Why the iWatch, if it ever comes, will surprise everyone

Why the iWatch, if it ever comes, will surprise everyone

iWatch on the wrist!

iWatch on the wrist! (Photo credit: Martin uit Utrecht) — one of many concepts out there.

The four hallmarks of Apple’s most successful products

Apple’s iWatch has been touted by the pundits as ‘the next big thing’ since 2012. It resolutely refuses to appear, despite a rash of digital mock-ups designed by graphically-enabled commentators with (seemingly) nothing better to do. But Apple’s steadily increasing Research & Development spend, which has been ramping up for five years now, is unlikely to result in something that a blogger with Maya skills would be able to knock up in a couple of days. Rather, the key to understanding where Apple is going is to look at its past innovations.

It’s taken thirty-five years, but I can now proudly say that I was an early adopter in the personal computer boom. It began like this: first there were main-frames, of which an IBM spokesman once famously predicted that there might be a market for three in the entire world. Then there were minis. A mini-computer used a main-frame like architecture, but it filled a (big) box not a room, and could be afforded by national retail chains, not just global corporations and NASA-sized public bodies. I actually knew someone who had built his own mini-computer. Then there were micro-computers. At first they were all build-it-yourself, like the Nascom 1, on which I cut my teeth, or the later and more powerful Compukit UK-101.

Then something happened which changed everything. In 1977, Apple released the Apple ][, which was the first ready-made computer delivered complete with keyboard in a manufactured box. Not long afterwards floppy-disc drives replaced the irritating cassette machines of home-built micro-computers. We had an Apple ][ at school, though I didn’t start using it until 1980, along with a ‘clone’, the ITT 2020.

In the Apple ][ were the seeds of everything which Apple subsequently became, for better and for worse.

First, it was insanely over-priced, compared to other offerings. An Apple ][ was the price of a decent car. This caused outrage among hobbyists who felt that users should be making their own. The market subsequently filled downwards, with the Sinclair ZX-80 at £49.99 being the cheapest, and the Vic-20, the Spectrum, the BBC Micro, the Acorn Atom and others filling out different price points.

Secondly, it was insanely over-specced, compared to aspirations. The Apple ][ 48K Color came with 48K of memory (and colour). I remember once trying to construct a programme — a space adventure game — which could make use of all 48K, using DIM variables to fill out my thousand or so space locations. I didn’t even get anywhere close. It also had high resolution graphics, which is to say it did dots, rather than just whole letters.

Third, it was a consumer-friendly manufactured product at a time when all previous offerings required technical knowledge to construct and operate. Compared to today, or even ten years later, it wasn’t that consumer-friendly. You had to program it yourself, at least until WordStar and VisiCalc came out, and woe-betide you if you left a disc lying on a TV, loudspeaker, radiator, or, basically, anything which wasn’t a perfectly clean inert table top. Compared to other machines, though, which required a soldering iron, it was entering the world of science-fiction.

Fourth, it contained a massive dose of hubris. The multi-coloured Apple logo, a rainbow in the wrong order, proved so expensive in manufacture that there were subsequent Apple accessories where the logo cost as much to include as the rest of the device. The flip-side is that, right from the beginning, Apple’s branding made it clear that this was a machine that made no compromises.

Some people would argue that the Altair was the first true personal computer. Others would argue that it wasn’t until the IBM PC came out that PCs really took off. The point is moot. If you look at today’s laptops, you’ll see all of the things that were in the Apple ][ — purpose-built screen, built-in keyboard, disc-drives (except in Apple’s own line-up), ports for peripherals. If you look inside, the architecture remains very much the same, even down to the operating system being a glorified Disk Operating System.

Every successful product that Apple went on to produce bore those four hall-marks: premium price, high-specification, focused on the end user, and marketed with endless self-confidence. For the record, the trail of Apple success looks like this:

Apple ][ -> Macintosh -> PowerBook -> iMac -> iTunes -> iPod -> iPhone -> iPad.

The Macintosh was like the Apple ][ in some ways, because it was a beautiful piece of hardware engineered to look and work better than its competitors. The crucial difference, though, was that instead of AppleDOS, it had what has eventually become known as the Mac OS. System 1 was rudimentary by comparison with what followed, but it was another science-fiction-like leap from the command-line interface that preceded it. Like the Apple ][, if you look at today’s Windows 8 or Mac OS, what you are seeing is essentially the same thing as System 1, but in a more sophisticated form.

The PowerBook was a departure in a different direction. There had been portable computers for as long as there had been micro-computers. A friend of mine actually built one for the Water Board in East Anglia. However, they were more luggable than portable, and they were anything but ‘laptop’. The PowerBook changed everything. Once again, we see something which carries the Apple hallmarks, and which has defined everything which comes after it. All laptops of today are essentially PowerBooks with more sophistication and power.

The iMac, first-fruit of the returned Steve Jobs, was the four hallmarks done differently again. Here, it was visually obvious that we had taken a step further into science-fiction. The iMac was cool, sexy, interesting, a fashion item, intensely functional for work, and marketed with a panache that Apple had sorely missed since Jobs’s departure.

iTunes was another departure in a different direction. Apple had always — it appeared — been a hardware company. Its attempt to license the Mac OS had been a dismal failure which Steve Jobs canned on his return. iTunes was, at first, a piece of bundled software. However, it was a piece of bundled software that Apple advertised and marketed heavily, even though, at the time, you could not buy it for non-Apple machines.

It shared the four characteristics. First, it was expensive — not just that you had to buy a Mac, but that, once the iTunes Store opened, you had to pay for music tracks, instead of using your technological powers to download it for free. Second, it was heavily over-specified on its debut. No-one outside of Apple knew that this was to allow for the iTunes Store later on. Probably no-one even inside Apple knew that it would eventually be the hub for the whole of Apple’s multi-platform ecosystem. The point, though, is that it was designed with room for growth. Third, it was ridiculously easy to use. I remember mastering CDs of my own songs on iTunes back in 2001. The results were nothing like professional mastering, of course, but they meant I could put a CD together, burn it, and give it to my friends while they waited. Fourth, as already mentioned, it was marketed with huge confidence, at a time when the bundled software that came with Windows was barely mentioned.

The iPod was yet another departure. Sceptics regarded it as a mistake. Others were (and are) quick to point out that Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, nor was it the first to market — that was Creative. Apple’s player, though, was high-priced compared to the cost of the components, high-specced compared to the CD Walkman that it was competing with, able to store far more songs, designed to be as easy as possible to operate and to always ‘just work’, and marketed as no Apple product had ever been before.

People often criticise Apple as being ‘all about marketing’, which is a bit rich given that Apple is the only micro-computer company from the 1970s still making micro-computers. However, the success of the iPod compared to Creative’s device really does come down to the fact that Apple was willing to back its product with — eventually — billions of dollars of marketing spend worldwide, and Creative was content to appear in catalogues and hobbyist magazines.

The iPhone was an entirely unnecessary device, as far as many commentators were concerned. Apple had no heritage in telecoms, and — as proven by the other smart-phone devices already available — consumers had no interest in high-end devices. Miniaturisation was the name of the game. In any case, nobody was going to buy a device at that price and size which didn’t have a keyboard.

Again, Apple’s four characteristics. The iPhone appeared priced at the top of the market. Its specifications were, again, pure science-fiction. Access to the ‘real’ internet (excluding Flash sites, of course), a touch screen you just had to glide your fingers across, email from your email provider, rather than your company’s Blackberry server. The list went on. However, as pundits quickly pointed out, the iPhone lacked many of the leading-edge sophistications of existing competitors such as Nokia. For example, there was no turn-by-turn navigation. At the time I asked a Nokia user what turn-by-turn was like. He told me it was alright, except that it would quite frequently crash and leave you stranded in the middle of wherever it was that you were. This, again, reveals Apple’s devotion to the third hallmark. The iPhone did not contain every feature that could be found. Rather, it was restricted to features which dramatically improved the user’s experience, and did it always, in every situation. That Apple fulfilled its fourth hallmark, confident marketing, is something which almost everyone can still remember.

The iPad attracted six months of pre-derision. The market had already proven that there was no consumer interest in tablet devices, which had been around since the 1990s. Apple had already failed with its own, the Newton. It was a departure in a different sense from previous departures, because, in many respects, it really was nothing but an out-sized iPod Touch. The price was too high, as it did not benefit from carrier subsidies, the specifications were high as well, it was engineered to be useable in just one hand — the major failing of the earlier tablets — and it was supported by an enormous marketing campaign.

On the way, Apple has had a number a projects which did not blossom. All of them missed one or more of the key characteristics. The Apple /// failed — aptly enough — hallmark 3: it just didn’t work consistently. The Lisa never got the confident marketing that the others got. The Apple Printers and the Apple camera were both mid-market ranges of devices. They were not obviously more expensive and better quality than their competitors. The Newton didn’t really work (hallmark 3) and never got the marketing investment (hallmark 4). Licensing the Mac OS failed on all four counts. It offered lower-priced machines, lower specifications, dodgy user experience and had little or no marketing behind it. The Apple TV, which may now be about to jump up to being a main product, was always a ‘hobby’, in the words of Jobs and Cook. It has lacked the confident marketing of the others, and this is exactly because of it’s ‘hobby’ status.

What, then, the iWatch? First, I doubt it will be called the iWatch, anymore than the Apple TV is called the iTV or the iPad was called the iTab, which is what many pundits predicted. In order to fulfil its hallmarks, Apple needs to answer for itself the following questions:

1) How do we position this at the top of its market?

2) How do we make it a premium product, in terms of the way it is made, how it feels and what it does?

3) How will it make the consumer’s life easier and more interesting without adding complication?

4) What single vision of iTime (or whatever) are we going to present to the public so that everyone is talking about it by the time it launches?

The problem here is quite different from any of Apple’s previous successes — not that they weren’t different from each other.

First, although Apple wants to be at the top of its market, there is no way that it is going to be at the top of the watch market, because if it charged prices like Rolex, it would never sell more than a handful of devices. Size matters as well. Consumers are willing to pay £1,000-£2,000 for a Mac Book Pro, £400-£700 for an iPad, £100-£500 for an iPhone. An iTimepiece will be physically smaller. Probably something in the region of £75-£150 would be right, making it compete with feature watches, such as those by Casio.

Second, although it will probably be at the top of the feature-watch market, Apple needs to provide a set of features and a look-and-feel which are substantially better. Top executives and millionaires were happy to swap their Blackberrys for iPhones. Nobody is going to swap their Rolex for something that looks like a geek Christmas toy. This is why I fundamentally disagree with the mockups I am seeing. If I buy an iChronometer, I will only wear it if its about the same weight as my Seiko and looks appropriate with a business suit, not just a tracksuit.

Third, exactly what function is Apple going to offer that a watch doesn’t already give, but is better than an iPhone? If you’re navigating, it’s easier to use an iPhone which you can swap from hand to hand depending on what you’re carrying, or pop in your pocket where you can still hear the instructions. If you want to read email, it’s more convenient to hold the phone or put it on a table. Ditto web-surfing.

If Apple can (or has) solved the first three, then confident marketing will flow from them. But this is another reason why saying that ‘Apple is all about marketing’ is missing the point. Apple products are easy to market because they have a clear market position (premium), are made without compromise, and satisfy a user need consistently and easily. Apple, of course, then has to show confidence in the product, but even the biggest advertising campaign in the world will not sell a product which i) doesn’t seem to fit anywhere in our scale of aspirations ii) doesn’t seem to offer advantages over what we already have available or iii) doesn’t do anything for us.

The problems for an iTimeKeeper are very different from a phone or a music device. With phones, there was a range for prices from free-with-contract up to about £300. It was not difficult for Apple to position the iPhone at the top end of that range. With watches, you can spend £10,000, but most of us spend between £10 and £70.

Amazon.co.uk’s most popular watches are the Garmin Forerunner sports watch at £143, the Michael Kors Ladies Rose at £118, the Garmin Forerunner at £90, and the Ladies Rose Gold Chronograph at £101, but Amazon is probably not where most of us are buying watches. Even if it is, the first page, by popularity, has about ten different kinds of watches: plain men’s watches that look stylish, stylish men’s watches with extra dials, digital watches that look like digital watches used to, high-style digital watches, health watches that monitor things, sports watches, and then most of these again in a women’s version.

Part of the shifting pattern in watches is that many of the functions that moved onto our watches between 1972 and 2002 have now moved back onto our iPhones. My current watch doesn’t have an alarm, stopwatch, world time or any other features apart from the date. This isn’t because I’ve lost interest in those things, but because I can get the time anywhere in the world on my iPhone, can set my alarm by just telling the phone what time I want to get up, and operate a stopwatch much more easily. If I want to know the time, I look at my watch, but if I really want to know the time I look at my iPhone, because its time is synchronised daily, whereas my watch is usually a couple of seconds out.

So, here’s my prediction for the iWatch.

The iWatch will look like a watch, with traditional styling and hands. It will be metal and glass, and when it’s not being used for its special functions, the metal and glass will just look like they are part of a stylish watch. However, when you want it to do something, the readout will appear on the glass. It will be mainly driven by voice and a few simple gestures. Its main integration will be with Calendar on iCloud, because that is the thing which makes the most sense to go with time — a watch that works out where you are and warns you ahead of time where you have to be, without you having to ask it. It will be available in two versions — one that needs wifi or an iPhone or iPad to connect to the web, and the other with its own connection.

Is Apple capable of building that right now? Possibly not. And it won’t release anything until it’s able to do all that, or things which even better satisfy the four hallmarks. Because the fifth, hitherto secret hallmark of Apple’s most successful products is this: nothing is released until it is genuinely ready.

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