I watched Apple’s keynote yesterday, and I wanted to post something about it. If this blog were my source of income, I would have to post something because nothing generates traffic like putting Apple in a headline. (Well, that and dancing kittens.) But I had such a visceral reaction to the event, I just wanted to get my thoughts on ‘paper’ and keep them from running around in my head.
First, on the watch. I just cannot escape the sense that the Apple Watch is too complicated. There are two iPhones – a big one and a small one. They come in different colors, which are the same price and memory sizes which are not the same price. Easy to keep track of. With the Watch, there are three models, with different sizes, then there are different colors and strap combinations. I think there are slightly over two dozen combinations, but I honestly could not parse it all out.I mean, someone built a spreadsheet to keep track of all the versions (hat tip to Daring Fireball for that link). I understand that a watch is a much more personal and fashion-sensitive item, so a vendor needs some of this, but it just feels un-Apple-like. Doesn’t that feel like something from the bad old days of Windows?
To make matters worse, it sounds like the Apple Watch User interface (UI) is not that simple itself. I hard a time following the UI model from the video. I did not attend the event, but several people who did, and actually handled the watch, said the same thing. None other than leading Apple blogger Jon Gruber raised this question. He linked to a Nilay Patel article on The Verge that had a similar complaint. And so did Ben Thompson (subscription required, and you really should subscribe).
I am not going to extrapolate from the Apple Watch and predict that Apple is on a downward trajectory. I think they are going to sell a lot of the watches, and make a lot of money from them. However, I do think that in the Watch launch we can some faint cracks in the company. Maybe these will amount to nothing. Maybe they are just cracks in the skin as a new company emerges. But maybe, someday they will become something else.
In particular, I cannot escape the sense that there is something about Apple that is very precious. I do not mean that in the Golem/Ring sense of the word, but more in the slightly condescending British use of the word. I am a big fan of Apple products, I own some version of most of them. I definitely have some emotional tie to the brand, with positive associations. But there is still that voice in the back of my head whispering Vertu.
For those who do not remember Vertu, it was Nokia’s luxury phone brand. They sold features phones for $60,000 and up, with diamonds screens and gold cases, complete with special retail outlets in ultra-high-end malls. I never understood who bought them, other than this guy, and the whole venture always seemed like a sop to the company’s design team. As if they all really wanted to be jewelry designers, but had to settle for phones. Now Apple is not Nokia, and the Apple Watch, even the $10,000 Edition Watch, are not Vertu devices. But like I said, there is that little voice whispering to me.
That all being said, one other thing really stood out for me from the Apple keynote, especially in their launch of the new MacBook. They are capable of some incredible engineering. The logic board of their new laptop is so small. Online, people are complaining about some of the design decisions the company made, but I look at that board and I see a company that knows how to make choices. They are sacrificing certain features for a bigger goal. i was also impressed by how they reworked battery structure to fill every last gap in the chassis. Serious engineering.
Of course, they repeatedly claimed that they had ‘invented’ many new technologies for the MacBook. I have to wonder how much of that was their own invention, and how much was the work of their beleaguered suppliers. Setting that aside, I really wonder how the rest of the industry will keep up. Apple has so many resources and so much talent, I think other laptop makers are permanently relegated to second place in technology leadership. Apple has built a very different kind of organization, staffed by some very smart people. This, combined with their ability to make tough choices, would scare me if I worked for a competitor.
At this stage in the evolution of an industry, I would probably argue that the biggest threat to Apple is disruption from someone with a radically different approach to computing. However, as we have seen, Apple is perfectly capable of ‘disrupting’ itself. Which brings me back to the watch. I am not sure this is the right product, and I am not planning on buying one, but it I do think they are headed in an important new direction. There is no reason to see the smartphone as the pinnacle of mobile computing. If you deconstruct the ways in which we use computing devices, having a six inch slab of glass, plastic and aluminum has no natural reason for being our default way to communicate. Smartphones have done well because they combine connectivity, computing and identity. The watch is a powerful contender for becoming the identity leg of that troika, and with a few more years of miniaturization, it could hold the other two legs as well.