In 2007, Apple changed the act of socializing, maybe forever, with the release of the iPhone. There it was, a perfectly packed 4.5-inch-long computer designed to pulverize boredom like a drill through your skull. You bought one, and now, whenever you have a few minutes of downtime, even if that downtime is shared with your friends or spouse or mom at Christmas, you tap or scroll or swipe something on that little glass screen.
To own a smartphone is to cede some part of yourself to it. The device is too innately fascinating to be conquered by lifehacks, which feel like treating a hernia with vinyasa flow. So, three years ago, Apple released the Apple Watch, promising a better way forward. It’s a mini-computer you strap to your wrist to free yourself of the one you carry in your pocket. Apple’s promises then are worth reconsidering today, after years of modest improvements to the wearable, because the fundamental problem — tech interrupting and shaping our natural lives — remains unsolved.
Indeed, the original sales pitch of the Apple Watch was an admission that something wasn’t quite right in iPhoneland. There was Tim Cook, beginning hour two of a PR gauntlet that had included the announcement of the iPhone 6S, hawking his company’s new “intimate way to connect and communicate.” There was a standing ovation.
Minutes later, Apple screened a commercial narrated by Jony Ive, the corporation’s chief designer. In 2018, we may understand the Apple Watch mostly as a fitness tracker, but in the video, Ive gives it a significantly more nuanced pitch.
“We conceived, designed, and developed Apple Watch as a completely singular product,” Ive says in his silken British hum. “You know, you can’t determine a boundary between the physical object and the software.”
Throughout all of this, a render of the Apple Watch rotates and shimmers. During this next line, you see chain-link metal flowing like cream and an erotic pan over the bottom of the Watch’s golden wrist strap.
“We’re introducing an unparalleled level of technical innovation combined with a design that connects with the wearer at an intimate level to both embrace individuality and inspire desire,” he continues.
You can draw a message on the 42-mm screen, or try to. You can share your heartbeat with someone. That’s the Apple Watch difference.
All of which is to say the Apple Watch, at conception, was a very personal response to an already very personal computer — the iPhone, which you can use during a potluck or after 50 sit-ups or whenever, really.
Yes, Apple, like any great company in the business of marketing products, is skilled at creating needs where you didn’t have any, though maybe it was onto something here. The smartphone made personal computers and the internet ubiquitous, but it also moved them into social life, creating millions of invisible barriers between people that never existed before. Perhaps something smaller, with a series of subtly actionable notifications that only alert the human wearing the device, could in some way solve the problems we hadn’t anticipated from the iPhone.
But the Apple Watch doesn’t solve these problems.
Three years after the original device went on sale, I strapped on the newest iteration of the Apple Watch — a “Series 3” model, temporarily provided for review by Apple — and expected to learn something new. Truthfully, I’ve always been suspicious of wearables, for a fairly self-evident reason: Their pitch is to solve data overload by more or less re-contextualizing that data, without meaningfully changing much in the process. Worse, by virtue of the device being strapped onto your wrist, the chances for unwanted technological interjection are quite a bit higher than they are with a phone in your pocket, or in another room.
Say your friend sends you a text message. In Apple’s ecosystem, that message is equally accessible and interactive no matter what device you’re on. Just like your iPhone, iPad, or MacBook, the Apple Watch receives the signal and produces a little blue, text-filled bubble. You can respond to it fully no matter what device you’re on.
On paper, that’s impressive. The Apple Watch has a unique user interface, with a digital crown to rotate and different ways of responding to messages by default — write out letters with your fingers, dictate with your voice, use one of many automated responses — but the core functionality mirrors the programs you’re already accustomed to. Especially with the Series 3, which can be completely untethered from your iPhone, Apple has designed a wristwatch that functions like a “full” computer (at least with some applications).
It is unmistakably an engineering feat, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for people. Though they should offer quite different things to a user, the membrane between the Apple Watch and the iPhone is basically nonexistent. When it comes to something like messages, you’re getting all or nothing on your wrist, just as you do on your iPhone.
I use iMessage a lot. It is, in effect, my preferred social network. Very quickly, the notifications on my wrist became vomit-inducing. When I need to, I can shove my iPhone in a bag or put it in another room or, in a fit of heaving sobs, ask my wife to hide it, but taking the Apple Watch off is another thing entirely. If you’re going to do that, why have one at all?
Yes, you can use the “Do Not Disturb” function, which stops notifications from prodding at your wrist, though again I wondered: If I turn everything off, what good is this thing? At that point, it becomes a glorified fitness tracker — more on that in a second — that I can use like a mini-iPhone when needed. That is literally never needed, because I have an iPhone, and the Apple Watch is no less disruptive to tinker with than the rectangular slab in my pocket.
Remember that Apple’s original pitch for this thing was all about intimate communication. There are two really important but unspoken elements of that pitch:
Unlike the iPhone, the Apple Watch should keep your hands free. Pay attention to the amount of time people spend actually touching the watch in commercials for this device: It’s not very much.
If you have to look at the Apple Watch, you should get the information you need very quickly.
Remember, out of the context of Apple’s advertising, “intimacy” is already a defining trait of the iPhone. It goes with you everywhere, it takes pictures of everything — that’s intimacy! So, the Apple Watch really has to make its case as something that can remove the barrier between you and the people you’re communicating with in real life (and not via gadgets).
I’m belaboring this point to the exclusion of the, like, billions of other little things the Apple Watch can do — I downloaded a game about chewing bubble gum! — because fundamentally, the Apple Watch fails to remove this barrier. When it comes to intimacy between people, the Apple Watch is nothing new. The user interface replicates the functions of your iPhone, and fiddling with its screen or digital crown will be just as annoying to anyone you’re sitting across from.
So… it sucks?
Measured against the original promises, the Apple Watch is hardly a success. And indeed, I wanted to experience the device — its latest update, no less — specifically in reference to those promises. We’re more aware now of the potential harms lying beneath our touchscreens, but the fundamental product hasn’t changed much.
That’s probably why Apple has pivoted its marketing for the device. The original commercials were all about subtle interactions between people; many of the recent ones are about exercise. Fair enough: The exercise and health features are great, and certainly better than any of the several other fitness trackers I’ve used over the years.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, focusing on fitness seems to have improved Apple Watch sales.
“My theory is that consumers are starting to see a place for Apple Watch in their lives,” industry analyst Neil Cybart recently wrote on his Above Avalon blog. “While Apple’s revised Apple Watch marketing campaign around health and fitness has led to a clearer sales pitch, I think the health and fitness messaging ends up being Apple’s way to get its wrist in the door.”
His full argument is much more involved. The familiar functions of the Apple Watch attract people, but the device introduces new ideas that hint at the future Apple is trying to build. I may not like the screen interface, but Cybart rightly points out that the Apple Watch is packed with additional technology — voice recognition, artificial intelligence, smart sensors — that could become very important to Apple moving forward.
But we’re not in that future yet. I would argue we’re a paradigm shift or two away from the Apple Watch standing apart as a device that most of us would experience as meaningfully different than the iPhone when it comes to most aspects of personal computing, fitness tracking aside. The Apple Watch won’t be “done,” in my view, until you can own it without needing an iPhone — not because Apple’s ecosystem is busted, but because the Watch is too beholden to the iOS framework, warts and all. In an era when many of us dream about being less trapped by screens and notifications, the Apple Watch does little more than pile on.
One could argue that Apple needs to rethink what the Watch is capable of. The fanboys will crucify me for saying so, but maybe reducing functionality would be a step in the right direction — perhaps we don’t need the full, iOS-like iMessage experience on our wrists, for example, though I could only guess at what the right replacement would be.
Until then, here’s what the Apple Watch is for: more of the same.