I Don’t Understand the Apple Watch

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.

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The New iPad

Now that Apple’s market capitalisation is larger than $500 billion — and more than the GDP of some developed countries — I have been intending to write an iBubble exposition, going even further into the evidence that Apple is spectacularly overvalued.

But today, Apple provided perhaps the strongest evidence that while I do not expect to see Apple’s share price to collapse any time soon, the company is — in terms of innovation — gradually running out of steam.


Yes: it’s called The new iPad. This is an absurd monicker: clumsy, cumbersome, self-righteous, but most of all incredibly boring. When the name was unveiled I wasn’t even sure that it was the thing’s name. I thought that at the end of the ceremony, there would be a grand unveiling: iPad 3, or even the cliched and technically-inaccurate iPad HD. But no; it is (loathsomely) called The new iPad.

The thing itself is fine; it receives a decent spec-bump, a gorgeous retina display, and of course includes access to the iTunes App ecosystem, which is easily the richest in the world. It will be a popular product, probably even more so than the iPad and iPad 2. But from an investment perspective, all of that is largely irrelevant. I am not trying to analyse the shape of the product; I am trying to analyse the shape of the company making the product, and its shape in years to come. Simply, I think Apple is missing Jobs’ talismanic leadership, and I think Apple’s wackier innovators are being crowded out by slick, corporate management. Tim Cook is a thoroughly corporate managerialist; not an acid-tripping bipolar Renaissance tech-evangelist like Jobs. Being the market leader is entirely different than being an innovative outsider, which is the company Apple was for so long; being the market leader means that the bean-counters become paranoid about not wanting to fix something that isn’t broken, and that kills innovation. Apple are going backwards; or worse Apple is turning into a Microsoft — dominant, but static.

Worse still is Apple’s latest OSX update, Mountain Lion. Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz writes:

[Mountain Lion is] the antithesis of Jon Ive’s minimalistic design, all essence devoid of artifice. In fact, it goes against everything Apple used to defend when it was king of user interface development: that everything should follow the same language in order to make everything intuitive and familiar to the user. With iOS, Apple backtracked, saying that the application should mimic the real-world item it was to replace. It made a little sense on a phone, but almost none on your desktop. And it opens the door to a fragmented design language that could make the future of Apple design very unappealing. It is a slippery slope heading to a future in which every app has their own interface—a garish clusterfuck of onscreen gadgets.

And that is Apple today in a nutshell — it is going back on being the sleek, elegant and intuitive creature that it once was. Apple has lost its capacity to think different. Perhaps that is Jobs’ fault for promoting the wrong people, or perhaps that is simply the inevitable endpoint of bureaucratic-technocratic managerialism (I tend toward the latter).

The biggest issue, though, is this:

The market is already deeply invested — both emotionally and financially — in Apple: the brand, the products, the process, the people, the mythos.

And while Jobs claimed to have left Apple a little innovative dynamite in the iTV, I think after the iPhone 4s, and the new iPad (see how cumbersome that is?) it is safe to conclude that its launch will be safe and successful, but not industry shattering.

Unlike the NASDAQ, Apple is less likely to crash or to drop precipitously. More likely it will simply stagnate as technology’s have-nots — led by braver and younger minds than Cook — innovate more.