In 2006, I was telling anyone who would listen — which, given that I was a nerdy 19-year old, wasn’t many people — to buy Apple stock. Back then Apple seemed to be on the verge of something amazing. I had had an iPod since 2003, and had just bought a Macbook Pro, and was blown away by OS X. The operating system and interface had a crispness and an attention to detail that made Windows PCs seem like a muddled mess.
Turns out I was right about Apple. The past decade has seen Apple blow up bigger than I dreamed they might. The iPhone and iPad have been stunning successes that have allowed Apple to redefine what personal computing is. And now Apple is the biggest company in the world.
And the Apple Watch — their first new product line since the iPad — seems like a step in the wrong direction. Admittedly, I haven’t used an Apple Watch yet. But why bring out a watch when other elements of your product line have made watches obsolete?
I’m happy to have my wrists free. A smartphone already does what a watch used to do — tell the time — plus so, so, so much more. I don’t want another screen, especially not a tiny and hard-to-click one strapped to my wrist that actually requires tethering to a smartphone to work. Interface design has been the key difference between Apple and Apple’s competitors in the past 10 years and to hear complaints about the interface seems pretty damning.
Yes, I can see some point to a biometric data-collection band, especially for athletes and fitness junkies and for hospital patients. Yes, I understand that sooner or later a new model of the Apple Watch will not require a tethered iPhone to work.
But at this point this is a niche product, functionally akin to the Apple Newton in the early ’90s. It does some cool stuff. But it’s not going to change the world.
The trouble is that I think Apple is barking up the wrong tree. This is like a successful band’s dodgy fourth album where they rehash earlier ideas in pursuit of that indefinable thing that made them great in the first place. The trouble is that that thing — the bleeding edge — has moved on. Trying to recapture it by rehashing old ideas in a slightly different form might sell some records. And Apple will sell some watches. But it’s not going to change the world.
The bleeding edge technologies that will change the world immeasurably in the next 20 years are self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, 3-D printers, ultra-efficient solar cells that can produce energy more cheaply than fossil fuels, and battery and energy distribution technology to allow the ultra-efficient solar cells to power things when the sun isn’t out. Apple are actually working on some of these things.
The Watch is — at best —an unworthy distraction. Of course, like most ageing rockstars, Apple has the time and money for unworthy distractions. And that’s why younger, leaner competitors may be the ones to bring the truly revolutionary products to market.