What’s in a name?

Based on a week’s worth of articles, Tweets, ‘blogs and comments, it appears that many watch wearers are rebelling against the name of Apple’s latest release, the Apple Watch. It’s not clear whether this is because they think that the Apple Watch has crossed the WW Boundary** or whether this is just horological snobbery from the #watcherati.  If the Apple Watch has, indeed, ceased to be a watch of any kind and should now be called something else, it seems highly likely that Apple would have already told us. In the same way that nobody has been asking for a new name to describe the smartphones that we all use – even though they are almost comically removed from the pdQ 800, let alone the IBM Simon – I’m happy to continue to use the term.

The Apple Watch, (C) 2014 Apple, Inc.

The Apple Watch, Copyright © 2014 Apple Inc.

Regardless of the definitional discussion, there’s a lot to like about the product. For a start, it appears to be the most integrated smartwatch to date. While the Android-powered G Watch R, Gear S and Moto 360 are all impressively well-endowed (including both nano-SIM and GPS for the Gear S), the photos and video of the Apple Watch seem to suggest that attendees at the Keynote were immediately and instinctively able to use the device (albeit on a demonstration loop). This may be due to the strong design consistency with the current iOS 7 (and newly released iOS 8), an operating system that does seem to be far more intuitive than other (arguably better) systems.

What is not yet clear is why people will actually want to wear a smartwatch, apart from as a piece of techno-jewellery. Even the much vaunted near field communication (NFC) payment options of the Apple Watch / iPhone 6 seem old hat now that TFL accepts contactless payment on buses and tubes (it’s also approximately five years behind the Sony-based FeliCa RFID chips I saw working in Tokyo in 2010). A killer app has been missing from just about every smartwatch to date, including the Apple Watch (although that didn’t stop the device garnering near-frenzied attention). In terms of column inches, the last such device to create such a buzz was the Pebble on Kickstarter, a watch whose e-paper display now looks positively antique. Even the smart-enough/watch-enough Moto 360 and G Watch R releases caused but a faint ripple compared to the razzmatazz of last week’s Cupertino Keynote.

As a piece of wrist real estate, however, I can see it getting plenty of time. It’s an attractive slab of softly rounded tech; importantly, it seems to “wear well”. The screen is large and blends seamlessly into the case, while the off-centre crown is balanced almost adequately by a second, flush pusher***. There’s a Monolith-esque element to the design (albeit a Monolith as designed by Marc Newson****), and while the photographs of the watches on their magnetic charging mounts in Cupertino looked impossibly large, very few attendees have commented that the device is too big, or too bulky to wear. Traditional watch owners who are used to wearing a modern chrono or a dive watch should have no difficulties at all. Importantly, it just looks *right* on the wrist: it already looks like a natural (or perhaps saltatory might be a better description) evolution of the smartwatch, and, of course, it looks like an Apple product.

As an extension of the iPhone, the device also appears to be excellent, providing information in a relatively uncluttered way, and, presumably, offering almost infinite customisation in due course. This latter point has, I feel, been a relatively large failure of many previous iterations of the smartwatch. This may be due to the marginal interest paid to many of the smaller smartwatch brands by software companies; the Android watches have had a much larger take-up than, for example, META. Apple’s WatchKit is likely to exceed even the Android take-up, and I fully expect that the six month hiatus before release of the Apple Watch is to allow developers to begin to explore more fully the capabilities of the device. Interestingly, the customisation of the Apple Watch is not just limited to the icons (or “complications”) on the screen, extending as it does to also include the size of the device (38mm or 42mm height^^), lugs (fixed or integrated), case material (solid gold, stainless steel) and straps (everything from rubber to a “Milanese” bracelet). Straps. At last something to which many #watchnerds can relate: a wide choice of straps / bands and bracelets will be available for use on the Watch, Sport and Edition models. An anchor point for the mechanically-inclined.

Apple’s introduction of complications – whether clever appropriation of watchmaking language, an attempt to give the product additional gravitas or a deliberate windup of the #watcherati – as well as the introduction of the multipurpose “crown”, further tethers the device to world of horology. Perhaps the Apple Watch oversteps the mark in this respect, and, perhaps, it’s against this that the watch world is rebelling. The comments from industry veterans are largely positive: decent enough design; nice thing; can’t see that it’s going to bother us as a brand. But there always remains that nagging doubt – what if it erodes our market share, what if this is another quartz crisis, what if this is what the next generation of watch wearers really wants. Is this electrickery, this non-mechanical simulacrum, the future of watchmaking?

It is, perhaps, this ability/inability to relate to the product that causes (or at least, has appeared to cause) such consternation among the #watcherati. I’ve already used the ‘phone analogy, but I believe it’s a good one. There are people who stubbornly refuse to buy a smartphone, as I’m sure there will be people within the watch community who will stubbornly refuse to buy a smartwatch. However, this is simply an individual’s choice not to buy something, a value judgement, perhaps. I’m less interested in those judgements, and far more interested in what it means for us, as watch wearers in the widest possible sense.

Interestingly the human-machine interface in the Apple Watch and most mechanical watch is the same: the caseback; the crown; the bezel (or crystal); and the pusher. That these four elements are so clearly defined by Apple merely supports this being marketed as a watch. Where a mechanical chronograph is powered by, for example, a Valjoux 7750, the movement may “wobble” on the wrist. Similarly (and I may be pushing this analogy a little too far), the Apple Watch employs semi-affective haptics. The wobble of the 7750 is an ad hoc reminder that there’s an oscillating weight in there that’s winding the watch, a feeling that may elicit an emotional response in the wearer. Similarly, the vibrations of the Apple Watch’s linear actuator are there not only to deliver a signal (turn left, a new iMessage has arrived, wake up) but also, potentially, a bespoke sensation linked to a particular alert. Previous smartphones have buzzed and vibrated, but to date, nobody had thought to explore that most intimate of sense organs: the skin. One might, for example, be able to tailor the haptic signal to the sender: work emails send a standard vibration, whilst a text from your partner might produce something a little more nuanced. I must admit that I am not entirely sure how this might feel, but this line of affective haptic design is fascinating.

There’s also the design of the watch itself. It looks like a haptic object – i.e. one that you’d want to touch. In many ways, that was the success of the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone. Not only are they remarkably desirable products, they are also products that people want to use. The addition of the Force Touch screen / crystal is another example of this approach: touch the screen for one result, push the screen for another. I don’t usually dwell on negatives, but there are two things that strike me about the design and language used by Apple: in many shots, it reminds me of Benoît Mintiens’ superb Ressence Type 3; and the use of “Glances” seems to be taken directly from META’s vocabulary^^^.

An aside: it was the haptics of the product as much as the movement, price or dial design, that drew me to my first significant watch purchases. Admittedly, I was a little jet-lagged when I stumbled upon the watch in Changi’s Duty Free shopping mall, but it was the feel of the watch on my wrist, the weight, the shape of the case and lugs, the rounded edges, the way I felt when I touched it, that were the deciding factor. I have, for example, not bought watches for precisely these reasons – the edges are too sharp, the crown digs in, etc. Haptics are an often overlooked part of watchnerd-ery^^^^, and perhaps I’ll return to this at a later stage.  

One thing that is, I believe, essential to the successful uptake of the Apple Watch by the wearers of mechanical watches is the ability to internally upgrade the product. This is an area where Apple (and the majority of other technology companies) have been incredibly negligent. I’ve mentioned this before – I think it was during the Cupertino Event – but the ability, Sandbenders-style, to replace the “movement” of the Apple Watch with a new version, is incredibly important. If Apple does not provide this option (and it’s a charge that’s been levied on them many, many times in respect of almost every product they’ve released), then all that they have designed is a disposable watch. Now, there are disposable watches – most recently, the Swatch Sistem51 – and one could argue that the majority of watches sold worldwide (whether intended or not) are disposable. But who, realistically, is likely to spend that much money on a solid gold Apple Watch, if, within 18 months, it’s going to be a paperweight? Equally, until battery life extends to be in line with even the simplest manual wind (36-38 hours), uptake may be limited.

There is a lot to be written about this watch and the potential impact on the industry, and we the wearers. It may require redefinition, if it has, indeed, reached smartwatch escape velocity. It may change the way that we interact with, or want to interact with, our devices, or indeed our watches. And it may herald in a new era of upgradable tech. I don’t know exactly what I think about this device, and I may not for some time. But I do know that I want to see one, to touch it, wear it and experience it. And that’s an odd feeling for a watchnerd, even a smartwatchnerd.

the #watchnerd

** The WW Boundary, or watch / wearable boundary, is associated with the Cupertino Event, a mass extinction, and the demise of the mechanical watch

*** What does this pusher do? Is it a home button (as seen on the iPhone / iPad)? Is it linked to iBeacon?

**** How does rounding affect the 1:4:9 ratio?

^^ Interesting that Apple has changed the height, not the (more traditional) width of the watch

^^^ Glance is the new Touch / the Art of the Glance

^^^^ A haptic dive computer, might, for example, be rather useful…

***** Disposable in that it does not make economic sense to repair (rather than simply replace batteries)

the #watchnerd
The #watchnerd: the most interesting watch 'blog you've never read. Probably.

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