In discussions yesterday, a few concepts gelled for me:
As we all remember, when the first iPhone came out in 2007, it did not have third-party apps. And, while apps came to be a selling point for the iPhone as time progressed, the truth is that smartphones don’t need apps to be useful. If your phone can browse the web, check email, and display a text conversation, then it’s sufficiently better than a feature phone that it will crowd out the feature phone. Of course, apps are a comparative advantage against other smartphones, and that’s the environment that we’re in today, but in 2007, the decision was not mostly iPhone versus other smartphone, it was iPhone versus feature phone.
The same is not, I think, true of the Apple Watch. A smartwatch without apps is, it seems to me, basically a notification device. It’s something that makes it a little easier to see push notifications from your smartphone. That’s what the Android Wear devices seem to be in practice, and we’ve got a year or so of experience with what it’s like to have Android Wear. What it’s like is, “Eh. Nice.” Nobody I know who has an Android smartwatch raves about it. Most of them do like their smartwatches. They continue to wear them. But they generally tell me, “It’s nice, but it’s not worth the price.”
There is certainly room in this world for a notification device. But I don’t think there’s much room at $350 — nor even at $200. And in any case, a notification device will not be revolutionary.
For Apple Watch to be different in that regard, it fundamentally needs to be more than a notification device. And that means apps. Not as an afterthought, as they were for the iPhone, but front-and-center, and preferably what it needs is a killer app. Something that is both useful for a giant swathe of the population, and also uniquely suited to the watch form factor.
So far in Apple’s marketing, I haven’t seen such an app.
Another iPhone vs. Apple Watch comparison:
The iPhone was of course not the first smartphone. But it was the first modern smartphone. It was the first smartphone that said, “Here’s what you need: a rectangle with a touchscreen. Done.” Smartphones before the iPhone were dominated by BlackBerry, and their iconic shape was a close-to-square screen above a physical keyboard. The iPhone’s form-factor has been proven by history — there have been many attempts in the last eight years to marry a physical keyboard with a modern smartphone, and they’ve only become less and less popular over time. This is the true triumph of iPhone design — not the little touches on what was certainly a handsome device, but the decision to eschew any form of input besides the touchscreen (well, plus the one physical button, which honestly in retrospect was a mistake).
The Apple Watch does not set itself apart from its competitors in such a way. The Apple Watch is relatively attractive as smart-watches go (I still like the round watches better, but hey), but it doesn’t make substantial changes to the form factor. I suppose that the “digital crown” might prove to be revolutionary, but it seems difficult to imagine that such a limited input device will truly be decisive in creating an experiential difference between the Apple Watch and its competitors.
So, given that Android Wear has not been revolutionary, and given that the Apple Watch does not provide a massively different physical device from Android Wear, we are once again down to apps. Can the Apple Watch provide software that sells the device?
Apps that truly break new ground in the smartphone space have been surprisingly thin on the ground. The one that I think is revolutionary is Uber. It is an app that is genuinely at home on the smartphone — something that does not make sense as a laptop or desktop application, and yet is useful to lots of people in lots of situations. And Uber has been rewarded with a massive amount of funding and attention — it is probably the single breakout hit company of the 2010’s so far. Finding any other smartphone app that’s even in the same league (barring Lyft or other Uber-like apps) is difficult. Foursquare has the same physicality, but it’s not what you would call actually useful. Shazam is a very early example of something that really makes sense on a smartphone, but its use case is fundamentally very narrow and peripheral to people’s lives.
Despite the feeling in tech-y circles that we are on the cusp of a computer revolution in which omnipresent physical devices mediate the real world for us in unprecedented ways, actual ideas for such mediation have been thin on the ground in the smartphone space. The concept of the Google Glass Explorer program was that if you got a few thousand or tens-of-thousand units of Glass into the field, people would find those opportunities for crazy, transformative apps, and that would bootstrap the ambitious hardware into relevance.
The Explorer Program failed, and Glass was put on ice.
It feels to me like Apple is making a similar mistake, as Android Wear did before it. They’re launching hardware that’s too expensive for its current functionality on the hopes that some software will come along to justify its presence — and ignoring how difficult it has historically been to get good software in this category.
This post has been edited from its original version for style and grammar.