The Macintosh made you a painter. The iPod put 1,000 songs in your pocket. The iPhone turned us all into amateur photographers. Then the iPad offered up a blank canvas limited only by imagination.
Now what does the Apple Watch do? Functionally, its biggest breakthrough is that it can pay for things very conveniently, with just a tap of the wrist. Its biggest advertised feature is by all measures and accounts, boring.
It’s no secret that Apple’s success can be attributed to, as Steve Jobs put it, design innovations that live specifically at the intersection between technology and liberal arts. To be fair, the Apple Watch doesn’t solve these types of problems, in part, because Apple has already solved so many of them. They already made the connected world accessible from your pocket. They already gave us a portable screen that we could draw pretty well on. The world will never be blown away by an MP3 player again. That moment came and went.
I was disappointed by the Apple Watch announcement for the same reasons you may have been. Its industrial design, while featuring thoughtful elements like a magnetic clasp, easily swappable bands, and that clever “digital crown” navigation system, ostensibly resembled the smartwatches we’ve already seen from companies like Samsung and Motorola–as if Apple showed up casually late to a party they were too cool for, only to realize, everybody else there was wearing its same shoes. I mean, the iPhone floored you the first time you saw it, as if Apple had traveled to the future and stolen it back for all of us to share. The Apple Watch was a Samsung Galaxy Gear dipped in rose gold, the blush wine of the precious metal world.
But the bigger reason to be disappointed–the one that matters beyond my personal taste or our insatiable thirst for the new–is that the Apple Watch isn’t connected to anything particularly beautiful or fun. Think about it: Every major Apple release has been grounded in some landmark support of multimedia, helpfully enabled by a breakthrough in user interaction. The Macintosh let you paint because it made your hand feel like a natural extension of the cursor on-screen. The iPod paired a deeply organized music collection with a wheel that could explore artists, albums, genres, and individual tracks with equal grace.
Whether it was the iPad’s touchscreen, or the iPod’s music library, Apple devices either made you an artist, or gave you a better way to consume art. But the closest the Apple Watch comes to this idea is allowing you control your music from your wrist or scribble a doodle to beam to a friend. Nothing about the Apple Watch will fundamentally shift the way we experience TV, movies, photos or music. The Apple Watch has little appreciation for art or creativity.
So what design challenges lay ahead for Apple? Boring ones. Taking a cue from the Apple Watch, you see two highly lucrative, infrastructure-level problems: payments and health. They’re certainly important problems worthy of Apple’s attention, but that doesn’t make them fun.
Payments is the ultimate snoozefest. Yes, our credit card infrastructure is decades old. No, it’s probably not secure enough to protect our accounts in the digital age. Yes, there is a better way. And Apple, by making deals with the likes of Visa and Mastercard, will be giving it to us because it will make them a whole lot of money, and the logical point of, why shouldn’t your phone double as your wallet? We’ll all use it, but nobody will be amazed because payments are boring.
The second big solution is health tracking. Health is really important. Sometimes it’s a matter of life and death. And maybe, just maybe, Apple can manage to exchange and combine my vitals with the data my health provider has to offer some kind of realtime analytics. I can barely begin to comprehend how important that could be. Building the right digital health is one of the biggest design, political, and infrastructural challenges of the modern era. But health data is boring. And when it isn’t boring, it’s worse; it’s depressing or even devastating.
Design has evolved at breakneck speeds in the last decade, and we largely have Apple to thank for that, for lighting a fire under the entire industry of electronics manufacturers to think of their esoteric gadgets as fun, approachable experiences that can bring new moments of joy to our lives.
However, Apple will have a tougher time standing out to consumers over the next decade because so many of the fun problems have already been solved. And the problems that remain are just as much, if not more, about solving boring infrastructural issues than they are about designing experiences that are truly new.
Why doesn’t the Apple Watch truly revolutionize payments? Why doesn’t it let us buy a can of Campbell’s soup just by removing it from the shelf at a Walmart? The technology is capable. Apple’s designers are more than clever enough to think up that idea, too.
But even if Apple has the innovative ideas, the infrastructure won’t allow it yet. Walmart hasn’t lined its shelves with NFC receivers, and who knows, maybe it would upset Visa for some reason, too. As a result of infrastructure, Apple’s new shiny wallet on your wrist ends up looking just like Google’s old tattered thing in your pocket.
And after payments and health, consider what future issues are next: education, finances, environmental footprint, governmental communications, data security, and personal safety.
These ideas aren’t fun. No silhouetted model wearing earbuds will ever be spotted dancing to the beat of your heart. But sometimes even the cool kids should stop having fun and tackle some of the world’s real problems. And this begs the question: will the masses keep buying Apple products along the way?