The Most Important Thing About The Apple Watch Is That It’s Still A Watch

At last, we know: Apple’s wearable gadget is even more wristwatch-like than the smartwatches which preceded it.

The Most Important Thing About The Apple Watch Is That It’s Still A Watch
The Apple Watch as seen from the side, with its digital crown [Photo: courtesy of Apple]

When people began talking, as early as 2010, about the possibility that Apple might build a wearable device, it was immediately dubbed the “iWatch.” It wasn’t that everyone thought it would be an actual timepiece, but it was a handy placeholder name for whatever breakthrough product Apple was going to ask you to strap on to your wrist.


When Tim Cook first revealed at Apple’s big press event on Tuesday that the wearable was called the Apple Watch, I was disappointed. It’s awfully generic-sounding. But it’s also appropriate. Rather than building something that’s an epoch-shifting departure from anything else on the market–like the original iPhone bore little resemblance to a Treo or BlackBerry–the company created something that is unapologetically watchlike.

After the announcement I got a chance to wear an Apple Watch briefly, and use it in a sort of semi-demo mode, and found the name even more meaningful. For almost 40 years, Apple has done more than any other single company to define what a personal computer is; in this century, it’s done the same thing for portable music players, telephones, and tablets. Now it wants to do the same thing with watches. Not just smartwatches–all watches.

At first glance, the Apple Watch looks like it belongs same category as existing smartwatches such as Samsung’s Gear models, which it resembles in general form factor, with its rectangular touchscreen. But Apple leapfrogs other smartwatches by reinstating some of the virtues that wristwatches had long before they sported tiny color screens and embedded sensors.

The change starts with its “digital crown,” the cool little control knob which recalls the crowns which analog watches use for setting the time (and, if they’re mechanical, for winding the spring). Back in the 1960s, Bulova’s battery-powered Accutron made a futuristic statement by doing away with the crown; now Apple is being forward-looking by reinstating it as a smartwatch feature.

Tim Cook with some very large Apple Watches.

And unlike other smartwatch makers–but exactly like Omega or Hamilton or any other maker of conventional timepieces–Apple concluded that the best way to appeal to consumers with widely varying tastes is to give them an array of options. The Apple Watch will be available in two sizes and three case materials (stainless steel, aluminum, and 18K gold), with a range of bands and bracelets. That means the Watch will be taken in different directions, style-wise, depending on the person wearing it. The cheapest models will be $350; even though Apple isn’t yet saying what others will cost, we already know that the top-of-the-line 18K model is going to cater to the sort of big, big spenders who have long worn extremely expensive wristwatches as a personal statement.

Both Tim Cook and (in a video) Jony Ive even spent a surprising amount of the launch event talking about using the Apple Watch to check what time it is–and told us, repeatedly, that it’s really accurate. Just as watchmakers have always done.


Of course, the Apple Watch isn’t just about telling time. It runs apps. It performs tasks that many other smartphones do (such as track your fitness activities) and some that are new (such as allow you to pay for stuff at major retailers with one tap, or unlock your door at a W hotel). In terms of the number of things it’s going to try to do out of the gate, it’s as ambitious as anything Apple has ever released, and I suspect that the company will have even more information to share about the watch’s functionality before it’s released early next year.

The interface is more innovative than it appears at first glance, too: For instance, it’s got a screen that can sense varying levels of pressure, so a hard push might perform a different task than a light touch.

Wearing an Apple Watch was tantalizing in the extreme, and a good opportunity to form impressions of the build quality (more like a piece of jewelry than consumer electronics) and feel on the wrist (comfier than you might guess from photos). But it was also like trying to judge a new BMW by driving it for three miles on track at Disneyland. You need to use a smartwatch on your own, in the real world, for an extended period before you can tell how well the various factors which add up to the user experience stick together.

Basically, anyone who’s already come to firm conclusions about this gadget is jumping the gun. Given that Apple is still finishing up the watch’s software, I’m not even sure whether the people working on it truly understand what it’s going to be like to use it when it’s done.

It’ll likely be years, not months, before we understand the Apple Watch’s impact–but if it similarly sets a new standard for the watch industry, its name will only feel natural.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.