The Apple Watch isn’t going to flop. An Apple “flop” right now is probably a multi-billion-dollar industry, after all. Rather, the watch is the first step of the next major shift for a company that has made its money by essentially trend forecasting in the technology space. The future of tech is the future of fashion, and the Apple Watch is just one step towards that future.
Ever since the first Macintosh, Apple has pursued a goal: the borderless intermingling of hardware, software, and connectivity. This isn’t necessarily different from what the competition is doing right now (mostly by taking Cupertino’s lead), but companies like Samsung, Microsoft, and Google pay most of their attention to just one thing, or two at most: Google and Microsoft are more software-and-service companies than hardware companies, while Samsung’s mostly just a hardware company.
The difference is Apple’s clarity of vision. The original Macintosh from 1984 is just as much of a part of that vision as the iPhone and iPad are today. It’s bigger, clunkier, and technologically less advanced, sure, but it’s the same thing Apple is selling today: a magic screen that has been designed to be as frictionless as possible. Over the years Apple has sanded and buffed that magic screen down, eliminating friction with the user where it can (making it thinner, making it faster, making it lighter) and expanding it into a range (iPhone, iPad, MacBook, iMac, and now Apple Watch), and nearly three decades later, Apple has pretty much distilled the magic screen down to its essence. There’s a magic screen for everyone. And it’s just about as light, thin, and powerful as it’s going to be.
But what is the essence of an iPhone? This is some Plato-in-the-Cave shit, but I don’t think it’s too preposterous to suggest that there are some objects that are truer to their essence than other objects. A spoon, for example, might start out as a shovel, but over thousands of years of iteration and improvement, it eventually reaches a point where it is no longer reducible. People might design spoons past this point, but future iterations will all relate to the craft with which they were made, or their ornamentation. Regardless, the spoon will never become more spoony than it was before.
Apple is fastly on track towards reaching the point where there are no more major technological innovations to be made with its projects. Five years on, iPad sales are already becoming more Mac-like than iPad-like. The iPhone continues to sell in two-year upgrade cycles, but that’s largely because iPhones have traditionally been tied to 24 month subsidized cellphone contracts–something that is starting to change. At what point do sales simply stall, because the innovations just aren’t big enough to justify upgrading regularly anymore?
It’ll eventually happen. There aren’t many products that consumers regularly upgrade and replace every two to five years, once their technical innovations have topped out. Moore’s Law–which essentially suggests technological innovation doubles every two years–isn’t a law of nature, it’s just a theory some dude came up with after noticing a pattern. Eventually, the cheapest smartphones and tablets and laptops out there will be good enough for almost everyone; heck, for many people, they already are. Apple wants to distill its gadgets down to their essence, but it still wants people to buy new ones every few years, and make roughly the same amount of profit on each new model
So to adapt, you take your lead from fashion. Fashion defies the upgrade cycle. You do not buy a new pair of pants for their technical innovation, or because your old pants wore out. You buy them for a host of other factors: what they say about you, what they are made out of, the quality with which they are produced, who else wears them, who endorse them, and so on. And you do so despite the fact that you have a closet of perfectly good pants at home.
Someday, magic screens will be as commonplace as pants. Fashion is the key to keeping magic screens exciting, once technical innovation is no longer the prime mover. Fashion is this big, crazy engine of imagination and irrationality that makes people buy a $1,000 shirt just because Kanye once wore one, or to buy a pair of $300 sneakers just because it’s got the silhouette of a guy who can jump 10 feet in the air on the side. That’s insane, but fashion defies so much conventional wisdom of consumerism precisely because it’s so ineffably tied in with the human spirit. Logic and practicality be damned: fashion appeals to the ego and the id, all at once.
Perhaps this is the true importance of the Apple Watch. Watches have always been the bridge between technology and fashion. And it’s obvious that Apple is courting the fashion world. It took out ads for the Apple Watch in Vogue. It made a huge splash at Paris Fashion Week. It hired influential fashion executives like ex-Burberry executive Angela Ahrendts. This isn’t a dabbling. This is a concerted campaign.
One natural question is, “What does Apple look like as a fashion company?” But truthfully, I don’t think it’s that different than what Apple looks like now. Apple already has the retail presence equal to, or exceeding, that of most fashion brands. People already buy iPhone cases to express their personalities, or outwardly peacock their status, and Apple is doubling down on that with the Apple Watch, which you can purchase in 18K gold, or accompanied with a $550 chainlink strap. Even the new MacBook comes in three different finishes: black, silver, and gold.
Apple’s detractors have been saying for years that the iPhone and the Mac aren’t real computers, but fashion accessories. Maybe it was more right than it knew. Slowly but surely, Apple is signalling that it sees its future as being more clearly aligned with fashion and tech. That’s not because it’s going to stop making tech. It’s because we’re inevitably going to stop appreciating most gadgets as tech, any more than we think of a spoon or a watch as technology (which they both most certainly are, after their type).
These are all admittedly strange thoughts. But Apple’s not just looking a couple years ahead; it’s looking 30 years ahead. Today, Apple might dip a toe in fashion with the Apple Watch, Apple’s most wearable magic screen yet. But who’s to say that, 30 years from now, our very clothes won’t be magic screens, the appearance of which we can change by just downloading an app?