No, I have not been provided an advance copy of the Apple Watch. I’m not a pseudo-publicist, i.e., a tech journalist, who Apple graced with an advance copy. I regret to admit that I can’t transmit fresh, first-hand information about its delights to the huddled masses of Applytes (my word for Apple acolytes) who have been patiently waiting, waiting, waiting, since the death of their patron saint Steve Jobs, for Apple to develop a new product. The thin gruel of having to rely on iPhone updates and iPad tweaks has left them thirsting for anything new from Apple. They’re now to the point of needing a splashy new product launch in a new category in order that they might affirm their status as pioneers in the consumption of hip new consumer electronics. The Apple Watch, as utterly unnecessary and productivity impeding as it surely will be (features, not bugs, in the minds of the Applytes), will doubtlessly quell their thirst, and the angst it generated, at least for awhile.
Apple is a so-so technology company but genius when it comes to understanding the wetware of human beings. Like a coy virgin teasing her bridegroom with glimpses of flesh before the wedding day, after the announcement heralding the watch’s arrival a few months ago, Apple revealed only enough of the watch’s details to pique the public’s interest and keep it continually smoldering just on the edge of public consciousness. Now that the launch is only weeks away (April 24th, according to Apple), it has bestowed upon a select few technology journalists the great honor of providing them an advance copy of the watch in order that they might issue glowing reports on the watch to the wistful, longing public. Ostensibly, of course, their reports should be paragons of journalistic objectivity, because that’s how journalism works, no? But take a moment to consider who picks the journalists and how important to a technology journalist’s career it is that they be among those picked by Apple to review a new Apple product. Apple, after all, is the most valuable company, tech or otherwise, the world has ever seen, which says a lot about the frivolities of the age, but not so much about the historical importance of Apple. It’s hard to be historically important in a mainly frivolous and irrelevant age, except perhaps as a good example of the tenor of the times in question.
But given the journalistic circumstances, what are the odds there will be any bad reviews? It’s as if Apple hired its own official parade observers to ensure all parade goers are on board in admiring the naked emperor’s lavish clothing.
As a public service aimed at reading between the journalistic lines (writers sometimes have subtle means of revealing their true inclinations) I will review three reviews, those from the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Bloomberg, my three main sources of daily news. I figure these three are good, general purpose news organizations that have reasonably competent tech writers. Let’s start with the Wall Street Journal.
The headline of the Wall Street Journal’s review, written by Joanna Stern, tells it all:
And then, to drive the point home, the subheading:
Apple isn’t just selling some wrist-worn computer, it’s selling good looks and coolness, too.
Well, what more do you need to know? Especially if good looks and coolness matter to you. Do you seriously expect me to believe that good looks and coolness don’t matter to you? Of course, though the headline implies the watch is good looking and cool, it doesn’t explicitly say so; it just says that’s what Apple is selling. Not to worry, Stern raves about how the artifact appears on her wrist, and the article is peppered throughout with pictures of the artifact on, presumably, her wrist.
Personally, I think the watch looks about as good as an early-days Casio, one of those boxy whiz-bang electronic gizmos that came out somewhere around the early eighties (if the mists of time haven’t too terribly occluded my memory). Casio watches were for geeky types who hung out at Radio Shack on the weekends. And a bit for greasy disco wannabes in Members Only jackets (remember those?). I haven’t a clue as to how Casio managed to appeal to both of those disparate groups. The Apple Watch is boxy and electronic-looking, nothing like a classy Rolex or even Seiko or Timex (the ones with a traditional face). But Stern raves:
Like many Apple products of the past decade, the watch is a status symbol, a sign of wealth and taste. But unlike a MacBook or an iPhone, this Apple product works to help you look—and feel—good.
I sought a simpler experience, turning it into a stylish watch to keep me on schedule and a workout companion to keep me moving.
I know what you’re thinking: Can’t I just buy a $150 fitness tracker for that? Sure, but it might end up in a drawer. The Apple Watch succeeds where the fitness trackers have failed. Not only does it provide more accurate data and a platform with big promise, but it’s an accessory I love to wear all day long.
And then we find, buried in the adulations, a few drawbacks, even when using the watch as a very expensive fitness tracker:
Ideally, the watch would automatically kill off notifications during workouts so your arm doesn’t vibrate so much; in reality, you need to put it on Do Not Disturb mode, which requires too much futzing. Even getting to the Exercise app is a challenge, it being one of many tiny circular icons on the watch’s app screen that makes me wish my fingers were the size of toothpicks.
There are other frustrations: Why is there an Exercise app on the watch, but the data lives in the iPhone’s Activity app? Why must I click “save” to keep a record of a workout? And why can’t the watch’s battery make it past 10 p.m. on days that I exercise?
Fingers the size of toothpicks? Batteries that won’t make it past 10:00 pm? Too much futzing required to shut the damn thing off so that you can do a workout in peace?
My, my. The emperor’s fleshy thighs seem to be peeking through, and perhaps his pasty hindquarters, too. Incidentally, in the case you weren’t aware, people have been doing workouts for centuries without the need to have up-to-the-second feedback on the beatings per minute of the heart or their respiratory rate or their caloric burn. If you think all that nonsense is required, then you are a) seriously narcissistic; b) obsessive-compulsive; c) both, or d) less interested in getting a workout than you are interested in flaunting a hip new electronic gadget. But then, in this age of selfies and social media, you are most likely all of the above.
By the end of Ms. Stern’s review, her true feelings, quite contrary to those which were headlined, managed somehow to slip the editor’s hatchet:
But the prompts to stand up every hour got downright annoying. I don’t stand enough, I know, but I don’t plan to change that in the middle of a meeting, or after I’ve burned 300 calories at SoulCycle. (I did leap out of my seat…when I found out how to turn the stupid prompts off.)
In the end, she advises that people shouldn’t buy the watch, because it’s not as good as it inevitably will eventually be, a sentiment playing to the hearts of those Applytes, if in a backhanded way, as Apple represents for Applytes the idea that human progress unfailingly marches ever upward and onward. She knows the Applytes are gonna buy the watch no matter what she advises, and is just hedging her bets with everyone else in case it turns out to be a marketplace dud.
Over on Bloomberg, Joshua Toposlky’s review starts out with a headline that’s about as ambiguous and confused as the Wall Street Journal’s was celebratory:
This begs the question: If the Company has succeeded in making the world’s best smartwatch, then how could it be that there is anyone alive who doesn’t need one? Unless perhaps the headline is an underhanded compliment, something like pronouncing that GM had built the world’s best moonbeam-powered car when nobody really wants a moonbeam-powered car and wouldn’t know what to do with a moonbeam-powered car (especially during the day and when the moon is new) if they had one.
And it isn’t clear exactly what the headline means by “you’ll want one, but don’t need one”. Is an Apple Watch like a Krispy Kreme doughnut? Is it somehow bad for you, in a delicious sort of way?
Topolsky’s review was a give and take, replete with praise for Apple and the Apple Watch at one moment, while decorously pointing out the watch’s defects in the next. For example, he observes that the watch keeps impeccable time, as it is true to something called Coordinated Universal Time within 50 milliseconds, a feature which can be really cool (that notion again). If you put Mickey Mouse faces (a software option) on all the watches your group of friends own, together you can watch all those legs on Mickey synchronously tap away the seconds of your lives that are passing you by while you marvel at the novelty. But, Topolsky points out, if you don’t tap the screen to get the time, which itself can be aggravating in its uncertain effectiveness, the only way you can find out the time is by an exaggeratedly violent movement of the arm that is likely to rudely, more so than is normally the case when checking time in the presence of others, to scream out that you really wish you could be shut of whomever is in your presence. Thus the Apple Watch has the potential for allowing someone to do more expressively, and by only using its watch features, that for which smart phones have always been useful—shunning the people around you.
Topolsky buried his headline, but not very deeply, putting it in the very first paragraph:
I’m in a meeting with 14 people, in mid-sentence, when I feel a tap-tap-tap on my wrist. I stop talking, tilt my head, and whip my arm aggressively into view to see the source of the agitation. A second later, the small screen on my new Apple Watch beams to life with a very important message for me: Twitter has suggestions for people I should follow. A version of this happens dozens of times throughout the day—for messages, e-mails, activity achievements, tweets, and so much more. Wait a second. Isn’t the promise of the Apple Watch to help me stay in the moment, focused on the people around me and undisturbed by the mesmerizing void of my iPhone? So why do I suddenly feel so distracted?
The cell phone industry, and particularly Apple, as the biggest and baddest of all cell phone providers, abolished the utility of watch wearing, perhaps intentionally, perhaps incidentally, by making cell phones (all of which tell time) necessary accouterments, condensing the function of watches to jewelry that might confer status if made by right company. For people who don’t care about the status-conferring potential of jewelry watches (like me) and who therefore abandoned watch wearing because of having to carry around a clunky clock all the time anyway (like me), Apple now must coax them into believing that wearing a watch AND carrying a cell phone is the way to be, because, as Topolsky observes, the watch isn’t really smart—it’s just quite intricately connected to the smart phone that is. That’s gonna be a hard sell. If I can’t wear a watch to replace the clunky, annoying cell phone in my pocket, then what’s the point? Oh, yeah, I forgot—it’s cool (Topolsky) and makes me look good (Stern).
Topolsky ends by heaping the device with praise, while explaining that he really doesn’t want one:
So Apple has succeeded in its first big task with its watch. It made something that lives up to the company’s reputation as an innovator and raised the bar for a whole new class of devices. Its second task—making me feel that I need this thing on my wrist every day—well, I’m not quite sure it’s there yet. It’s still another screen, another distraction, another way to disconnect, as much as it is the opposite. The Apple Watch is cool, it’s beautiful, it’s powerful, and it’s easy to use. But it’s not essential. Not yet.
The New York Times headline of its review by Farhad Manjoo was also something of a backhanded compliment:
Manjoo is far and away the most awestruck of the Apple Watch’s reviewers, but then there may be more than just a correlative relationship (i.e., there might be a causal connection) between his opinion on the watch’s potential and his self-admitted addiction to his iPhone. Anyone who could be described as “addicted” to an existing consumer electronics artifact is perhaps a poor choice for reviewing a new consumer electronic artifact, especially when the two artifacts are made by the same company and are intended to be used synchronously. To Manjoo, the watch is finally a seamless extension of his mind and body. It even opened his door, using a door key app, at his Starwood Hotels room. And it served as his boarding pass. And it bought him groceries (Stern used the watch to buy an iced latte, because, would anyone writing a review of an Apple Watch buy anything but an iced latte with it the first time, after, of course, their Soul-Cycle session?).
Manjoo may have loved the watch, and may have quickly become its dutiful slave, but judging from the comment boards accompanying the articles on both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times websites, not much of anyone else did. My favorite was from “Bob” a New Jersey Patent Attorney:
I would like to see a review from someone who does not regularly get comments about his “addiction to [his] smartphone,” and whose wife isn’t pleasantly surprised that he “seem[s] to be getting lost in [his] phone less than in the past.” It is hardly surprising that a guy who can’t control his impulse to see every update is smitten by a device that allows him to deepen that dependency another level. But how about his wife (and kids, assuming he has them)? How about someone who does not see an addiction to a smartphone as something to make light of? We keep falling all over ourselves to find reasons to “love” these technologies, and seemingly never step back and give them an honest assessment. I mean seriously — opening a hotel door? Paying for things? Presenting a boarding pass? Since when did we need a solution for these things? Who ever had a problem with key cards, credit cards, or a paper boarding pass? I guess you can tell my personal bent on this subject, but let me dispel any notions that it is due to my age or background. I’m 34 years old. I’m an engineering graduate and a patent attorney. My day-to-day life is all about technology, and yet I still don’t understand why people are so tickled by it. Even more so, I don’t understand how people can call these things revolutionary. One of my colleagues has had an Android watch for a while now. You know what does with it? He gets distracted during lunch while the rest of talk face to face.
It is a rare event for me that someone else captures my sentiments exactly, but Bob about says it all. Indeed. When will we ever step back and give these devices an honest assessment? Have social media and smart phones done anything but complicate our lives? How is society so much better now that we can stay constantly connected to some ephemeral idea of it through a four by six, rectangular, half-inch- thick artifact? How will being able to stay connected to it through a small, square, thin piece of metal strapped to our wrist make things any better? Have we finally reached the endpoint of technologies that have the potential for improving the human condition?
Judging by the comments, it may well be that the almost instinctive believe in the value of technological advancement is finally fading. Technological innovation has ever and always provided only bare improvements, and only sometimes, to the human condition; it could be that the Apple Watch launch will reveal that a majority of people have become innovation skeptics, rather than believers. Or it may be that the Apple Watch is just a lousy, useless innovation, and people will see it as much. Or, it may be that all seven or so billion souls on the planet (minus one—me) will be sporting a new wristwatch by the end of the decade.
As you might have by now figured out, I have no desire to purchase, or even test, an Apple Watch. I only have an iPhone because I got my daughter’s hand-me-down, and I don’t use it to connect to the internet. I don’t do Facebook or any other social media. I’m not a Luddite; I just don’t see the benefit to everyone knowing every little thing I do, or to me knowing every little thing everyone else does, and so don’t care to be that confusedly, confoundedly and constantly connected to the world. Although it’s hard to tell, as I refuse to Tweet a question in 140 characters for an instantaneous response, or garner a thousand Facebook friends to gauge opinion, I’ve got the feeling that fewer and fewer people are enamored of social media, and that growing numbers (like me) downright loath it, so that the market for a device worn on the wrist that practically demands continuous social media connection might be a tad weak. Time will tell, even if an Apple Watch can’t very usefully tell time.
Any thoughts you might have on the subject are welcome.