Monday, February 9, 2015

The Apple Watch As The Ultimate Skeuomorph

I posted this view of the Apple Watch in the Braeburn Group community last evening:

The Apple Watch As The Ultimate Skeuomorph

In my view, the tech pundits just don’t get the Apple Watch. They keep viewing it as a watch. If the Apple Watch was primarily a timepiece, I can understand the current thinking. The only similarities the Apple Watch has to a watch is that it will function as a watch and is strapped to the wrist. The wrist is among the most anatomically comfortable locations for a wearable and more than a century of social acceptance of a wrist-based device makes the form of a watch a natural for a device.

I don’t recall the last time a forthcoming device was so misunderstood. There’s no shortage of timepieces in our world from our cars, to our computers to our smartphones to our offices to our clock radios. Consumers don’t need another clock. Although I don’t like the term, from a social/luxury goods standpoint, the Apple Watch is it’s own form of a skeuomorph. In other words, Apple has taken a highly socially acceptable form (the wrist watch) and is using the form to drive fast adoption and easy luxury goods designation of a wearable computing device. The fact that it tells time and is called the “Apple Watch” provides the means to gain social acceptance and take advantage of the luxury goods perception of a finely-crafted timepiece.

In a way, it’s skeuomorphism on a new level. This is brilliant. Apple announces the new line and presents it in the context of a watch (comfortable, socially accepted and easy to designate as a luxury item) then leaves plenty of time space for that context to seep into the public perception. As the product approaches release and through the release Apple then ramps up talk of its functions and the press then runs reports on the astonishing advanced functionality Apple has put into a “watch.” There is really no reference for a product launch of this kind and with this approach in the era of mass adoption of personal computing devices.

Now factoring in what will most likely be restricted distribution through Apple’s direct channels for at least the first few months following release with expanded distribution through luxury/upscale retailers in time for the holidays, and that’s millions of new visits to Apple retail stores from buyers to the curious spectator.

I’m striving to create a model to quantify the impact of the Apple Watch on iPhone, Mac and iPad sales in addition to the sales of Apple Watch units. As we know, Apple Watch is an Apple Pay-enabled device. Among the reasons why I’m a bit shy on estimates beyond FY2015 at the moment is due to the Apple Watch. That’s a variable no one can accurately quantify at the moment. From the time of release, it will make every other high-end smartphone vendor’s product line appear incomplete by comparison and there isn’t a competitor that can bring to market such a wearable in a classic, luxury goods design. Any effort will look like a cheap rip-off.

In response, EdTech, a long-time member of the Braeburn Group posted his commentary on my viewpoint:

"I would add on to your train of thought with the following notion.  People - and particularly tech savvy people are drawn to the physical aspects of a piece of computing technology. When they look at computer, they see the metal, silicon and glass that go into making the computing device, and because of our love and intimacy with physical things, we gravitate toward using its physical characteristics to evaluate its worth. Hence a generation which grew up looking at feeds and speeds, cycles and power consumption, dimensions and shapes and using those metrics to define the worth and value of the computer.

However, the hardware only defines the limits of what a computer can do. To be more precise, the hardware prescribes the boundaries around what a computer could possibly do. What truly defines the usefulness of that computer, however, is the software that runs on it. Without well designed software, a computing device is merely an expensive ornament or a heavy paperweight. However, software is not a physical entity, it is much more abstract and ephemeral, so it is much more difficult to quantify and evaluate its merits. Software - at least well written software, is more likely to evoke an emotional response than an analytical one in use. And it is the access to brilliantly designed, intuitive, and easy to use software - from OS 6 all the way up to OS X and onwards to iOS, that has brought the magic and wonder of the Apple ethos for excellence and elegance to the computing experience.

Before the app store, the iPhone was merely a phone that also had a web browser and a music player in it. Once Steve Jobs relented and opened up the App store, it took on a new life greater and more impactful than ever before imagined, because it was only then, that the iPhone became a universal ultra mobile conduit for software.

Perhaps there is some strange cosmic irony that Apple is named App-ple, because it is the software stack, the apps, programs, and the OS, that create the usefulness that we find in the iMac, MacBook, iPhone, and iPad. All of those are mere instruments to serve up Apps (software Applications) that are so elegant they draw us in emotionally to the computing experience. Computing hardware is just a box (and in Apple’s case, a pretty box)  that makes the software accessible humans.

The iWatch should be seen in a similar light. It is a conduit for the apps that will provide functionality and that emotional bond that the user will have with the device. Because of this, the more important question, like in all the other cases (iMac, MacBook, iPhone, iPad), isn’t, “how good is the hardware?”, but rather, “how good will the software be that will bring new functionality to that form factor?”, because it will be the software that defines the usefulness of the computing device and henceforth, the Apple Watch.  We tend to evaluate things compared to what we have experienced in the past - but this does not consider that the potential for the new device to be used in completely new ways. That is why much of the world underestimated the iPhone and the iPad initially.

Because of this reliance on software to provide functionality, it is impossible for us to evaluate how good the iWatch will be at launch, just as it was impossible for us to accurately predict how useful the iPhone was going to be at it’s launch, and how useful the iPad would be at its launch. We just don’t have enough experience with the hardware to begin to fathom what are the limits that hardware imposes and what are the depths of usefulness that some enterprising coder is going to be able to coax out from within that boundary. At the end of the day, it is up to the genius of the coder to expand the definition of what is possible given the constraints of the hardware, and it is impossible to know at device launch the limit of creativity that will be brought to bear on this puzzle.

Each major revolution that Apple has brought to computing was based on a fundamental change in user input (keyboard - Apple II, Mouse - Mac, trackball/trackpad - Powerbook/MacBook, Multitouch - iPhone/iPad) and now we have a wrist worn computing device with continuous biometric input and haptic feedback. It is way too early to know how useful the iWatch can become, but the revolution in user interface is one clue…."


I don't think the market yet grasps what the Apple Watch represents and how in its own way it will transform personal communications and the way we interact with digital devices.

Robert Paul Leitao