple Watch that the company cared to present. Tim told stories of certain watch apps that he and other users were enjoying or which were under development, doing things like turning lights on and off, Facebooking, tweeting, unlocking doors — W hotels will allow you to get digital room keys on your watch — real push-button world-of-the-future stuff.
Tim mentioned controlling iTunes on the computer. As in, the Mac. This makes perfect sense, since he also spoke of Apple Watch as working with the “Continuity” feature of Mac OS Yosemite and iOS 8. This is the basic mechanism by which you can, say, start reading a long Web article on your MacBook and then pick up your phone, go out the door and continue to read exactly where you left off. All of this happens because the iPhone was close to your Mac and aware of how you were using it and the phone knew you might want to keep right on doing that thing, via a different device.
The possibilities of the Apple Watch as an extension of your iPhone, iPad and Mac experiences are intriguing. Apple is releasing a new set of APIs to developers, called WatchKit, for creating apps that work with Apple Watch. It lets them create actionable notifications and “glimpses,” which is how Apple describes nuggets of valuable data prepared for the small screen. Swipe up from the watch face to look at a panel with the status of your flight or information from your Nest thermostat — that sort of thing.
I said at the very top that everyone’s trying to figure out what role a wrist computer ought to play in its user’s life. Sure, it ought to let you answer phone calls and texts and even initiate them. Apple has Siri, and it’s a natural fit for a device with such a tiny screen. Just talk, and let Siri find the answers and arrange the actions for you.
Tuesday’s presentation showed off a lot of neat stuff, including a new form of messaging. You can draw on the screen with your finger, and then the data is sent to your recipient’s Apple Watch, where he or she can watch it being drawn stroke for stroke. You can hold down your finger and the watch will record your heartbeat, and then send it to somebody. Ideally your sweetheart because that’d be a very weird way to reply to a two-stage authentication SMS from Google.
Is it silly? No, this is delightful. Technology is, after all, meant to delight us. Useful? Oh, don’t be a wet blanket. It’s a charming feature.
Maybe that’s one of the key requirements of a successful watch: sheer charm.
Nobody but nobody wants to walk around wearing Google Glass. Many people are fine with being seen wearing a Pebble or even a large LG or Samsung smart watch, but within the same context as all fashion watches. The things I wear are part of the message I’m sending to the world about myself. I’m saying “I have no problems wearing a big techie watch. Techie watches are cool.”
Apple Watch is populist. Its charm transcends the tech set. It’s not possible to make one watch style that everybody is going to like but Apple’s shown that it’s certainly possible to come up with a design that is at least a candidate for everybody’s wrist.
I’m bothered that Apple wasn’t able to paint a true “the view of the Apple Watch as seen from space” picture of this device, but that’s not a warning sign. This device is still many months from shipping and Apple is still writing the story.
But it’s definitely a charming piece of hardware. I can’t wait to try it for real.