Apple Watch. Initial thoughts. / by James Moore

Apple Watch

We saw the release of the Apple Watch last week and while on the whole it was expected; the overall design approach and execution was understated. An unexpectedly expect able design you could say.

Apple makes no doubts that their new product is a watch. A very beautifully crafted quality watch at that. A watch that uses the same materials you'd expect in any wrist wear of value - polished steel, leather, high quality glass, some gold complete with the same design cues you'd expect in a timepiece.

And this is perhaps the problem. Actually problem is the wrong word here. Disappointment will do for now. The simple fact that it looks too much like a watch. Omitting its obvious quality construction, the design approach has been too conventional.

When the iPhone was initially launched there was nothing really like it. Phones were lumbered with keypads and boxy, phone-like forms. Overnight, Nokias and Motorolas began to look a lot older, and thicker. Yet with iPhone we were getting something that would invariably last a few years, but had a great design approach too.

It was an inoffensive, pared down approach and pretty much everybody on the planet, even Apple's rivals admired it. It was one of those launches where the design was not divisive. It had universal appeal.

However, a watch is a very personal purchase. Not in your pocket and many people will own and use the same watch for a number of years while it serves a primary function. On the whole - watches while internally complex are simple devices and perform simple, background tasks. And that simplicity in a sense protects or exempts them from obsolescence. It is a long term purchase, its function to keep track of time with a limited range of additional features. An accessory. A statement.

I do not own a watch. I haven't owned a watch for years. It was replaced long ago by my iPhone which pretty much does all of the same things and it has by in large been getting much much better at doing a multitude of other things over time. It's also replaced my camera, audio recorder and MP3 player.

Faster processors, bigger and better screens, more storage and apps, improved imaging with the camera and video. It's an ever frowing list. The pace of development in hardware and software dictates largely that the purchase of an iPhone has a feasible usage life of around 2-3 years or thereabouts.

General discussion about watches is generally limited with respect to the inner workings other than their accuracy and reliability. It's about design and style. Not essentially a problem for Apple as they and interlinked with design and style anyway. Cost for many isn't an issue. Many will spend thousands on a watch. And in turn, it's already apparent that this too won't be a hurdle for Apple.

The real hurdle is in, ironically time. Or life-time. The purchase of a watch is long term. Simply put, in most cases a watch is a long term purchase that doesn't accommodate the notion of obsolescence.

The very fact that the new Apple Watch makes reference to microprocessors and sensors, in the same breath as quality materials that are built to last is verging on oxymoronic. Yet, technical specification gives rise to just that. Specification. And specification gives rise to inevitable obsolescence.

From a software perspective; as it appears, Apple Watch will be all encompassing from a functionality point of view. To be fair, it has to be in this day and age. Users will expect to be able track and monitor all sorts of data from good ol' time to heart-rate, to Twitter, run times and text messages. Apple said that their intention was not to put an iPhone into a watch factor but having seen the functionality it appears from the outset that this is indeed what has happened.

I'm not questioning the extent of functionality here; but possibly the way it has been addressed and implemented from a User Experience / software point of view.

The exterior is all too familiar, and the software available on the Apple Watch is too. An almost conservative approach. Apple have always been cited for taking the complex and making it simple yet with their Watch they have taken the complex (complex in full features sense) from its other mobile devices and crammed them into the device.

We have the 'Digital Crown' which is to all intents and purposes an anti-touch user-input device. A way to solve the challenges of a device with such a small screen, yet it detaches the user from the interface and content itself. It's an old-school idiom - a physical selector/actuator. Gone are the subtle touch commands, pinches and swipes that are the mainstay of the sibling iPhones and iPads.

In some ways I think that these design responses are  in fact challenges that Apple may not have needed to solve in the first place.

Based on their sculptural teaser the was the hope that the Apple Watch might not really just look like, well, a watch. Or indeed simply be a watch, which we know by now that it isn't. Yet, the concept of it being wearable, perhaps complimentary to an existing watch, like a Fuelband or Jawbone, a really simple form using simple materials. might have given broader appeal. Something that the tech market might just get.

If we were looking at this in a Designer versus Designer 'Top Trumps' vein, a Dieter Rams design viewpoint no doubt would look like a watch. But it would be a much simpler watch on the inside. It would probably be just a watch. Nothing else. Pure and simple.

On the other hand, if a designer like Philippe Starck had approached the same design task; he would have without doubt taken a bolder, more sculptural and abstract approach.

Had Apple looked at a more implied visual design in form, then it would have forced them to reject the software paradigm of the smartphone into something much simpler and more gestural.

Advances in screen technology and LED technology would have allowed this. Notifications could have been coloured glows or symbols prompting you to check your email or your Twitter feed (on your other device). Alerts could be acknowledged or ignored using simple touch gestures.

The time could be presented simply and in much less space using a whole range of simple or abstract ways. Combinations of shapes or single function elegant displays of time. A modern twist on the LCD displays of digital watches yet very much for 2014 (or 2015 when it is available).

And as time progressed; you could keep the watch as the interface was non-specific. Devices could come and go and it would continue to quietly track your heart rate and tell you the time; but it would always be able to sync up with the latest iOS devices when they were released.

Maybe time will tell. Apple followed a very safe route with design inside and out. This is probably a considered approach in a first edition launch. Maybe Apple know better than most of us that this is what we need for now.

In any case it's a design approach that is all too familiar.