Most Big Apple Announcements (BAAs) follow a familiar pattern. There’s the week or so of anticipatory hype; the sudden two-hour social media meltdown as details of the BAA are tweeted, redistributed, and digested; and then a cleansing denouement of think-piece processing, beneath which the comment sections invariably polarize and the product/service in question is deemed simultaneously revolutionary and lame.
(The epilogue is that everyone buys the thing, loves it, uses it, and grows to loathe it with increasing intensity, until the dopamine release of the next BAA.)
The announcement of the first iPod in 2001 elicited gasps alongside groans, surprisingly none of which were directed toward Steve Jobs’s penchant for Comic Sans in his presentation materials. A TechTarget poll famously positioned the debut iPod as the second worst Christmas gift of that year (right behind the Sega Dreamcast — yowch!), and critics from all over grumbled at its price point — $399, remember? Same deal with the launch of the iPhone in 2007. Ditto the iPad in 2010.
And so it was earlier this week, at a BAA so heavy on the “B” that Apple’s stupid Safari browser could barely stream it: The company introduced two iterations of its iPhone 6, with a 6 Plus model sporting a 5.5” display. Larger, thinner, faster, and primed to launch the company’s unique new payment service, Apple Pay, the iPhone 6 was less an advance than yet another chance for us to feel our newish phones grow dead and hateful in our hands. The real star of the show was the Apple Watch. (And, to a lesser extent, U2. Again with the U2.)
With its projected early 2015 release, the Apple Watch is no early entry into the smartwatch field — Samsung’s Gear S, Sony’s SmartWatch 3, Motorola’s Moto 360, and the Kickstarted indie smartwatch Pebble are among the early birds attempting to establish a pecking order. But as Apple has previously demonstrated with the iPod and the iPhone, a little design and a whole lot of brand allegiance can go a long way. Even if the Apple Watch weren’t functionally more advanced than its dowdier peers (which it is), it would have momentum enough to lead the burgeoning wearables market into becoming a viable reality.
Of course, along with the advancements of the Apple Watch — it can pay your tab, unlock your hotel room door, guide you with “taptic” feedback through a layover — came equally impressive innovations in the field of complaining.
One critic lamented that the Apple Watch was water-resistant but not waterproof — much like every other computer ever, no synching whilst sinking. Others complained about its $349 price — compared to, say a $399 first generation iPod? Or a $3,999 Bulgari?
Mashable’s Todd Wasserman offered a litany of gripes that was downright ninja-like in its missing of points. “Why do I need it now?” (What kind of tech writer asks this? Nobody “needs” any of this.) “There are cheaper ways to track your workouts.” (First time at Apple, sir?) “I’ll end up breaking it.” (That sounds like a personal problem.) And the duo of “We need less technology in our lives, not more” (will not buying a watch accomplish this?) and “It will wreak havoc on my concentration,” which both seem desperately misguided.
Like most gadgets of consequence, the significance of the Apple Watch is less about the device itself than about the way the device changes our relationship to its function. The iPod didn’t change music, per se; it changed our relationship to music. The iPhone remained, at heart, a phone, even as it changed our relationship to communication.
Similarly, what’s special about the Apple Watch isn’t the great leap it could make in helping us tell time (although its dynamic Astronomy clockface can show you the precise position of the planets). It’s in the way that it will revise our relationship with an object we already have a long history with — longer than with any MP3 player or phone.
By integrating its ever-ballyhooed user experience into an object with its own historically embedded gestures and expectations — i.e., watches are glanced at, not gazed into — and by allowing an essential watch-ness to define the feel of its functionality (a play on the traditional “crown” operates as the main navigational tool, push notifications are hyper-miniaturized and high-efficiency, and alerts can manifest as silent “taps” on the wrist), the Apple Watch is designed to operate in the background, literally at the extremities of your daily life. It constitutes a gentle push toward degadgeting, and away from ghostfacing into our iPhones at the dinner table. If anything, our concentration stands to benefit from Apple Watch’s minimal interest in our engagement.
It also represents the best effort from the tech sector so far to marry fashion and function. Even with Diane Von Furstenberg’s design assistance, Google Glass hasn’t overcome its clunk-factor, continuing to give off a T.G.I. Friday’s server of the future vibe. And the spartan polymer shackle of FitBit is too low on personality to make a statement grander than “I’m being monitored.” But continued pushes from the fashion front (like the responsive garments and smart jewelry of CuteCircuit) signal that as tech is more tightly woven into what you wear, the more time your phone can stay in your clutch.
It irks some critics that Apple Watch merely functions as a sort of satellite interface to the cumbersome anchor of a user’s iPhone — a sign that the technology hasn’t fully arrived. It’s easy when considering how technology advances to follow a metaphor of shrinkage, from the truck-sized, punch-card spitting IBM workhorses, down through the PC to the laptop to the smart phone, and now, the watch.
But the impact of Apple Watch will be less about physical size than physicality itself. Yes, it’s a display small enough to bring back memories of one’s infuriating sausage-fingered attempts to choose a specific song from one’s iPod Nano. But it’s an idea big enough to launch the next shift in our wired lives: the part where we return to the real world happening around us. No wonder we might resist.
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.