Two important, distinct watches bookended my youth. In one corner: the Texas Instruments LED watch, the first digital watch of its kind. In the other: Swatch, the Swiss watch brand that turned the fusty art of time-keeping into a fun, youthful style statement. The TI watch was a feat of technological novelty, but it was neither beautiful nor practical; the LEDs ate up so much battery life that you had to press a button on the side of the band to make time show up. Swatch, on the other hand, worked exquisitely and had a rakish look for everyone under the sun. But the watches were never paragons of technological sophistication.
As Apple prepares to debut its long awaited smart watch, it’s worth revisiting the tension that has plagued watch innovation for years: The history of watch design is the history of tradeoffs between functional novelty and personal expression. If the Apple Watch succeeds, it will succeed because the company has attended to both ends of the spectrum well enough–and can make up for the rest with its outsize consumer base and loyal development partners.
And if it doesn’t succeed in those ways? Apple could still win the wearable tech wars.
Looking back, the TI watches were scary ugly. But when my older brother got one–I was 10 years old at the time–he and I spent hours pushing the button just to watch those numbers magically appear. It was attractive, not because of its aesthetic, but because it was so new. That’s functional novelty. Put a conventional analog watch in the same clothing, and it would have been passed over as cheap and undesirable, even then. It’s little surprise that the TI watch, despite all its shortcomings, sold millions.
Watch technology has been settled for a long, long time. There have been minor variations in the underlying mechanisms, and TI’s LED innovation was an important breakthrough. But for the most part, the technology has been ubiquitous for over a century, and unimpressive for longer.
Over the same period, watches have become statements of personal expression, and they have proliferated around this dimension. Swatch took this proliferation to the extreme. (For me, as a teenager, it was the go-to birthday, Christmas and graduation gift.) There are 1.2 billion watches produced around the world today representing perhaps hundreds of thousands of different styles. The only things that distinguish one watch style from the next are fashion features (and price points); you rarely see any kind of functional novelty.
To date, wearable technology has found its center on the “functional novelty” end of the spectrum. Call it the left end. It’s Silicon Valley, not New York City. Tech not fashion. Fitbit, Withings, Jawbone–they have all operated from the urge to deliver new use cases to their customers. Just look at their sites; they’re all about data. Learn more about yourself so that you can be a better human.
It’s not that these companies totally disregard the importance of personal expression. The days are over when you could launch a product without paying heed to its design. But the kind of design you see today does not say, “I’m wearing this thing because I love how it makes me look.” It’s more about announcing that you belong to a particular club. Take Fitbit. Fitbit devices owe much of their aesthetic to the rubber, yellow Livestrong bands that became popular a decade ago. Users wear them to announce their membership in a league of people who care about pushing themselves physically to be better. The design expresses the personal choices of a very slim (in both meanings of the word) set of the overall population.
Apple is in the rare position to deliver a product that is both functionally novel and chameleon-like in its powers of personal expression. For starters, Apple has invested tremendous energy into making the watch customizable. The watch’s core is a chicklet able to take on a variety of personalities like no other wearable to date (unless you count Swatch): Two case sizes, four case finishes, and something like a dozen band styles and colors (I lost count while digging through Apple’s site) offer more than 100 possible combinations out of the gate. And there is already at least one third-party company building a custom case and band (Epik). Surely others will follow.
On the technological side, Apple may be better poised than any other wearable maker to deliver novel functionality because the company isn’t locked into any particular functionality. In contrast to Fitbit, the watch isn’t merely a data collector. It’s a wearable, networked computer that can be programmed for thousands of functions. It’s not a product. It’s a platform that will really come alive when the substantial developer community imagines and builds a dizzying array of apps tailored to the little screen.
The perfect analogy here is the iPad. When it launched, many of us knew we wanted one, but we didn’t know exactly what for. Time and endless experimentation has proven that the iPad is a great place to play Angry Birds, among other things. In a similar fashion, the Apple Watch will prove its usefulness once some ingenious app maker reveals to us what we can’t live without.
It’s possible that the developer community never produces the Apple Watch equivalent of Angry Birds. It’s also possible that Watch’s style options miss the mark and fail to gain critical mass. (Not likely, given Apple’s loyal fan base, but possible.) Even then, Apple could still win the wearables war.
The big deal in wearable tech is not at all about which particular watch will win the battle for users’ wrists. It’s about who will come out on top as the owner of a compelling platform that sits at the center of an entire ecosystem of sensors, software and services just like Apple did for music over a decade ago when they brought the music industry to our fingertips with the iPod and iTunes. In five years, will we talk about how Apple’s Healthkit–the company’s software platform that aggregates data from all your health and fitness apps–became the de facto dashboard for our bodies? Or will it be some offering from Google?
Right now, Google is leveraging its acquisition of smart-home products company, Nest, to become that platform leader in the world of home automation. Late last year, Google launched Works with Nest, a partnership program that connects devices together so that, for instance, your Mercedes Benz can tell your Nest thermostat that you’re on your way home. Will they extend this to our bodies, too? I know that I want my home colder right after my workout.
For now, Apple may have built the best beta product that will help us figure out what we really want from our wearables. The winning formula: an easily customizable accessory plus a blank-canvas for new functionality plus a hungry audience and a huge development community poised for experimentation.