Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Apple’s official announcement last week of the Apple Watch, a product that was revealed months ago and won’t be available for purchase until late April.
As with most Apple product introductions, the tech press and blogosphere are abuzz about the latest Shiny Object from Cupertino even though almost nobody has actually had a chance to use the item. In the absence of hard facts, the pundits and oddsmakers have resorted to mostly either criticizing the device or speculating on what Apple’s foray into the luxury goods market entails. What can I possibly add to this cacophony?
Well, there are a few things that might qualify me for punditry on this:
–I use quite a few Apple products and like them. Right now, my Apple inventory includes an iPad 3, iPod Touch, iPhone 4s ($0.97 with two year contract!), Apple TV, an eleven-year-old Powerbook G4 that my Dad is still using, and a MacBook Pro Retina, which I think is the finest personal computer you can buy. I don’t think I’m a fanboy, though, as I use three Windows PCs on a daily basis and use a Roku streaming media player along with the Apple TV device. All have their advantages and disadvantages.
–I was an Apple user back when the company was all but dead. When I joined a digital prepress services company in the autumn of 1997, Steve Jobs has just rejoined his former company as “interim” CEO, and not a moment too soon. At that point in time, Apple was not the cool purveyor of desirable tech that it is now. It was a disorganized, unfocussed firm producing an incoherent array of computers (way too many models) and devices (such as the much-maligned Newton) that baffled newcomers to the brand and disappointed the graphics, audio, and video professionals who relied on Macintosh computers to get their work done. Increasingly, the latter group was turning to Macintosh clones to get the machines with the specs they wanted. Sadly for Apple, most of the pros needing really powerful Macs were buying machines from Power Computing and Umax; they were better “Macs” than the actual ones from Apple.
–A friend of mine loaned me the recent issue of The New Yorker containing a 17,000-word biographical piece about Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s well-known senior vice president of design. It’s an interesting read for any Apple fan, and one thing I noted was that Ive was at Apple during the Dark Days as well, so he also knows what the company was like when it nearly became an interesting has-been. The article also has lots of factoids about the design philosophy behind Apple’s new watch.
–I happen to like and collect vintage wristwatches. Well, collect is perhaps too strong a word, but I’ve got a few of what I consider to be nice examples. I don’t have the money to collect the really valuable stuff (Rolex, Ulysse Nardin, etc.) and never will, but I think I have a reasonably good sense of aesthetics about what constitutes a handsome timepiece.
So will I be lining up on April 24 to purchase one? The short answer is no. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t find the Apple Watch interesting and, well, “watchable” for a couple of reasons.
It’s the First Post-Jobs Product
The first important aspect of the Apple Watch is that it’s their first totally new “post-Steve-Jobs” product line. For a dozen years, the Ive-Jobs team produced hit after hit, creating beautiful, functional tech items that often created new device categories. The Apple Watch is a Jonathan Ive-Tim Cook production and is facing high expectations from Apple fans and shareholders alike.
The device is good-looking, far more so than most wearable tech, which tends to look geeky. Like most of Apple’s creations, it’s a rectangle with rounded corners (a particular favorite of Jobs) and restrained outer decoration. It’s almost understated, which a decided advantage compared to wearable tech such as Google Glass.
The watch aficionado in me isn’t intrigued, though. Apple Watch will come in two sizes (38 and 42 millimeters), but even the smaller size is a bit too large for my taste. Of course, the thing has to be large enough to use as an electronic touch-screen device, so there’s a tradeoff between size and functionality. My aesthetic is towards a more modest size; wristwatches started getting huge in the early 1970’s and that’s the vintage where my interest fades. Guys in particular seem to dig really huge chunks of metal on their wrists but it always struck me as a kind of overreaching. I also find rectangular watch cases to be clunky, although the Apple Watch is more elegant than the “cushion” style watch cases that started appearing at the same time as the increasing size.
Apple Watch is a “sidekick” sort of device. For many of its advanced functions, you need to have a iPhone (version 5 or newer). In this way, Apple Watch acts as the “remote outpost” of your iPhone, sending notifications, making payments via Apple Pay, and other such things. Those who gave up wristwatches because their mobile phone already had an accurate timepiece might not want to carry a second device (and keep two devices charged). For those who are constantly interacting with their iPhone (you know who you are), Apple Watch might provide a more discreet way of being endlessly distracted. In some ways, the device’s dependance on a mobile phone is reminiscent of the ill-fated Palm Foleo, a subnotebook computer that worked in conjunction with the Palm Treo smartphone. Widely panned when it debuted, it might be the case that the device duo was ahead of its time. I doubt, though, that it’s the type of comparison Apple would want you to make.
Since I’m not constantly consulting my mobile phone and don’t even have it with me at all times, I can certainly live without Apple Watch. Also, I can’t quite imagine how I could wear or use the thing without looking like a complete narcissist.
Apple Aims for the Stratosphere
The second important aspect of Apple Watch is that it’s Apple’s first entry into the world of personal luxury goods, a market segment where normal rules of logic disappear. In his interview for The New Yorker, Ive stresses the practical nature of Apple’s designs, and I would agree. For the most part, Apple’s products, though elegantly styled and costing a bit more, perform useful tasks and are made of high-quality, appropriate materials.
In the luxury market, though, the concepts of features, benefits, and practicality get distorted. For example, exclusivity becomes both a feature and a benefit. Practicality takes a backseat to creating something that signals the owner’s status. Materials get expensive, not because they’re the most appropriate, but simply because they are expensive.
The various models of the Apple Watch will cover market segments across three levels. Apple Watch Sport will be the least expensive, featuring an aluminum case and synthetic band. At a starting price of $349, this version is targeted at the fitness device market.
Apple Watch is the mid-range model. It will have a stainless-steel case available in two finishes (polished steel and black) and a variety of wristbands, including some handsome leather choices. It will retail for between $549 and about $1100.
Apple Watch Edition will be the luxury product. This version features a case made of 18K gold, more choices of luxury band materials, and fancy buckles of precious metal. Oh, and this version can cost up to $17,000.
Now it might not matter to everybody, but the first thing that struck me about this range of products is that, despite the huge price variation, all these watches will have the same guts. In terms of functionality, a person sporting the $349 version can do everything that the person wearing a five-figure model can do.
This is in contrast to everything Apple has made before this. If you’re a Mac user and elect to purchase a Mac Pro instead of a Mac Mini, you’re getting more stuff: more and faster processors, more RAM, much more connectivity options, etc. If you buy the more expensive iPhone, you get more memory, faster processor, and the like. All of these are elegant, well-designed products, but if you pay more, you get more capability.
With Apple Watch, you get luxury materials if you pay more. How the device works and what you can do with it stays the same. It remains to be seen if this matters to the buyers of the Apple Watch Edition.
It’s a bit different in the realm of conventional watches. There are two ways to create a super-expensive watch for the luxury market. One is to use a lot of high-priced materials and encrust the watch in diamonds and such. To the true horologist, a connoisseur of the watchmaker’s art, this is considered the easy way out. For these folks, the hallmark of a true luxury watch is the complexity and capability of the mechanical mechanism inside.
No mechanical watch is as accurate as even the cheapest mobile phone’s clock, but that hasn’t stopped watchmakers from continually improving the accuracy and capabilities of the precision mechanisms inside their wares. At its core, a mechanical watch has a power source (a mainspring) a regulation device (oscillating balance wheel and escapement mechanism) and all the other gears that translate this regulated rotary motion into the motion of the hour and minute hands to tell the time. From there, it gets more complex, and the more you pay, the more you get:
-The various gears and wheels in a mechanism run in bearings that are often made of synthetic rubies. These are referred to as jeweled bearings, and the more expensive the watch, the more jeweled bearings.
-Basic mechanical watches are wound by turning the crown. For more money, one can get a self-winding watch; here, an internal rotor mechanism translates the movement of the wearer’s arm into rotary motion to keep the mainspring wound.
-Calendar mechanisms are the next level of mechanical complication; these range from simple day-of-the-month displays to ultra-complex perpetual calendars.
-It gets expensive from here on up. Luxury timepiece mechanisms can contain chronographs (stopwatch mechanisms), alarm and striking functions (quarter hour, half hour, etc.), moon phase calculations, repeaters (can chime the hours and even minutes at the touch of a button) and more. The sky’s the limit, and so is the price.
Apple’s luxury watch takes the easy route of wrapping the standard innards with more expensive materials. In this way, it reminds me of Hasselblad’s introduction of high-priced digital cameras that are basically Sony components covered in exotic materials.
Luxury watchmakers (the smart ones at least) are already ramping up their marketing to counter Apple’s entry into their rarefied field. In the very issue of The New Yorker with the piece about Ive, the very first ad in the magazine (inside the front cover) is for the Rolex Yacht-Master II. Reading the ad copy, it’s clear to me that some of this is directed at Apple. For example:
The Rolex Way: The way me make watches, the only thing we will ever make.
This emphasizes Rolex’s exclusivity with regard to purpose. They make watches and only watches, while Apple makes other stuff. The implication is that Apple can’t be as focused on watchmaking as Rolex is.
Rolex-made in Switzerland. Conceived designed, manufactured and tested by Rolex in Switzerland.
This emphasizes the European tradition of the Swiss watchmaker in contrast to Apple, who would find it less successful to highlight its reliance on Chinese manufacturers, which are periodically the subject of debates about working conditions, human rights, and the like.
Finally the watch is described. It’s a chronograph with a special “countdown” feature that is mechanically programmable. This is the sort of chronometer-grade movement with complications that you aren’t going to find in a mere thousand-dollar watch.
Like a bookend, the back cover of the magazine also has an advertisement for an (incredibly) expensive watch. This one is a Cartier, with minute repeater and perpetual calendar complications powered by a “flying tourbillon” movement. All in a see-through case, so you can observe all the glorious, jaw-droppingly-complex mechanical innards. This thing is a true outlier, being produced in an edition of only 50, but is no doubt a horologist’s delight. If one has the means, a true connoisseur might obtain one rather than crowd the garage with another Bentley or two.
Mechanical timepieces also have one more trump card to play. When you buy something like a Rolex, it’s a lifetime purchase, something you can pass on to your heir. It’s mechanical, can be repaired, and with proper upkeep will outlast us all. Apple Watch is a “version 1” type of tech product. We all know that version 2 will be better, do more, and that eventually any version will eventually stop working or become obsolete.
Which means that, as is the case with iPhones, MacBooks and iPads, we’re expected to buy a new one every three years or so. The phones are usually cost-subsidized by the wireless carriers, but the others are not (this may explain the plateauing of iPad sales), and it remains to be seen if customers put the Apple Watch into their roster of expensive, constantly-being-replaced tech stuff. If one plans to do that with the Apple Watch Edition, they’ll eventually spend the same sort of money they would have spent on the aforementioned Rolex.
As for me, I’ll continue wearing my various examples of lower-priced horological delights, knowing that they, too, will outlast me and become prized possessions of someone else at some point. As for the future of the Apple Watch, time will tell (pun intended).
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Tags: Apple, Apple Watch, Horology, Jonathan Ive, Luxury Goods, Rolex, Wristwatches
As 2014 come to a close, people tend to look back and reflect on the year that was. For those who blog about technology, it’s a good time to take stock of the predictions and punditry unleashed on the world to see how much of it was on the mark and what turned out to be little more than rumor-mongering, false conclusions, and general numbskullery.
Herewith are some thoughts on my older posts and the way things turned out.
Remember them? Aereo was thought to be a serious threat to television broadcasters and cable TV providers right up to the point where they lost their case in the United State Supreme Court. Personally, I thought their argument had merit (as did the lower courts), and that if they had positioned their company as a “hardware rental” service rather than a streaming video distributor, they might have done better in their final battle. I still feel that their methodology didn’t violate copyright and was a perfectly logical (and clever) workaround. The High Court basically categorized Aereo as a cable TV company. Afterwards, though, when Aereo tried to be treated as a cable company (and obtain redistribution rights from broadcasters as guaranteed by law with proper fees, etc.), they were rebuffed once again.
So now Aereo is legally a cable company but not one that can actually become a cable company, achieving the networks’ goal of erasing Aereo from the television landscape and firing a strong shot across the bow of anyone else contemplating such tactics. My prediction: Network television will at some point be streamed on the internet, and the companies doing it will be the networks themselves.
Apple Television Set
Almost two years ago, I predicted that there would be no Apple television set, a mythic beast that is predicted on a yearly basis by other tech writers. So far, we haven’t seen one, and I still don’t see it coming. It remains to be seen what Apple will do to keep its Apple TV streaming media box competitive with the likes of Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV, and Google’s Chromecast devices, not to mention that almost all Blue-Ray players and gaming consoles can also deliver streaming video.
In the music field, Apple was far ahead of competitors with its powerful combination of iPod and iTunes. With television, the playing field is much more level, and I doubt that Apple will be able to achieve that sort of dominance without drastically changing the user experience involved in setting up and using streaming TV (more on this below).
Microsoft is now on version 3 of its flagship tablet computer, and they seem to have finally gotten it right. Reviews of the Surface Pro 3 have been largely positive, and Microsoft’s advertising has finally gotten around to actually pointing out what the device can do for customers, going so far as to point out the differences between it and the Apple MacBook Air. Good for them, I say—it’s about time that somebody produces a PC computing device that can actually withstand comparison to an Apple product. Since none of Microsoft’s OEM “partners” seems willing to produce such a device, (continuing their low price above all strategy), I applaud Microsoft for their tenacity. I use a MacBook Pro and iPad all the time, but if my employer offered the Surface Pro 3 instead of the functional-but-uninspired HP laptops they offer, I’d have one in a minute.
Microsoft Office and Mobile Computing
A while back, I predicted that if Microsoft offered a version of their Office productivity suite for Apple’s iPad, they would effectively concede the mobile computing market to Apple.
Well, pigs have flown, hell has frozen over, and Microsoft Office can now be had on IOS and Android devices.
Capitulation? I don’t think so. Much has changed at Microsoft since I wrote that particular post. In August, 2013, when Steve Ballmer announced that he would be stepping down from his position as Microsoft CEO, there was a flurry of speculation about who would succeed him. For many pundits, the likely candidate was Stephen Elop, who had just been re-employed by Microsoft after his tenure at Nokia. My thinking at that time was that it would be a bad idea to turn over the company to Elop, who had essentially gutted Nokia, preparing it for acquisition (on the cheap) by Microsoft. Other pundits claimed that Elop was essentially jumping from one “burning platform” to another.
The CEO job eventually went to Satya Nadella, former chief of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise division, a move that signals new directions and priorities for the software giant. Nadella seems to understand that mobile computing is indeed where future growth lies, but that more than anything else, mobile computing is about being connected to services and infrastructures collectively referred to as “the cloud.” To this end, he is working to make Microsoft into the dominant provider of these services, rivaled only by Amazon. The move to:
- Platform as a Service (PaaS)
- Software as a Service (SaaS)
- Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
- Cloud storage, backup and synchronization
- Online database and web serviceOnline conferencing, collaboration, communication, calendaring
is likely a more accurate description of the “post-PC” world than simply fretting about mobile devices and the platforms they run on. Nadella seems to have adopted this mindset, enabling Microsoft’s services and cloud platforms to run on anything, anywhere. Maybe the dinosaur can dance after all.
Dumping Cable TV
Nearly two years ago, I wrote about how I ditched cable TV and went internet-only for my television viewing. While listening to my friends complain about their rising cable TV bills, I continue to do so with no regrets. There are some caveats, though:
I. The process of subscribing to online video services and setting up devices such as the Roku or Apple TV are still too convoluted for folks who aren’t “tech savvy.” The person attempting to “cut the cable” needs to be willing to fiddle with network passwords, device ID numbers, and the process of registering their systems on various websites to achieve the functionality desired. If Apple is looking for a true television breakthrough, making this process easy and intuitive is where they could really shake things up.
II. Going “cable-free” doesn’t mean getting free television. I was surprised to read an article recently where the author made the assertion that cable-cutters are essentially freeloaders unwilling to pay for anything.
I wish. Here’s a monthly breakdown of what I pay for my “free” television:
- Midcontinent Communications (internet service): $50.16
- Netflix (premium plan with 3-disc option): $25.63
- Amazon Prime (needed to access Amazon’s “free” video content): $8.25
- Acorn TV (streaming service for lots of British TV): $4.99
That’s $89.03 in fixed monthly costs. I could drop the “three-DVD” option from my Netflix account to save $15.00 a month but would miss out on lots of documentaries and older movies that are only available on DVD.
But the spending doesn’t stop there. Soon, two shows that I enjoy, Justified and The Americans, will start their new seasons on cable’s FX channel. To see these shows without waiting a year, I’ll be paying $3.00 per episode per week, either through Amazon or iTunes. This will add another $24 per month to my fixed costs, bringing the total to within ten dollars of what I was paying for my cable TV plan before dumping it.
Of course, if I went back to cable TV, I’d still keep my Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts anyway, so my overall TV expenditure would likely be in the $150-$175 range by the time all the costs were counted. In any case, the question a user should ask before taking the plunge is, “What’s this free television going to cost me?” For some people, staying with cable or satellite TV could be the better move.
Not for me, though. My viewing preferences for things such as documentaries, British television, and old movies, (including silent classics) simply aren’t served by network or cable TV. And since I never really wanted to watch that fool who tried to get eaten alive by an anaconda, cable TV doesn’t have a lot to offer me.
The Year Ahead
So, I’ve had some hits and some misses over the past year or so. In the tech world, things move fast. Today’s rising tech star can be tomorrow’s corporate roadkill. Old dogs (I’m talking about you, Microsoft) can learn new tricks. Some technologies seem to be forever “just around the corner.” And, in case you’re wondering, that fool didn’t get eaten by the anaconda on cable TV.
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Well, it’s been quite a while since I last updated this blog. It’s been a busy summer; the HMML remodeling is now complete and we’re all in our new offices, adjusting to the renovated space. The college students are back, the leaves are turning, and the days are getting shorter. For me, this time of the year always gets me in a philosophic mood.
Recently, two totally unrelated occurrences got me thinking. The first you’re not aware of. After dragging my feet for seven years, I finally got around to completing a bicycle restoration project that I had been putting off (you can read all about it here). The second thing was the launch of Apple’s iPhone 6, which you would have to be on another planet not to have heard of.
I was reassembling and putting the finishing touches on my vintage touring bike, which I’ve owned since 1985, while listening to radio reports about the hordes of Apple fanatics lining up overnight (or paying others to stand in line for them) in order to be among the first to get their hands on Apple’s latest shiny object.
During the next days, I listened to stories about customers’ angst over whether or not the iPhone 6 can be bent by carrying it around in a pants pocket. Or whether the iPhone 6 Plus is too big to use with one hand. Or whether the new IOS update is buggy. Search for any of these topics on Google; there are thousands of folks agonizing over this stuff at any given time.
As I finished taping the handlebars of of my now-restored bike, it struck me that all these fanatics acting as if this new aluminum and glass tech toy is the be-all and end-all of their terrestrial existence will be unceremoniously discarding these very possessions in two years when their mobile phone contracts are up and Apple releases the next model.
This got me to thinking about the concept of a “prized possession” in today’s world and how it contrasts with that notion as manifested in the past. To illustrate this, I gathered a few of my things that would fit the category.
Make no mistake: Apple makes beautiful, well-designed and supremely-executed tech products. For many people, it could be argued that an iPad, smartphone, or sleek notebook computer could easily qualify as the one of their most complex and sophisticated possessions. But are they on par with cherished items that are owned long enough to become part of a person’s life story? Let’s look at some examples.
1. Restored Puch Brigadier 1978 Road Bike
We’ll start with the thing that got me thinking about this stuff. When I bought this bike in 1985, it was already seven years old. I was looking for an affordable upgrade to my heavy department-store ten-speed, and my friend assured me that this Austrian-made used bicycle was a great deal for the asking price of $150. I upgraded the components and used this bike for touring, exercise riding, and even time-trialing (which I was really bad at). In 2007, I disassembled it for restoration after using it for 22 years.
The iPhone was introduced in 2007. In the seven years that the bike has been awaiting it’s restoration, eight different iPhone models have been introduced, fawned over by users, and tossed into the bin when the next one came out.
Now the old bike is a vintage beauty with its gleaming powder-coat paint and polished components. Ready for another 20 years, by which time we’ll either be on the iPhone 17S or be communicating with cellular frontal-lobe implants (from Verizon or AT&T, free with two-year contract).
2. Girard Perregaux Automatic Wristwatch
It’s always interesting to show a younger person a watch like this and explain that no, it doesn’t need batteries and that it winds itself as you wear it. Fits right in with today’s idea of “green” products.
It’s a late 1950’s Girard Perregaux “Gyromatic” with a 17-jewel rotor-automatic Caliber 21 movement. I found this at an estate auction sometime in the 1980’s. I had it cleaned and serviced by a proper watch technician, added a new lizardskin band, and have been using it ever since. With it’s 10K gold-filled case and moire-textured dial, it’s one of the most stylish watches I own.
Of course, someone else owned it before me. On the watch’s back there is an engraving, “25 YEARS OF FAITHFUL SERVICE.” This was the “gold watch” presented to someone for reaching a milestone in their employment. I don’t know if companies do this sort of thing anymore; it’s getting difficult to find people who have been at any one company for 25 years. In any case, the watch is now a prized possession of its second owner. I suspect that after I’m gone, it will find a third.
3. Penn Levelmatic Fishing Reel
I received this as a Christmas present sometime around 1974. I had been wanting to get a more “heavy duty” reel to go after bigger fish such as bass, northern pike, and the elusive muskellunge (which has remained pretty elusive for me). At the time, this American-made reel was among the better offerings at the local sporting goods store.
Today, fishing reels are sold by the thousands in blister packs hanging from displays in big-box retailers. Things were different back then. A reel of this caliber was sold in a sturdy cardboard box—this is where you kept it during the off-season. The instruction manual for the reel had a schematic diagram of all the reel’s parts, and along with the reel, you got a tube of oil, a small container of spare parts, and a small tool used to take the reel apart. It was expected that the owner of such a reel could disassemble it, lubricate the moving parts, replace worn parts, and get it back together. The spare parts provided were the ones most likely to wear out with normal use, so the idea was that the user could keep the thing working for decades.
It’s been 40 years, and I still haven’t had to use any of the spare parts, which are still in the original cardboard box. I have lots of more modern tackle than this, but can’t bring myself to retire it. I still catch bass and northern pike with it, but so far, no muskies.
4. Nikon F2 35mm Single-Lens-Reflex Camera
Another gift, this time from one of my father’s wealthy business colleagues. He was a keen amateur photographer with a taste for the very best in equipment. I sent him some prints I had made—he sent me the 1972-vintage camera (I already had lenses that would fit it).
This was 1979, and the F2 was widely regarded as the finest 35mm SLR camera in the world (sorry Leica fans). I used it throughout college and almost daily in my commercial photography business, producing color slides by the thousands. In the early 1990’s, the then-20-year-old camera received new titanium shutter curtains and soldiered on until 2004, when I got my first digital SLR. It still works flawlessly, but has seen little use. With the demise of so many 35mm film stocks, there are fewer opportunities to use such a superb instrument today, which is a shame.
Getting back to my original thought, what will the prized possessions of the 21st century be for the young people of today? People seem to love their tech toys, but none of them will have any longevity—as I’ve said before, tech is different. Will the lifespan of people’s favorite things be measured in months rather than decades? Or will folks find other types of things to cherish forever, things like musical instruments, prized jewelry, or fine antiques?
I guess we’ll find out in 20 years or so. With luck, I’ll still be riding my vintage bike. And if someone tries to call me on my AT&T cellular implant, they’re going to get my voicemail.
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Tags: analog, bending iPhone, film cameras, gold watch, iPhone, iPhone 6, lifecycle of prducts, Obsolescence, possessions, prized possessions, vintage bikes