Apple's Watch is basically electric perfume
It isn't just me-too Apple that's lost its lustre: Gadget mania is over
Comment It isn't just Apple that looks a little less miraculous today – the entire consumer electronics industry is looking a bit tragic and battered.
Ever since the iPod became a hit, the media has looked to Apple for divine miracles, for revolutionary market-making products that "restore a sense of childlike wonder", as Fake Steve once mocked.
This expectation now looks like an affliction of the sad and the desperately unimaginative.
Even pundits who are typically Apple's biggest cheerleaders seemed a bit sheepish after the big revelations yesterday – embarrassed at their part in a ritual which demeans both themselves and their audience.
As for the industry of Apple of imitators and bandwagon-jumpers – well, what are they to do, now? Now that Apple is imitating them, and jumping on their bandwagons? This morning the vast consumer electronics industry has a feel of recursion, of tail-chasing, and hoping for the best.
It feels quite strange to write that. By any definition, I'm firmly in the Apple club, with most of my screen time spent on a 2014 Mac and a 2014 iPad, and I like to try new devices, having over the years spent real money on Bluetooth watches and bands. I really ought to be getting excited about this. But based on its latest devices, the prime reason to buy an Apple product is to tell the world that you own an Apple product. The brand is the key differentiator now, making it very much like the perfume industry.
What do you mean, they copied their new stuff from Android?
Watching from a distance, Apple's new aesthetic struck me as very "Bangkok Tech Mall". It's as if Samsung or an ambitious Chinese manufacturer had been permitted to license iOS and the consulting services of Jonny Ive for a week.
The two key announcements yesterday were: bigger, Samsung-look-a-like iPhones, and a Watch. Which is a watch. And even Apple – check this out for yourself here – isn't sure why anybody other than a fitness fanatic needs an Apple Watch.
To say Apple's new gear is wholly derivative, or lacks technological smarts, would be quite unfair. Apple's semiconductor division continues to turn out silicon marvels. The A8 chip, built at a 20nm scale, packs twice as many transistors onto a smaller die. We'll soon see whether it measures up to Apple's claims, but there's little to reason to doubt it will.
Also, I do like the idea, if one must have a smartwatch, of using a dial-style knob as an I/O device because it doesn't obscure the screen. I'm sure smartwatch designers are kicking themselves now, and will swiftly implement jog dials or sliders themselves – or as soon as Google permits them to do so.
Nifty gadgets – so nifty they've snuck in under the radar
Also, there are small, simple, useful features in the new iPhone that existing iOwners will value, which gadget experts tend to overlook because they're so obvious and/or have written about them for ages. For example, we've been writing about seamless handover from Wi-Fi calls to the cellular network for a decade (here's the first UMA phone from 2005), but it has never really worked – or been implemented well in a mass market device.
Similarly, American iPhone owners will be pleased that McDonalds drive-throughs and Starbucks will support bonk-to-pay, as their payment infrastructure lags behind the contactless payments familiar here in Europe. Just as with the iPod and iTunes, Apple Pay is just one part of a delivery chain, with the iTunes store handling the privacy and security. The iPhone gives you an instant transaction ledger, too.
Yet Apple hasn't "re-invented NFC" (key patent described here) and the old problems remain. The biggest of which is that you repeatedly smash your fragile £500 watch or smartphone against a PoS terminal, and hope it works. Sometimes it does. If you're lucky, you won't have broken your smartphone.
As for the Apple Watch, I think even Apple acknowledges that it's a solution looking for a problem. You can tell that by the way Apple has spread its bets, and rather than producing one iconic design, has created three "ranges". Most of the presentation was devoted to fitness. The only applications Apple showed that nobody else had showed, were essentially gimmicks: transmitting Emoji, or heartbeats, or private codes. You can transmit a pre-programmed Watch code that your partner will know means "Fancy a quickie?" But winking remains cheaper.
And the creepiness factor hasn't been addressed. More than any other smart wearable, Apple Watch is watching you. I think Apple's reputation and trust factor is far higher than Google's here, as Google is essentially a consumer data processing company with a cute cuddly name. There has been no enthusiasm for the 'Quantified Self' (QS) movement – it just looks solipsistic and (no pun intended) unhealthy.
Apple Watch is electronic perfume.
Apple the market maker? Where did it go?
What is striking here is how different this is to the old Apple, the one that made the iPod and the iPhone, when it stepped into revive moribund industries. In both cases, there was a point to the gadget.
Back in the early 2000s, the major record labels had responded to the challenge of digital delivery (and Napster showed how nice this could be) quite ineptly. Terrified of antitrust concerns, they'd created two label-owned stores, MusicNet and Pressplay. There was no single store at which you could browse the complete catalogue of songs, in a digital format, and download them a la carte at a single price. The ability to burn them to a CD was very restricted, and sometimes the music expired, forcing you to re-purchase it.
The iPod was just part of a chain. Some parts were already in place - rippers and rippable CDs, for example - but Apple slotted in the music delivery and the playback gadget. People could envisage life beyond the CD.
Similarly, back in 2007, smartphones were actually pretty dumb: they were simply larger and more inconvenient feature phones. The world of wireless services and information devices long envisaged by the Symbian partners (who in 1999 were illustrating their projections with iPhone-style slates) hadn't come to pass. It was a cosy industry in which the consumer didn't really get the choice they should – and Apple was an outsider whose only over-riding design goal was delighting the consumer. The original iPhone didn't really do much the Windows and Symbian smartphones couldn't: in fact, it was lacking key features. But that wasn't the point. It didn't need a manual, and it made web browsing and viewing maps vastly easier.
The Watch isn't solving any such problems or consumer dissatisfaction, as I wrote here. It's still a "solution" looking for a rich nerd. Because it's got the Apple brand, substitute "rich person" for "rich nerd".
Apple and its imitators are now second-guessing and chasing each other. I suggest that 2014 marks the end of a decade of gadget fever, and consumer technology coverage that bordered on the semi-religious. We are told that gadgets are going to solve fundamental technology problems – internet security, congestion, competition – yet none of those things will be fixed with a gadget.
This isn't going to end well. Perhaps another recession will speed up the inevitable. ®
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