Here’s the thing about the Apple Watch — it isn’t really a watch


Apple Watch

There’s a raging debate about whether it will revolutionize the smartwatch category or be a humiliating flop that destroys the shared destiny of Apple CEO Tim Cook and design majordomo Jony Ive.

A lot of chatter around the Apple Watch has a decidedly confused quality to it. If people don’t much wear watches anymore (They have iPhones to tell time!), why would they want to buy one that starts at $350?

If you want a timekeeping device for your wrist, you can get one for $10 that tells time flawlessly and doesn’t need to be recharged every night.

What does Apple expect folks to do with the watch — invent new modes of communication? Streamline their ability to pay for stuff?

Wear it like a fashionable high-end watch?

It only looks like a watch …

Having paid attention to watches for a long, long time and, a few years back, predicted that wearables were going to be the next hot thing in tech, I can say that much of the confusion about the watch has to do with how it looks.

By that, I mean: Apple is calling it a “watch.” You wear it on your wrist, and Ive and Apple’s design team have worked hard to make it look like a nice watch, including the brilliant touch of retaining the traditional horological crown as an input feature.

But the Apple Watch is not just a watch. If  you consider all the other stuff the watch can do or will be able to do, the Apple Watch will essentially be a tiny iPhone strapped to your arm. It could do for wearable computers what the iPhone did for desktops and laptops and cameras and cell phones — rendered them all optional. (For a brief period a few years back, I was between laptops and reverted to using a very old model which couldn’t browse the Web effectively, but I had an iPhone and experienced no real problems.)

So the critical question: With the Apple Watch, are we really dealing with a watch?  Or a new genre of device that only shares with traditional watches a piece of real estate on the human body?

Obviously, it’s not a watch. It’s a small wearable computer that, for the moment, requires a slightly larger yet still very portable pocket computer — the iPhone — to work. Watches are only good for one thing, basically: telling time. Some have various other functions related to time built in, but they’re called “timepieces” for a reason.

I use my watches to tell time time and, occasionally, to time things. Otherwise, I just enjoy looking at them.

The magic, mutable Apple watchface

The only thing that interests me about the Apple Watch as a watch is the ability to change the watch face. It could look like a Cartier Santos …

Cartier Santos

… or a Rolex Sub …

Rolex Submariner

… or a Panerai Luminor …


… or a digital watch …

Times Ironman
Times Ironman


… or something wilder and more exotic …

Devon Watch
Devon watch


The Apple Watch also benefits from a trend in watches of late: bigness. It’s a large timepiece (although not, reportedly, enormous). A few decades ago, no one would have wanted to wear anything so chunky on their wrist — even the legendary Rolex Submariner replica, originally a diver’s watch with a large form factor for its day, looks dinky compared with the slabs of micro-engineering that some people are strapping to their wrists these days.

Patek Philippe Calatrava
Philippe) The very thin Patek Philippe Calatrava.


The whole point of fine Swiss horology was to strive for thinness. For example, the Patek Philippe Calatrava, an automatic wristwatch that packs all its ingenious mechanical technology into mere 7-millimeter-thick case, like the example to the right.

Aesthetically, the Apple Watch fits in with the current style of wrist wear.

Leaving the world of watches behind

The only precedent I can think of for the Apple Watch is the modern dive watch, which is actually a dive computer. For decades, divers needed reliable watches that could survive the rigors of the deep. This is why the Rolex Sub is so iconic — it was the dive watch by which others were judged.

But nobody goes scuba diving with a Rolex Sub these days. They use one of these:

It costs $1,800. Which is a relative bargain, compared to the replica Rolex, which goes for about $8,000 — and was pricey even during its more utilitarian heyday.

However, the dive computer does SO MUCH MORE than a Swiss automatic dive watch that it isn’t even funny. That’s why it’s called a “computer.”

Maries Icon Dive Computer
Maries Icon Dive Computer

And therein lies the tricky issue with the Apple Watch. Apple seems to be trying to please two constituencies with the device: those who wear or would wear a watch; and those who desire a wrist computer.

Logical, given that the existing smartwatches haven’t really taken off as a new tech category. They just don’t much appeal to the watch set, which sees them as glorified Timex Ironman digitials. So naturally Apple decided to “conquest” these people, in the lingo of marketing. So the Apple Watch is exceptionally watch-like, as smartwatches go.

Apple wants watch folks to wear the watch every day, too, something that watch folks don’t always do. Watch folks like to wear different watches. I would be depressed if I had to wear the same watch every day.

So to be a success, the Apple Watch has to be something that completely transcends all our preconceived notions about a gadget you wear on your wrist. Just as the iPhone completely redefined what a “phone” could be.

That’s a lot to take on. Because I can go out right now and buy a great $350 traditional watch that will last practically forever, look good, and tell time.

For my perspective, there isn’t much to be gained for Apple to compete with that. So it must have a much more all-consuming and ultimately indispensable future in mind for its much-awaited new gadget.


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