At long last we know what a wearable computer is supposed to look like, what it’s supposed to do, and how it’s supposed to work. That’s my takeaway from today’s introduction of the Apple Watch. That’s not hyperbole, either. Before a consumer buys a piece of technology, they must ask themselves two questions: Does it fulfill a need, and does it do so at a price I can afford? But for a watch, for wearable technology, there is a third question: Would I want to wear it?
Plenty of smartphone makers have gotten millions of Yeses from millions of consumers on the first two questions. Only Apple and Samsung have figured out how to earn those Yeses at a profit, but people generally know what they’ll get from a moderately priced Android or iOS device, and which prices are moderate.
To date, however, the answer to the third question has been a resounding, “Wear that — are you kidding me?”
The first problem a smartwatch maker has to solve is to make a watch which looks like a watch, and not like a smartphone with a strap on it. The latest from Samsung, the Gear S, is a great example of why consumers have rejected smartwatches. They look like something Dick Tracy would wear if he were dressing up for Halloween as Billy Idol. In terms of functionality, smartwatches have either done not very much, like the Pebble, or simply slapped a smaller Android UI onto a smaller screen. But first and foremost, they’re big and they’re ugly. People don’t even get to the ill-considered interfaces before rejecting them completely.
So has Apple given consumers something to embrace?
The Apple Watch first and foremost looks like a watch. There are sport versions and dressier versions, and they come in two sizes. Rather than simply shrink the iPhone’s famous Springboard and slap it on a watch face, Apple re-invented iOS for the wrist. What’s the only “control” on a regular watch? Typically, the winder on the right side. Apple Watch has one of those, called the “digital crown,” and it performs all sorts of functions smartphone owners are used to performing on touch screens — most notably the classic pinch-to-zoom function. There are sensors on the back and inside to track your heart rate, how much you move, whether you’re sitting or standing, etc. Apple spent a lot of time demoing the various HealthKit features.
The Digital Crown is on the right side, which could prove a major usability problem for lefties like myself. But as Longtime Sharp VodkaPundit Reader™ Mr Lion noted on Twitter, lefties can probably just wear the thing “upside down” on their right wrists, and the screen should flip itself accordingly. No word from Apple on that point yet however.
There are built-in apps to do all kinds of things, from the aforementioned health tracking, to texting, to using your fingertips to customize, animate, and send your own emojis. The shrunk down Maps app uses haptic taps on the wrist to tell you when and which direction to turn to get to where you’re walking. The “taptic” technology is supposed to be detectable only to the wearer, so nobody knows if you’re looking down to read your new email or if you’re just checking the time. You can also imagine almost endless taptic-al possibilities for deaf or blind people. Like the new iPhone 6 models, the new watch features Apple Pay, which allows consumers to use their iTunes account, or any other credit card they choose, to make retail payments with a simple wave of the wrist. If that function doesn’t already include a built-in tip calculator, it shouldn’t take long for some smart app developer to hook into Apple Pay to make it happen.
Apple’s intelligent voice assistant, Siri, is of course built in. And I should probably mention that it’s a pretty darn good timepiece, with (if memory serves) a promised accuracy down to 50 milliseconds.
So what else does it do?
On the business side, I suspect Apple Pay will give Cupertino a taste of some of Amazon’s huge and infamous cash churn, reaping the benefits of sitting on a consumer’s spent cash for a short while before turning it over to retailers. If that turns out to be true, it might be a bigger deal to investors than the watch itself. Via iTunes, Apple is already the caretaker of 800 million credit card numbers, compared to fewer than 300 million for Amazon.
But most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, Apple Watch looks like a watch. Jony Ive, the watch’s chief designer, claims there are over a million customizable combinations of metals, materials, colors, and sizes. All the materials appear to be high-end, from 18k gold, to machined aluminum, to stainless steel, leather, and plastics.
My initial impression is that it’s attractive to wear and fun to use, but I can’t say for sure until I get one on and play with it.
There are two potential negatives, one spoken by Apple and the other left unspoken. The first is that Apple Watch must be paired with an iPhone no older than a 2012-vintage iPhone 5. That’s 200 million customers, but it excludes another 300 or so million owners of iPads, iPod Touches, and older iPhones. What Apple didn’t say anything about was the expected battery life. I haven’t worn a watch in years, and won’t start wearing one again just to have to take it back off in the middle of the day. Since Apple isn’t saying, they may still be working on power-saving tweaks. If not, many customers like me might wait for future versions, or not bother at all.
Mostly though the Apple Watch seems typically Apple. There’s a lot of functionality packed into an small and attractive package, with lots of little “Oooooh!” flourishes in the apps and in the operating system. Tim Cook mentioned that he already uses his as his Apple TV remote control — but imagine the possibilities of a wearable Wii-type remote, when and if Cupertino opens up Apple TV to developers. Angry Birds I can actually “throw”? Bring it on!
Apple Watch goes on sale early next year at a starting price of $349 and, it’s safe to say, going way up.