Ways to think about watches

Standing in Cupertino last week, holding an Apple watch in my hand, I was reminded very much of the original iPad launch. Here is an idea for a new thing, and the idea has been implemented very well, but it’s not quite clear if it’s a good idea. 

If you wanted a nine inch touch-screen tablet, the iPad executed that idea pretty well, but did you want one? Was it a good idea? If you want a very small computer on your wrist, both Apple and Motorola (and perhaps Samsung, if that’s your taste) have each made one that’s pretty good, but do you want one? 

This question is actually harder for a smart watch (a term I use only for want of a better one) than it was for the iPad, since the iPad did fundamentally sit within existing behavior - it was a large computer screen that did well-established computer things, but in a different way. You can argue about how it relates to a laptop or desktop and what the trade-offs and limitations are, but owning a computer screen roughly that size, running programs and showing the web, is an old behaviour. You might wonder whether you want a tablet instead of a laptop, but not whether there is a use for that screen. 

We got slightly closer to the same sense of puzzlement with smartphones. I spent much of 2000 and 2001 being asked ‘what’s the killer app for 3G?” by investors trying to work out if the European mobile operators would make any return on the €110bn that they'd spent on 3G spectrum in early 2000. In the end it turned out that the killer app for the mobile internet was having the internet, mobile, though the operators didn’t make much of a return. But it also took 7 years to close the gap between concept videos and the first device that made this real, and for a long time it was not obvious that having the internet on your phone had much value to many people outside Japan. 

In fact, one could argue that the closest precedent for puzzlement is the mobile phone itself. If you tell the young people of today this they won’t believe you, but in the mid 1990s most people thought that mobile phones were an expensive niche product without mass-market potential. We already had phones, and pay phones, so why would you need this other thing? Mobile operators around the world (the disruptive innovators of the day) had to run advertising campaigns suggesting reasons why having a mobile phone might be useful. Price was obviously one reason this was hard to imagine, but there were more basic factors. Simple behaviors we take for granted today were different. People made plans to to meet their friends before going out in the evening, for example. We managed without mobile phones, and had to be persuaded into them. 

It seems to me that there are two kinds of puzzle around a new... thing. One is that you already have a thing that does this. For tablets this was the PC (and the smartphone) and for the iPod it was the Walkman - for the iPod the advantage of the new thing seems obvious now, but people took some persuading even at the time, and for tablets the scope of replacement remains unclear. But for another kind of new product, you don’t already have a thing that does this because there is no ’this’, and it’s not clear what ’this’ might be. A mobile phone is not a landline that doesn’t have a wire - it changes large parts of how you can live your life, so much so that it was not obvious in 1995 what would change. So too a smart watch. Yes, it tells the time, but what else?

So how do we puzzle this out? There are three strands, I think - three pieces of string to pull at:

  • How does a watch complement the smartphone you already take everywhere?
  • What does a watch do of itself that’s different?
  • What is different about something that you wear on your wrist, next to your skin, on display, all the time - what are the self expressive and emotional characteristics of this? 

First, the complement. A watch does not yet have room for a battery that can supply a cellular radio that will last all day, and the screen seems too small to be the only portable screen you have, pending projectors, folding screens or retinal implants. If you must have a smartphone, why the watch as well?

We know that a large proportion of smartphone use is actually at home, when there’s a laptop or tablet in easy reach. Where is your smartphone when you’re at home? In your pocket, in case it rings or bleeps and you miss it? Or if you want to check something? Are you uncomfortable leaving it another room of the house? What if, via the watch, it could come with you, if you want? Are you in that (say) half of the population that keeps your phone in your bag, rather than your pocket? Does that change the value of having a slice of your smartphone on your wrist? What did you think about cordless phones when you first heard about them? Remote controls? The best camera is the one you always have with you - what is the best screen - the one you can see by flexing your am, or the one that takes a few seconds longer? What is there in the convenience of the thing on your wrist? The answer is not nothing at all, but it is hard to know quite what. 

Second, what is it of itself? Apple has announced its watch well before it ships in part to give developers time to make things for it (any Osborning of Android watches over Christmas is entirely coincidental). Apple’s approach is very focused on the watch as a platform in its own right, with the iPhone needed but as a partner. Google’s Android Wear was first shown this spring purely as a remote screen for your Android phone, showing notifications and Google Now, but an API has been added there too. But what can a developer do that’s better on the watch than the phone? This feels much like 2008, when it was clear you could do… something with the iPhone, but no-one imagined Uber: the early apps were Tetris clones and task managers and of course newspaper apps. Hence Apple’s social messaging app, that lets you send sketches or buzzes or just your heart beat to someone, is intriguing as a way to tap into the immediacy of the platform and the sensors and outputs that it offers. Just as no-one predicted Uber from GPS, no-one predicted Instagram or Tinder from the camera. Mobile social apps have become a playground for experimentation in UX - something always on your wrist seems like fertile ground. But the truth is we don’t really know - the watch, like the smartphone or tablet, is a piece of glass - it can be anything. 

Third, it seems to me that the key part of ‘anything’ is not, fundamentally, about computing, but delight, amusement, self-expression and emotion. This is a $400 (or more) thing that you don’t fundamentally need, that you wear on your wrist. That’s why  Hodinkee's review touched such an important point - you wear this. Google  Glass is failing because it doesn’t matter what you see when you turn it on - you’re wearing a ‘thing' on your face. Put the same output into an existing pair of glasses or contact lenses, say, and that would go away, and one could at least talk about whether it’s useful. But 'normal’ people care about stitching and weave and weight and texture and colour. This matters much more for phones than PCs, and much more for a watch than for a phone. It’s just a piece of glass until you turn it on, but it needs to be a pleasing piece of glass before you turn it on. 

Hence, though I’m not a big fan of assessing future markets in the light of past ones, it’s worth considering the existing watch market. Around 1.2bn watches are made each year, of which about 650m are made in China and exported for an average price of $3. At the other extreme, a few tens of millions of watches are sold each year for over (mostly well over) $1000, and these are essentially jewelry, in which you pay for complex manually-assembled machinery and the brand and associated aura instead of very small pieces of uncommon rocks and their aura. But in the middle, several hundred million watches are sold every year for prices between $100 and $1000, made by companies like Swatch and Fossil (which might be called the Luxottica of watches) in which you are sold not the time but an attractive object, much like a handbag or pair of shoes or pair of glasses. And as Hodinkee says, Apple has an offer that is as good or better here at the same price before you even turn it on. Design, fit & finish and user experience are not the paint on the box - they're an integral part of what such a product is, and if you get them wrong, you've screwed up just as much as if the battery only lasts the morning or the Bluetooth drops out. That, amongst other things, is why removable straps are a core part of the technical specifications. 

After you turn it on, well, what does software as part of the experience of a luxury product look like? Nokia’s venture Vertu had a go at this, though I always struggled with the concept of an old low-end Nokia in a platinum box as a luxury good, but Apple is trying to do this for far more people. Apple always talks about delighting users, but for a 'watch', it seems to me that delight is central, and it needs to be the delight of the ‘normal’ person, not the delight of the technical user seeing a cool piece of engineering. That’s the delight that comes from milanese loops, sending your heartbeat to your friend, or a butterfly flapping its wings on your wrist, AND knowing that your team scored or your bus is here.