Is the Apple Watch Too Much Too Soon?

For the last year I have been writing about smartwatches and the logic behind them, which goes something like this:

As technology becomes an increasing part of our lives, companies are looking at ways to make it easier to access. So we get the new trend toward wearable technology. And it seems more intuitive to fit that technology in a watch, a device that we have traditionally consulted for information, more than, say, goggles (like Google is experimenting with) or a pair of iPants. 

And yet, a strange thing happened when I watched the Apple keynote on Sept. 9; suddenly the smartwatch became less of a concept and more of a reality—something I might buy, wear, and have to deal with (i.e., charge nightly). And now I am far less upbeat about the category’s prospects. 

To explain why, let me direct you to this quote from Philippe Léopold-Metzger, chief executive of Piaget, in The New York Times

“We’re arriving at a stage where people are getting tired of technological machines, because I think they are invasive. If I go out at night or am invited to a dinner, I don’t take my phone with me.”

I scoffed when I read that. Such naïveté and defensiveness, I thought. Who doesn’t bring their phone to dinner? I do! But now I’ve found myself­—in a way that surprises me—firmly on Team Fogey. There is something vaguely unsettling about having a constant-distraction device on your wrist.

This isn’t logical; I already have a constant-distraction device (otherwise known as a smartphone) in my pocket. This just moves the little attention-seeker further up the body. Given that phone junkies—and I belong to that ignominious group—check their phones more than 100 times a day on average, this just saves a step. Progress! 

But Felix Salmon, writing in Slate, argues that, yes, the wrist vs. pocket thing matters: 

This summer, I’ve talked to a number of men wearing some kind of Pebble or Android smart watch, and in every conversation, the watch was intrusive and distracting?—?especially when it was on. (So far, interestingly, I haven’t found myself talking to any women wearing one.) 

Apple, being a clever company, has considered this, and, according to Patrick Moorhead in Forbes, has developed a way to minimize those distractions.

Most smartwatches today actually disrupt the flow of one-on-one conversations. When a notification comes in on my Samsung smartwatch, my watch lights up, the person with whom I am talking notices it, can many times see the notification, and the conversation flow stops. Apple solved this problem. 

With the Apple Watch, when you get a notification, you get a haptic pulse to the wrist delivered by what Apple calls their “Taptic Engine.”  You know you are getting a notification, but the person with whom you are talking doesn’t. If you want to see the notification, you lift the Apple Watch to your face like you would check the time, and the Apple Watch lights up and shows you the notification.

Still, those taps will inevitably grab the attention of the wearer. If you get annoyed when someone checks his phone during a conversation or a meal—which now happens so regularly it’s not worth complaining about (I do it, too)—imagine a world with everyone shooting not-so-furtive glances at their wrist. Technology has invaded our lives so much, at some point we may have to draw the line. This may be it. 

For all the hype about wearables—and they do seem to be the next progression in technology—they have yet to truly affect our lives. Personal trackers are doing well, but they are still a niche fitness item.

I had no problem being convinced to get an iPod. I already had a Walkman; that was a better one. The iPhone was an even easier sell: evey day I carried a mobile phone, a Blackberry, and MP3 player. Why wouldn’t I want a device that merges all three?    

But what is an Apple Watch? It combines a smartwatch (a smartphone notification device) and a Fitbit. I don’t use either one. Most people don’t.

As one blogger said, Apple has yet to spell out the reason for this device:

It’s unclear what role it’s supposed to play in the wearer’s life. People will buy this product because it looks cool and has some nifty features. But will they keep buying it until Apple really decides what it’s for? More pointedly, there is a portion of the market that will buy any new technology product and feel its way through the process of integrating it into daily life. The mass market, though, needs to be told explicitly how this makes life better. 

And, barring that, how it won’t make life worse. Time magazine has compared the Apple Watch to electronic handcuffs. Slate is musing about the “a–hole factor.” Co.Design warns that constantly monitoring your health could be “depressing or even devastating.” There have been countless articles about distracted driving. This is a device that should be fun.

Maybe if we were already sporting 10 wearables, the time would be right for Apple to combine them into one sleek meta-gadget. And maybe the world will decide: We all have the attention span of house cats anyway, what is one more thing?  But for now, I’m not sure everyone is ready for this. I know I’m not.

None of this means that the watch industry shouldn’t take this seriously, or that Apple won’t sell tons of these. It is never a great company to bet against. But as they say on Wall Street, past performance does not guarantee future results. It’s possible the Apple Watch will be the company’s next world-changing can’t-live-without-it device. For the moment, I’m thinking different.

JCK News Director