What Apple knows about smartwatches that Google doesn't
- 13 September, 2014 21:12
As predicted in this space last week, Apple has launched another revolution.
The Apple Watch validates, mainstreams and leads the smartwatch category, even though it doesn't exist yet. (Shipments aren't expected until early next year.)
As with the two previous Apple revolutions (the iPhone and iPad), the nature of and the reasons for the revolution are completely lost on the so-called experts who dominate the conversation.
So let's talk about what's truly important and revolutionary about the Apple Watch. But first, let's talk about what's wrong with the debate around the Apple Watch, and also what's wrong with the watch itself.
What's wrong with the conversation
First and foremost, I don't want to argue about religion. The online debate around the Apple Watch centers around the predictable "sides" people have taken for or against Apple.
Like religion and politics, the people with money, power and influence have persuaded a majority that there's a good side and a bad side, and that we're all supposed to take sides, praising the righteous and opposing the evil-doers.
To those on the Apple Is Good side, the Apple Watch is perfect and sublime -- another example of the company's total mastery of all things and another beacon of hope that may save mankind from the garbage produced by all companies that are not Apple or part of its ecosystem.
To the Apple Is Bad side, the Apple Watch is an ugly, confused copy of innovations that have come before; it's also an overpriced and oversized yet ordinary device that will unfairly dominate the market due only to the power of Apple's marketing and the obedience of Apple fanboys.
This argument -- this taking and defending of sides -- is old and boring. But most important, the defend-my-side-at-all-costs impulse blinds people to understanding new ideas.
I have no interest in it and invite you to reject it as well.
What's wrong with the Apple Watch
Information is still limited, but based on what we know, the Apple Watch is way too thick.
It's also, in my opinion, conspicuously ugly. It seems to me that the more freedom Jony Ive's amazing power inside Apple affords him, the more free he feels to pursue his core design sensibility, which reminds me of the prevailing rounded "future look" from the late '60s and early '70s (as exemplified by Roger Sterling's office in Mad Men.)
The Apple Watch hardware is, at its core, a blunt, fat, ugly rounded rectangle.
Having said that, the fit and finish are flawless, according to my friends who fondled the thing at Apple's announcement. And the strap clasp system is truly good.
The main interface for the Apple Watch is a scattershot collection of icons of various sizes that pop and grow and shrink as you move the herd around. Nobody seems to like this interface much, and it's hard to tell how users are going to recognize apps from a microscopic icon.
The Apple Watch doesn't have native GPS, so an iPhone is required if you want to use the watch for navigation or, potentially, to track fitness metrics.
I'm also hearing complaints about the Apple Watch's Digital Crown, which is a wheel on the side of the watch face for zooming in and out and rotating through on-screen options. I'll reserve judgment until I try it, but at first glance it seems too small for that function.
I don't see how the charger won't be a problem. It reminds me of the LG G Watch charger, which is also magnetic. When you pick up the watch, the charger comes with it. I much prefer the Moto 360's nonmagnetic cradle charger.
The Apple Watch requires an iPhone. It's not waterproof enough. And, at a starting price of $349, it's too expensive.
These gripes aside, the Apple Watch is fundamentally better and closer to the "right" way to do wearable computing than any smartwatch yet shipped or announced.
Why the Apple Watch is a profound revolution
Unlike other smartwatches, instead of just being a peripheral device for a smartphone -- or, in the case of the Samsung Gear S, a smartphone itself -- the Apple Watch also functions as a peripheral to you. Here's what I mean.
There's an invisible bubble around you. Inside the bubble is you -- the things that are you and part of you. Outside the bubble is not you -- the tools you use and the stuff you have.
For example, your eyeglasses, clothes, tattoos, jewelry, hearing aid, pacemaker and tooth fillings are manmade objects that are part of you. Your company doesn't supply them for you. They're part of what the company gets when it hired you.
Your PC, laptop, desk and so on are not part of you. If you need these for work, your company is probably supplying them.
One type of thing functions as a body part that's part of what you are. The other type of thing is a tool; it's something you use.
The trouble with smartwatches is that they should be part of what you are, but existing models are designed to be tools you use. That's why they aren't compelling enough.
The Apple Watch, on the other hand, is the first smartwatch to get closer to becoming a body part.
Instead of just interacting with your brain with notifications, voice-command facts and text-based communication, it's designed to interact more with your body, your senses.
Eyes rolled during the announcement when Apple started talking about "taptics" -- a portmanteau of tap and haptics. But it appears that Apple made enormous effort to combine its so-called Taptic Engine with a tiny speaker inside the Apple Watch to add unified touch and sound to the user interface experience.
The touch is somewhat "high fidelity" -- able to direct vibrations to different parts of the watch.
As an example of how this sets the Apple Watch apart, most smartwatches transmit text as the main way to communicate. With Android Wear, for example, you can read incoming texts, then reply with your voice. Your speech is converted into text before sending. It's using the watch for brain-to-brain communication, like a telegraph.
You can do that with an Apple Watch, too, but Apple adds the ability to nudge someone with a tap. You select the recipient, then tap on the watch. They feel the tap on their wrist. You can send your heartbeat, and the other person can feel it. (While that last bit is a gimmick that people will quickly tire of, it will be interesting to see what third-party app developers will do with that capability.)
When you turn the Digital Crown, scroll through controls, draw a picture on the screen with your finger or do just about anything with the Apple Watch, a special, related haptic sensation is delivered to your wrist to add a sensory dimension to the interface.
The haptic sensation generated by a tap is different from the sensation generated by a press. The Apple Watch knows the difference because the flexible screen is touch-sensitive. It knows if you're pressing or tapping softly or strongly, quickly or slowly, and it responds accordingly.
In other words, when you touch the Apple Watch, you feel the touch. It's part of you.
To delight your eyes, the screen is unnecessarily high resolution. And the fluid, physics-based user interface will probably add to the sensory experience.
The Apple Watch not only brings your senses of touch, hearing and sight into a unified experience, it also uses your skin for authentication. You can use the fingerprint sensor on the connected iPhone to authenticate the Apple Watch to make purchases via its NFC chip and Apple Pay. It will remain authenticated as long as the bottom of the watch remains in contact with your skin. Once contact is broken, the watch is de-authenticated (until you repeat the authentication process). In other words, the watch can buy stuff for you as long as it's part of you. As soon as it's no longer part of you, it loses its purchasing power.
When choosing certain body parts or body modifications, people rarely choose something generic. They do not tend to be ambivalent, for example, about which tattoo they get, or which eyeglass frames they choose, or what clothes they buy. These additions to one's body are points of self expression and assertions of either individuality or group membership.
Apple acknowledges this by offering massive numbers of combinations for Apple Watch hardware, with two sizes, three metals and many wristbands. The software and interface are also highly customizable. This seems like a superficial benefit, but it's part of the difference between a generic, utilitarian tool that you use and an addition to your physical person that is used for self expression and group identity.
The Apple Watch isn't perfect. It's got a long way to go before it reaches its potential.
But Apple seems to know something about smartwatches that Google and others don't seem to understand, which is that the smartwatch is supposed to be part of who and what you are.
It's not a gadget strapped to your wrist. It's an upgrade for the wrist itself. It's a body part, not a tool.
And that's the revolution.