A Wholly Inadequate Retrospective on The Apple Watch

From Hodinkee
From Hodinkee

As I’ve mentioned previously, the last three weeks have been wrought with a whole mess of YouTube learning, culminating in my continued lack of posting here.

During that time, a couple of articles found their way into my Instapaper feed, both of which having to do with Apple Watch.

Each article presented opposing views on this fundamental question:

Is the Apple Watch a viable timepiece among the many marques from Geneva?

Or, put plainly, “Could the Apple Watch ever replace a Rolex, or Patek, or IWC, or _____ [insert Swiss watchmaker here]?”

Dissension in the Ranks

First, the pessimistic take, from none other than Marco Arment.

And while I hate to bury the lede, a little backstory makes Arment’s current view all the more interesting.

When Apple Watch was announced 18 months ago, many of the people compromising what I call the `Apple-developer-designer-nerd-tech` circles were nothing but ecstatic to don a watch from everyone’s favorite phone manufacturer.

The sentiment was clear: if the Apple Watch could live up to the almost impossible hardware standards that have defined every other Apple product since Apple 2.0, it would be the best dang smartwatch money could buy.

Marco Arment bought a stainless Apple Watch, and based on his blog posts alone (podcasts as well), it sure seems like he loved it.

Here he is in March of last year:

People will keep buying dumbwatches, and people who don’t buy dumbwatches will buy the Apple Watch. The big question is whether the people who buy dumbwatches and the Apple Watch will continue wearing and buying dumbwatches for very long.

Once you’re accustomed to wearing one, going out for a night without your Apple Watch is going to feel like going out without your phone.

I suspect smartwatches will be a one-way move for most of their owners, and most people won’t wear two watches at once. The iPod didn’t make people appreciate portable music enough to buy a Discman for the weekends, and the iPhone didn’t ignite interest in flip-phones or PDAs.

Some people will always want to own and wear traditional watches, but they’ll only become more of a niche, not a growing market. People will buy whichever kind of smartwatch works with their phone platform — iPhone owners will get Apple Watches, and Android owners will get Pebbles or Android Wear watches — and then, most of them will be effectively removed from the traditional watch world from that point forward.

The dumbwatch industry’s best hopes are either their own successful lines of Android Wear watches, or praying that the overlap between their customers and smartwatch buyers doesn’t get very big.

Sounds like a pretty enthusiastic take on the smartApple Watch to me.

He was one of the first developers to offer a WatchKit app for Apple Watch (and, before he lost interest, he made Overcast function more-or-less in watchOS 2 as well):

I got the Apple Watch on day one, because I’m a responsible iPhone app developer and I knew I’d need to port my app to it. I wore it almost every day for the next eight months.

Arment praised the hardware tremendously, and enjoyed his new fitness acumen, inspired no doubt by Watch’s [naggy?] daily goals. Most importantly, Arment grew found of having the time on his wrist—an experience he and many other `millennials` had not yet been accustomed to.

According to Arment, this was the downfall.

After he realized that a watch—not just an Apple Watch, specifically—could provide actual utility and fashion, all of watchOS’s UI flaws came to a head.

From Arment’s most recent post on Apple Watch:

The Apple Watch is a confused product, designed like a tiny iPhone, which is as misguided as it would’ve been to design the iPhone with the Mac’s UI and app structure. The result is promising, but clunky and slow. It could be so great at its three most useful functions — notifications, activity tracking, and timekeeping with robust complications — if only they were more reliable and better executed. Someday, I hope they are.

To be great, the Apple Watch needs to be rethought to do less, better. I see no signs that Apple is heading in this direction, but never say never.

What inspired his 180?


From marco.org: a Nomos mechanical watch
From marco.org: a Nomos mechanical watch

Indeed, it was one of those so called “dumbwatches” that changed his mind:

[It’s] pretty nice to have the time on your wrist. Who knew? Timekeeping on the Apple Watch is especially frustrating: it gets you hooked on having the time always shown on your wrist, but like most of the Watch’s features, it’s unreliable. The screen stays off unless you tap it or twist your wrist, and if it doesn’t recognize the motion properly, you’re just staring at a blank screen until you get impatient and perform a second, exaggerated wrist motion, hoping nobody’s watching.

Even when it works perfectly, there’s a delay of about a second between when you raise your wrist and when the screen turns on. This is fast and convenient compared to checking the time on your phone, but feels like an eternity if you’re accustomed to glancing at a regular watch and having the time already being displayed, every time. Fortunately, I wasn’t.

I can’t help but wonder whether watchOS’s problems have anything to do with it? In other words, had watchOS been everything we would expect from Apple software (though not lately, apparently!), would Arment feel different about Apple Watch vs. a dumbwatch?

Who knows? But his thesis couldn’t be any more clear:

Apple Watch can’t hold a candle to a mechanical watch.

Falling for the Fruit

If the dissenting opinion of an entrenched Apple developer confuses you, prepare yourself: I’m about to quote a Hodinkee blogger who believes that Apple Watch has more staying power than the average mechanical-wearer might assume.

That blogger’s name is Jack Forster, and he recently penned a piece entitled “One Year In: Why A Die-Hard Mechanical Watch Lover Can’t Get The Apple Watch Off His Wrist (And Why That Matters).”

In it, Forster praises the Apple Watch for its intuitiveness, ultimately succumbing to its allure.

So much so, in fact, that Forster can’t seem to find a way to get a mechanical watch back onto his wrist.

The article’s tagline says just as much:

Jack Forster has been a mechanical watch enthusiast for over three decades


One month ago, he put an Apple Watch on his wrist, and hasn’t taken it off since. Nobody is more surprised than he is.

From the beginning, Forster makes it clear that the Apple Watch cannot (at least right now) supplant the mechanical watch for everyone:

Having worn an Apple Watch almost exclusively for the last month, I feel absolutely confident that mechanical watches aren’t going anywhere for now. But the Apple Watch isn’t either [emphasis added]. It’s almost improbably well done, and it shows a willingness to think creatively that ought to be heeded by the luxury watch industry – and it also suggests to me that underestimating its impact, and Apple, is dangerous.The emphasized text above is the key: the watch space isn’t truly zero sum (even if everyone only has one one watch wrist).

Put another way, Apple Watch doesn’t have to be better than mechanical watches to be a thing—it just has to be good at what it does.And, according to Forster, Apple Watch is good at what it does.

It starts with the packaging:

Whoever designed [the packaging] understood exactly what packaging is supposed to do: be physically seductive, but not to such a degree that it starts to set up what’s inside for disappointment

Forster even takes time to praise the first UI experience a new Apple Watch owner experiences:

The Apple Watch setup, once you have it out, is equally well orchestrated

Maybe I’m just jaded from the months of UI sluggishness, but I wasn’t as impressed with the setup process. The animation was cool, but pretty unnecessary. (Again, this could just be me injecting my current `shoulder-shurg`ish feelings in place of once-gushy ones.)

Beyond the packaging and the on-boarding process, Forster finds that the Watch itself is a physical achievement of design minimalism.

For what is Forster most appreciative? Easy: it’s the link bracelet:

Conventional wisdom has it that the Apple Watch is only really a threat to quartz and mechanical watches in a comparable price range. I’m not sure that’s true, and there are several reasons. One place the threat is most obvious might surprise you: the bracelet of the black DLC-coated Watch. This is probably the single best designed bracelet I’ve ever seen on any watch, period. There’s a perfectly integrated double deployant clasp, and the links are beautifully shaped and machined; they have an organic flow in look and feel like the armor of a trilobite. The deal is sealed, however, by the system for adding or removing links. Six of the links closest to the clasp – on either side of it – are fitted with recessed oval buttons.

Pressing one in with a fingernail releases a double latch holding that link to the next. It’s secure, unobtrusive, and makes re-sizing the bracelet something anyone can do in seconds, with no risk of damage whatsoever. The fact that the latch system is integrated with each link, rather than relying on a sliding mechanism in the clasp, means the whole bracelet can remain very flat, flexible, and comfortable. It’s astonishingly intelligently designed and should have the watch industry really worried, and yet somehow, I’ve read almost nothing about it, either in watch specialist media or elsewhere [emphasis added]

No disagreement there.Here’s your’s truly, way back in June of last year (when I Finally™ got my DLC Watch):

Sitting at my desk at work the other day, I glanced over to my left wrist and saw the light reflect off of the brushed black links. What a sight to behold.

This is the reason I can’t let go of the Space Black watch. I don’t care so much for the case color. The link bracelet is what makes the Space Black Watch a desirable package. Apple claims the link bracelet takes nine hours for a human to construct. I don’t doubt it. Have you ever seen a modern Porsche 911 up close? Say, a 997 model? Or perhaps a modern M-car from BMW (though less so)? The panel gaps on those automobiles are nothing to scoff at.

The ‘panel gaps’ on the link bracelet are likewise very small. The individual links come together with clean butt joints, not the typical interlocking-style link connections on most metal bracelets. And thus, the overall esthetic is one smooth and clean surface, broken only because the band must curve around the wrist. Some have questioned Apple’s choice to leave the outer and inner surfaces (though not the edges) of the band brushed, and not glossy like the watch case itself. This was likely to minimize the amount of visible scratches after prolonged usage. Although I can’t say I disagree with their choice, it might have made more sense to just polish the whole band, so it would match the case perfectly.

Almost nine months later, my opinion on the link bracelet is unchanged. It is just the most recent example of `Jony Ive, white-room` Apple hardware perfection.

Even Arment agrees (from his latest post linked above):

Most impressively, Apple’s watchbands are truly world-class: the quality, comfort, and versatility of every Apple band completely outclasses everything else I’ve seen and tried in the watch world.

More from Forster:

In dismissing the Apple Watch – or in rushing to market with poorly thought out, or obviously overpriced and cynically designed smartwatches – I think the Swiss watch industry is missing something, which is that Cupertino may understand luxury better than Europe right now [emphasis added]. If that bracelet had been designed in Switzerland it would probably have added four figures to the cost of the watch it came on, and I’m not sure that there is a watch brand in Switzerland with the imagination to design something like this right now. It’s just one part of the most expensive Apple Watch outside of the gold Edition, and the whole watch costs $1,099. I can think of frighteningly few watches at any price, mechanical or quartz, that are as well designed [emphasis added].

I’m not as well-versed as some of my friends when it comes to `the good stuff` from Geneva, but I haven’t found a link bracelet under (or over) $1K that is as well-designed as Apple’s.

For Forster, this is just a small piece of the larger pie. Apple’s attention to detail in the link bracelet is only a hint of the hardware finesse that the Apple Watch exudes.

The big picture, though, is that you get something that has enormous thought put into every detail – both hardware and software – to such an extent that it would be oppressive if it weren’t in general so good. What scares me about luxury watchmaking nowadays is that it often forgets that good design, and getting the details right, still matter. Yes, luxury is storytelling to some extent, but that often turns into products and companies that over-deliver on marketing and under-deliver on product quality, and when the gap between the story and the product becomes too noticeable people simply lose interest.

Has Geneva truly “forgotten about good design?” Likely not. While Forster’s assertion here seems mostly hyperbolic, he certainly has a point.

In this realm, Apple is the newcomer. No one knows whether they should care about an Apple watch because there’s never been one before. Everyone knows IWC makes an awesome pilot. Everyone knows Rolex practically invented the diver. Everyone knows that any Swiss-made mechanical watch is probably brilliant.

No one knows about Apple Watch, because it is a new product.[1]

Because this was a new venture for Apple, they did what they always do: they put iteration ahead of innovation.[2]

They didn’t reinvent the wheel, they thought long and hard about how to take what the Swiss have been doing for centuries, but do it smarter (not just better).

The link bracelet is the best example of this.

The Man in the Middle

So where does that leave me?

I find myself caught between Marco Arment’s pessimism and Jack Forster’s optimistic take on Apple Watch.

I agree with Arment that the whole watchOS UX is a huge fumble:

  • Why is there that stupid honeycomb “Home Screen?” (This isn’t an iPhone?)
  • Why is everything so sluggish?
  • Why do I have to tap the display multiple times?
  • Why do I have to flick my wrist like a fool in order to tell Apple Watch to show me the time?

That’s a lot of “why’s.”

However, I also agree with Forster that Apple Watch might just be the `new luxury,` as long as “luxury” is defined not in terms of tradition, but utility instead. (Is that possible?)

I’ve been faithfully wearing my Apple Watch every day since I got it back in May (I had the Sport for about two weeks before the DLC one finally shipped). About a month ago, I decided to wear my cheap automatic Seiko 5 for a couple of days. I quickly realized that I missed having the Apple Watch for a couple of reasons:

  1. The timer is the single most used feature on the Apple Watch. I use it multiple times throughout the day. I use it in the morning when making coffee, and I use it at work for almost every patient I see[3]
  2. My mechanical watch’s link bracelet is so bulky compared to the link bracelet on Apple Watch. I realized this after trying to type on my MacBook. When typing, it was weird to feel my wrist higher than it had been for months. It was higher because the deployant mechanism on the link bracelet on my Seiko was the traditional folding design, and all those steel folds take up space, leading to bulk

Does this mean that I’ll never go back to a mechanical watch? No; not necessarily. I yearn for a nice watch just as much as the next guy. As Marco Arment explained in his post, there’s something rather neat about wearing a little gadget crafted by another human(s)—one that is completely separated from our increasingly-digitized world.

But, until Geneva can make a link bracelet as intuitive as Apple Watch’s, I’m not sure I’ll be foregoing this awkward rounded rectangle any time soon.

  1. Sure, there’s the brand cache that accompanies any Apple product. But in this scenario, Apple was breaking new ground. Just because everyone knows that the next iPhone will be the best smartphone doesn’t mean that everyone knew that the Apple Watch would be great.

  2. Remember that for as innovative as the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPads seemed, they weren’t the first product of their kind. They were just better at doing what their competitors had been doing (or, in some cases, they accomplished what their competitors couldn’t).

    The iMac wasn’t revolutionary, it just made computing fun again.

    The iPod was “just” another portable music player. But this portable music player was clearly better than everything else at the time.

    The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone. But it was clearly the best. People finally had a true pocket computer.

    Finally, the iPad wasn’t the first tablet. But it was certainly the best.

    The original Macintosh is the exception here. It truly revolutionized personal computing. Sporting a graphical user interface in lieu of the command line, the original Mac was for the everyman.

    Original Mac notwithstanding, I contend that Apple has always been an iterative—not innovative—company. The Apple Watch is no different.

  3. Patients take anywhere between 4 to ten minutes to get fully numb. Depending on the patient load at the time of anesthesia, I usually set an appropriate time to let me know when I need to get back into the anesthetized patient’s room to work on them.

    For those two or three days a month ago, in which I went without a timer on my wrist, I really, really missed it.