Apple Watch Week 4: A Foundation for the Future

This is part 3 in ongoing series of reflections on my experience with Apple Watch the first months its out. Other pieces are: Week 1: You Can’t Put Delight In a SpreadsheetWeeks 2-3: Its Form Is Its Function, & Week 5: The Future of Apple Watch (WWDC & beyond)

The expectations we have about a product immensely in shaping our evaluation of it, perhaps more than the quality of the actual product. If, we, as the Little Mermaid humorously did, think that the purpose of a fork is to brush one’s hair, then we will note that it frequently snags hair, has an uncomfortable handle, and is, on the whole, a failed product. If you expected Avengers to be a romantic comedy, you’d be sorely disappointed. And those who expected Apple Watch to replace their iPhone have been disappointed as well.

Can Apple Watch do everything now? No. Can it replace your phone? No. Is it bug-free? No. Is there room for improvement? Yes. Are any of those expectations appropriate for the first generation of any product? Of course not. Apple Watch is not a perfect product, but many people are forgetting that neither was the first iPod, the first iPhone, or the first iPad. Rather than evaluating whether the product is already mature, a better question is to ask whether Apple has laid a foundation on which Apple Watch can grow. The answer, I believe, is a resounding yes.

Foundation for growth

For any new product to mature, it must do a few key things:

First, it must be good enough that customers want to buy it again. This, perhaps, might be a no-brainer, but there are plenty of “breakthrough technologies” that never mature, not because the first product wasn’t wanted but because it wasn’t wanted again. If Apple Watch is to mature, it must already offer enough value that customers will want to buy it again.1 

Second, it must be designed to allow continued development. If the first generation is over-designed, it won’t allow enough flexibility for future changes that must happen as it matures. If the first generation is under-designed, it won’t be developed, because it doesn’t have enough demand (point #1) or requires a total reinvention of the product (thereby restarting the process as a first-generation product even if it bears the same name).

iPhone as an example

To serve as a point of reference, consider the iPhone. It achieved both of these elements remarkably well:

It was good enough that people who bought it wanted another, but not for the reasons why people who buy them today want another. Remember, there was no 3G, notifications were intrusive, copy & paste didn’t exist, you couldn’t write in bold text, and there were no apps except for a few that Apple made (several of which were of limited value).

So why did people buy it? Why did people want to buy it again? It was pitched on three tentpoles and it executed on them extraordinarily well:

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It was the best iPod Apple had ever made. It was an incredible phone. And it was a brilliant internet communicator. That’s it. Compared to today, it was slow, buggy, underpowered, and limited. But it was absolutely amazing back then, providing enough value even in just those key functions that people wanted to buy another.2

But it also provided a brilliant foundation for future development. Many have remarked that it was the third tentpole–internet communicator–which ended up being the most important but which had the most lackluster response from the audience. While it is true the audience didn’t understand the third element, that wasn’t what made iPhone so revolutionary. What Apple meant by “internet communicator” was Safari and the web, not apps. If you doubt that, just look at the logo, re-watch the keynote, or look at the “sweet solution” for how iPhone was to grow (web apps).

What made iPhone revolutionary was that it was an operating system reimagined for a phone with a brilliant new UI and navigation tools. It was a touch screen that worked spectacularly (remember “You had me at scrolling?”). Those design decisions about operating system, navigation, and input, were what created a foundation from which iPhone could mature, including gaining an App Store. If the OS didn’t make sense on mobile or if multitouch didn’t work, it would have been game over for iPhone.

Apple Watch and repeat buyers

What, then, of Apple Watch? It does not need to be a fully mature product right now–it has time to mature in the future. In fact, most of its main criticisms–slow, dependent on iPhone, 3rd party apps being slow/stupid, etc.–can be fixed, so long as it has time to mature and grow. The question is whether it has a foundation from which to grow.

So, does it offer enough value to customers that they want to buy it again? iPhone took off because it did three things, and it did them extremely well, convincing users to buy another. What about the watch? What is going to make people buy it again? It will be a variety of things, especially as I’ve argued the watch will become different things to different people. However, it was pitched with three tentpoles:

tentpoles

For me, I’ve already concluded that the answer, for me, is “yes.” I may not get the second generation, but I want to buy it again. My original delight in using it is still there; of course, there aren’t as many new moments of delight, but rather a whole bunch of repeated conveniences and delights have added up over time. One of them, by itself, doesn’t justify the watch, but the conglomerated whole is simply delightful.

Just this last week I stepped out of my car to unload some things from the trunk. I left a podcast playing on the stereo, but realized after I closed the door that the volume was too low. Before I got to the trunk, without breaking my stride, and without slowing down, I used Apple Watch to turn up the volume. There are dozens of moments like that throughout the day where the Watch has made itself useful and justifies it being a part of my life. That doesn’t fit into one of the three tentpoles as clearly (one area where I feel Apple’s messaging was initially off), but it is still a reason to buy it again.

What is clear to me, and a tentpole, is exercise. Marco Arment wrote about this, and I could not agree more:

Ever since getting the Apple Watch, not only have I been getting more consistent exercise, but I’m pushing myself further. I take more walks, and I walk faster and further than ever before. I’ve been walking Hops around the same streets for four years, but now I’ve been discovering new streets and paths just to extend our walking distance and try to beat my previous walks.

I’ve never cared before, but now, I care…

The benefits of this at scale could be huge: consider the net improvement of millions of Apple Watch owners making small improvements to their health.

Apple Watch has made such a measurable difference in my exercise patterns that, if for no other reason, I’d be interesting in buying it again. Keep in mind, as I wrote about last week, that Apple has barely begun to scratch the surface of the medical implications a wrist-worn device will have.

We will see, of course, how the general populace believes over time, but I believe this product is good enough that people will want to buy future versions. Some may say that second-time purchases will happen simply because people will buy what Apple sells–which is a testimony to Apple’s prowess more than it is evidence of fanboi-ism. On the other hand, AppleTV is evidence that merely being made by Apple is not enough, it must inspire repeat purchases. So far, that has not happened in large numbers with AppleTV, but I believe it will happen with Apple Watch.

Apple Watch and platform design

The key issue for Apple is not whether they can get first-time buyers, but whether the device is designed appropriately to allow for future development while, at the same time, not be under-designed and thus requiring substantial modification of the OS, UI, navigation, and input mechanisms. Remember, iPhone launched not just with slow apps, but with no 3rd party apps, and it succeeded because it was so successfully re-imagined for a handheld mobile phone.

What about Apple Watch? I wrote about this extensively last week, so I won’t take time here to repeat the analysis I made of how the functions of Apple Watch perfectly match its form. Rather, let me list some ways Apple has re-imagined computing for the wrist:

  • Appropriately sized & weighted device with ample customization for a variety of people
  • Raise-to-see visibility, with glanceable information (complications, glances0
  • Digital Crown for reimagined navigation, along with the Contacts button & Force Touch
  • Much improved Siri capture, along with Hey Siri integration
  • Taptic Engine for discreet notifications & Digital Touch
  • Heart rate monitor & fitness tracking
  • 3rd party apps & app store
  • All of the above enabled by a brand-new OS optimized for the wrist

At present, 3rd party apps and the app store are generally weak, but the question is whether Apple has created a product that can mature or a product that is fundamentally flawed. The main criticisms seem to be that apps are either slow (which should be solved by a native SDK & Moore’s law) or simply stupid (which should be solved as developers learn). Those issues are easily solved in time (so long as we have the right expectations of Apple Watch apps), so they don’t spell failure for Apple Watch.

If Apple has made an error, it is not in under-designing Apple Watch but in allowing it to do too much which might artificially limit the way the device would otherwise mature through use and experience. However, I can’t think of a single function that Apple has enabled that wouldn’t have been a natural development of a wrist-worn device. As I argued in my prior piece, all of this functionally is uniquely enabled and suited to a wrist-worn device.

The real issue that would threaten Apple Watch is whether the OS or form or Digital Crown or Taptic Engine or heart rate monitor were designed wrongly or limit future maturity potential of the product. So far, every indication suggests that Apple has nailed the implementation of all of those elements.

After a month of using Apple Watch, I am convinced that Apple has laid a solid foundation for its future. While there are certainly areas where Apple Watch needs to improve, I have not seen a single one which causes doubt or hesitation about the category as a whole or about Apple’s initial implementation with Apple Watch specifically. Indeed, when you compare Apple Watch with other smartwatches on the market, it’s not hard to see that Apple is years ahead in the way it has reimagined Apple Watch for a future of wrist-worn computing in a way only Apple could have done.

This is part 3 in ongoing series of reflections on my experience with Apple Watch the first months its out. You can read the other pieces below:

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Footnotes:

1. Some companies can get around this by having so much cash that they can take a massive loss on version one of a product while they continue to develop it. This doesn’t contradict my statement in that, eventually, that product will need to stand on its own two feet. At that point, it must provide enough value to customers for them to give it another chance or allow it to grow. ↩️

2. Remember that not all people wanted or needed all three functions. For some people, just having a phone that was easy to use was enough, even if they didn’t use Safari on their phone. Not all three had to be compelling, just one had to be compelling enough that people wanted another one. As it turned out, all three were exceptionally well done. ↩️

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18 thoughts on “Apple Watch Week 4: A Foundation for the Future

  1. “So why did people buy it? Why did people want to buy it again?”

    All living things work under Reward and Punishment system designed by Evolution.
    Just because you eat poison (e.g. pepper, spices, seeds) but your body is able
    to process the poisoin thus giving you reward doesn’t mean it is good or bad.

    iPhone tapped into such via Touch and Hand coordination that is why babies are
    so taken by it.
    Apple Watch has similar stimulation via the nerveous system and immune system.
    Apple has made it subtle as not over work your sensors thus not make it too addictive
    at the start.
    Thus the focus on the Fashion.

    That is why people are buying iphones.

    Health monitoring also has similar flaw in logic but I am sure you won’t
    be able to process it.

    Like

  2. Apple watch has great potential as a medical device, using the heart rate monitor (and other potential sensors in the future) to feed health info to the user and their doctors. However, if Apple can’t get the Watch classified as a medical device, it would lose A LOT of its potential.

    Like

    1. I wrote a bit about the potential for it being a medical device in my Weeks 2-3: It’s Form is Its Function post. Absolutely huge potential, even if it isn’t considered a medical device. I’d actually suggest that qualifying as a medical device might burden it with regulation that might stifle innovation. It’s probably best for the next 3-4 years for it to be free of that kind of regulation, even if it does eventually develop into a medical device.

      If insurers will subsidize it in exchange for reduced premiums…that is game-changing.

      Like

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