When Apple was about to announce the iPad, in the early days of 2010, speculation was rife. The problem in my mind was that tablets had been tried so many times before, and failed so hard. They were just useless: too large to be useful in the way a smartphone is useful, too limited in inputs to be useful the way a laptop is useful. Apple must have some special thing, some One Weird Trick, to make a tablet finally successful.
On the Engadget podcast at that time, I boldly stated something like, "If the iPad is just a big iPod touch, I'm going to buy one just so I can throw it in the river." I was wrong. The iPad was just a big iPod touch. And I did buy one, but I didn't throw it in the river. Somehow Apple had made the tablet compelling. Not necessarily a must-have device, but perhaps something even better: something we aspire to own. When the first Retina display iPad came out I bought that, too.
Despite this history, I had similar misgivings going in to the Apple Watch event. Apple wouldn't just shrink down an iPod touch, would it? Didn't Apple need to do something different / weird / "other" to make a smartwatch finally work?
Apple thought so.
The history of modern smartwatches is relatively short in comparison to the pre-iPhone era of smartphones and pre-iPad era tablets, but in all three cases there's a feeling of something "wrong," something insufficient in the current market, and so we turn to Apple for a solution. In the case of the iPad, the solution was a large iPod touch. But for the iPhone, Apple thought it was necessary to do a large rethink of user interfaces, both in software and hardware.
As Tim Cook framed it at the Apple Watch announce event, Apple introduced the mouse with Macintosh, the click wheel with iPod, and multitouch with iPhone. These were necessary innovations to make new kinds of computer usage accessible and useful, and the Apple Watch required a similar leap. Apple calls it the "digital crown." It's that little twisty dial on the side of most analog watches. But digital.
I have no idea if the digital crown (a glorified scroll wheel, really) is an adequate solution to the inherent problem of smartwatches: too little surface area for complex interactions. All the iPod ever used the click wheel for was navigating hierarchal menus and the occasional game of Breakout. But at least Tim Cook and Jony Ive seem proud of themselves, and I'm happy for them.
What's most striking to me is that Apple didn't just add a digital crown and declare smartwatch UI solved. Apple kind of sort of merely changed the fundamental character of its entire company to make a watch.
Variety: Apple's new specialty
Apple Watch was a three year project. It required an entirely new font. It doesn't just add the digital crown as an interaction paradigm, it also differentiates between taps and presses on the screen. It comes in two sizes, three finishes, and with a myriad of wristband options. It reads heartbeats. It can communicate driving directions through differentiated vibrations. You can talk to people by drawing neon pictures. There are animated emojis.
The original iPad came in one size and was an oversized iPod touch. The Apple Watch is everything to all people and introduces dozens of original concepts. Concepts that aren't just new for watches, but out of character for Apple. Yes, it's still a personal computer, but it's almost absurdly personal.
I don't know if the Apple Watch solves smartwatches for good. At best, it's just a beginning. It's also not nearly as obviously superior to existing competition as the iPhone and iPad were in their time. But what's clear to me is that Apple has passionately poured into this watch all the innovation it could muster. It excites me and scares me a little. Did they stretch too far? Half of these ideas must be terrible, right?
But what I do know is that this is an iPhone moment, not an iPad moment, for Apple. It's not just the product, it's the sort of company that had to exist for that product to happen. Apple's now a company that makes a Watch which can transmit your heartbeat to a loved one when you press (not tap) the screen with two fingers. We're living in that era. Whatever it means.