It’s been four an a half years since Apple introduced a new product category and the presentation of Apple Watch was without a doubt the most important moment in Tim Cook’s career. Brimming over with pride, Cook gave a nod to his mentor Steve Jobs by telling the packed-to-capacity audience at the Flint Center that Apple had “one more thing” to share. It’s clear to anyone who watched the presentation that Mr. Cook lacks the charisma and polish of his legendary predecessor, but the important question is whether his stewardship of the company lives up to the gold standard that Jobs set. The Apple Watch is our first solid look at Tim Cook’s Apple. It’s not the first product introduction he has presided over, but it is easily the most significant.
There are many things that Apple seems to have gotten right here. For starters, in contrast to Google’s flagship wearable, Google Glass, the Apple Watch is something that normal people will wear. Cook and co. understood that wearing something is a fashion statement and the thought that Apple put into customizability is both incongruous with the company’s our-way-or-the-highway ethos and a necessary condition for success in this space. Moreover, Apple understood that on a device this small, the user interface needed to be rethought. To this end, they invented two new input methods. The first is the digital crown, which ingeniously borrows from the traditional watch interface that everyone already knows how to use. The second is “force touch” which allows the watch’s screen to tell the difference between an ordinary tap and a press.
At a simple level, one could argue that the Apple Watch primarily does three things: It tells the time, it is a fitness tracker, and it is a second screen for iPhone notifications. But Apple has much larger ambitions. The home screen is already populated by a “universe” of apps and Apple introduced the product before it was ready to ship to give third party developers time to design for it. Some of the built-in applications reveal that Apple sees this in part as a new way of communicating. They showed off a doodling app that allows people to send each other simple drawings and animated emoji. As charming as that demo was, I have some concerns about Apple's latest product.
First and foremost, I worry about the battery life. Apple intimated that it would need to be charged every night. That means that in the best case scenario, the battery life will be something like 12 hours. And while I appreciate the thought they put into the charger(it magnetically snaps on to the underside of the device), my current solar-powered watch has literally unlimited battery life and my previous watch lasted 10 years on a single battery. I understand that given current battery and display technologies, this sort of battery life is impossible to achieve on a device as sophisticated as the Apple Watch, but this is a problem. When I wore a Jawbone UP, I found myself having to recharge it every 10 days. While slightly annoying, it was manageable. The way I see it, there is a sort of loose equation when it comes to charging a device. The more important that device is to my day, the less annoyed I am when it comes time to charge it. I don't mind charging my iPhone every night, because it is so important to how I function in the world that it’s a no-brainer. I don’t know that I’ll feel the same way about the Apple Watch. If I only had to charge it once a week that would be a different story, but every night?
My second concern is the larger vision for the product. Apple clearly sees this as a new platform, but I don’t know that a watch ought to be a platform. In a way, I think that Android Wear better understands what people want to do with a watch than Apple Watch. It goes without saying that Apple appears to have nailed all the design details of the hardware and software in a way that Google did not(although it should be mentioned that as of this writing, Android Wear is shipping on products that you can buy and the Apple Watch won't be available until sometime next year). But the fact that the Apple Watch still requires an iPhone to function begs the question of why it should be its own platform as opposed to simply an extension of the iPhone. Perhaps Apple is relying on developers to answer that question and perhaps we will look back at this moment of confusion with 20/20 hindsight. But right now, it seems to me that Apple’s vision is a little blurry.
Will Tim Cook’s Apple continue the company’s streak of category-defining products? Will the Apple Watch become the new gadget that everyone needs? It’s too early to predict, but the ambition, the focus, the drive, and the taste are very reminiscent of Apple’s best work. And only a fool would bet against that.