What the Apple Watch is for

This is my third post on Apple’s announcements last week – my first, on the new iPhones, is here, and my second, on how the Apple Watch might change the smartwatch market, is here (on Techpinions). I had planned to do my next Apple post on Apple Pay, to complete the triumvirate, but my thoughts on that are still percolating, and in the meantime I’ve done more thinking about the Watch, and specifically what it’s for. Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson have both addressed this point, and yet my feelings are somewhat different, and I wanted to share them here. You should absolutely read both of their posts too (Ben T’s are elaborated on in a podcast as well), as they have lots of great insights.

Apple has defined new products in relation to existing ones

Apple has an interesting history of introducing new products, right back to the original Apple computers. I think it makes most sense to think about this visually, and as such I’ve created the video below to illustrate it, but by way of introduction. By way of context, Apple has essentially always introduced new products in one of the following ways:

  • They do the same things as an old product, but in a new form factor (laptops)
  • They replace existing devices in the category (iPods)
  • They combine existing categories (iPhone)
  • They sit in-between existing categories (iPad).

(There is a YouTube video below – if you’re reading this in an RSS reader or your email, it may not show up.)

The question then becomes, which of these approaches did Apple use with the Apple Watch? And the answer appears to be none of them. As shown in the video, it essentially did something new: it introduced the Apple Watch first and foremost as a watch, an existing category, but then went on to demonstrate how it wasn’t like any other watch you’ve ever used. What it really showed, but never explicitly said, was that the Apple Watch is two more things as well: a subset of iPhone functions on your wrist, and at the same time an extension of your iPhone onto your wrist. What Apple explicitly did not do was call this product a smartwatch, even though that’s the closest existing category to what it announced. Instead, it defined it in relation to (non-smart) watches, but that’s an imperfect fit. As such, I think Apple defined this category less well than it has other new product categories in the past. By refusing to call it a smartwatch, it resists the most obvious comparison, but by calling it a watch, it undersells what it does.

The role of the App Store

Ben Thompson and others have criticized both the presentation and the functionality of the Apple Watch on the basis that it seeks to do too much, and its core reason for being isn’t clear. In particular, especially in the Exponent podcast, Ben criticizes Apple for opening up the Watch to developers. I think this criticism is misguided. In 2007, Apple could absolutely launch the original iPhone without an App Store, because the concept as it would emerge a year later didn’t even exist. Yes, other smartphones allowed you to install third-party applications, but it was a frustrating, kludgy and risky process. However, three years later when the iPad launched, it seemed an absolute necessity that it would run third-party apps, and of course it did.

We come, then, to the Apple Watch. This isn’t 2007 anymore – Apple has now set the expectation that its devices will come with an App Store. But even more importantly, Apple’s devices now reach their full purpose only when accompanied by third party apps. These apps give the devices meaning they could never have had on their own, with only the apps Apple itself supplies. Whereas the iPod was a single function device, the iPhone and iPad have become whatever their owners want them to be, through the installation of third-party applications. Though Steve Jobs carefully positioned the iPad between the iPhone and the MacBook in Apple’s lineup, he didn’t provide much by way of specific guidance on what the product would be useful for (beyond reading books). That was for users to figure out, and as a result some have, and some haven’t, seen the value in the category.

I feel like the Apple Watch is very much in the same vein: yes, there are core functions the Apple Watch will do out of the box, and some of those will be very valuable, just as Apple’s first iPhone was, but a great deal of the value will come from the imagination of third party developers who will create applications Apple would never have dreamed of on their own. For hard-core watch fans, the fact that Apple has made a beautiful new entry in the category may be enough. But for the rest of us, the apps are what will make it come alive, and what will make it continue to get better over the year after its launch even as the hardware stays the same.

Does this mean Apple doesn’t know what the Apple Watch is for? In a sense, yes, but the original iPhone ads didn’t tell you exactly what it was for either. They showed you some of what you could do with it, and once you had it you figured out all kinds of use cases for the underlying functionality. If you follow the link earlier in this paragraph to view the compilation of iPhone ads, you’ll notice that a second round of ads (starting around 4:30 in the video) took use cases people had discovered on their own and highlighted those. Even with the first version of the iPhone, devoid as it was of third-party apps, Apple discovered things you could do with what they’d built which they hadn’t conceived of. And that’s been the pattern ever since. I think that, as much as anything, is why Apple refrained from listing a handful of specific things the Watch would do for you, and instead showed off some of the clever stuff it can do out of the box, while opening the platform up for developers. I don’t think Apple necessarily knows exactly what the Watch is for any more than we do, and we’ll all discover it together.