Timely Thoughts on Apple’s New Watch


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).


One Response to “Timely Thoughts on Apple’s New Watch”

  1. 1 Dean Severson

    I have been wearing a Microsoft Band for several weeks now and I like it. I am surprised MS hasn’t been touting this Band/Watch during all the Apple hoopla. (works with iPhone and Android).

    I think once again MS is missing an opportunity. It seems to have all the things the Apple watch has and in a little less gaudy design…. but MS just doesn’t seem to know how to market stuff these days.

    All in all, though, no one has put anything earth shattering in a wrist device yet.

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