The wristwatch was released to the world roughly two centuries ago (I’m not sure the photo above quite qualifies as a “wristwatch,” even if it is credited as the earliest known watch, dating to 1530, and belonging to the great German reformer and humanist Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560)). Today, being able to tell the time of day is trivial — even if most of us seem not to heed it — and it’s a rare thing indeed, if ever, that one stops to think just how incredible a thing a watch really is. The ability simply to glance casually at your wrist and know what time of day it is, is absolutely astounding. Seriously, just think about it for a moment.
And that’s what makes the Apple Watch so immensely powerful. No, not that you can glance at your wrist to tell the time — well yes, you can do that too — but because you can glance at your wrist to tell everything.
Non-obvious first world problems you didn’t even know you had
What makes the Apple Watch such a peculiar, non-obvious solution to a non-obvious first world problem nobody even knows they have, is precisely the fact that it’s such a subtle but immensely powerful result.
Apple Watch is a peculiar, non-obvious solution to a non-obvious first world problem nobody even knows they have.
Until now, all great revolutionary inventions required a good deal of direct manipulation and interaction to reap their rewards: telephones required operators to make calls; televisions had to be plugged in, channels selected, and antennas fiddled with; the first home PCs required mastery of something called DOS, and autoexec.bat and config.sys files. And so on. You couldn’t just passively use them, i.e., in order to make use of them, you had to fumble with them. A lot. To wit, you had to provide a lot of input in order to get any measurably useful quantity of output. And that’s what we call “inefficient.”
You had to provide a lot of input in order to get any measurably useful quantity of output with older technology.
Then the iPhone came out in 2007. And here we are today in 2015 with the iPhone 6. And while immensely larger and more competent than the original, it still requires a lot of fiddling. I think perhaps ladies are most familiar with this — I know my fiancée is — when needing to engage a mining excavation in their handbags just to see who texted them; never mind the frantic grasping about to silence a phone seemingly ringing in perpetuity. While you’re in a meeting. Or a church.
We gentlemen know a similar — albeit somewhat less entertaining or futile — frustration while trying to grab our phones out of our pockets: especially if protected by a rubberized case, and if sitting, the friction between case and pockets can make it nearly impossible to extract. This is a potentially devastating thing to deal with if (irresponsibly) done while driving, never mind reaching for your handbag in the back seat.
The psychology of notifications
It’s easy to laugh aside this bewildering, nearly manic need to grasp for our phones when we hear the telltale sound of an incoming text message; or perhaps more pressing still, a Facebook notification. But is it that bizarre? Really, notifications are just our generation’s analogue to the telephone ringing “off it’s hook” of the 20th century: they simply cannot be ignored. Indeed, wasn’t there an entire movie (Phone Booth) predicated on this very notion, that even a passerby on a crowded New York street couldn’t ignore the ringing of a public payphone? If ever there was an example of curiosity besting our feline friends, surely this takes the crown.
Notifications are our generation’s analogue to the telephone ringing “off its hook” of the 20th century: they simply cannot be ignored.
Interestingly, however, this need to answer a phone — or check to see who texted or Facebook’d you — is driven by a one-way mechanism: it’s not that we need to answer the blaring telephone or check the text message or Facebook comment because we wanted — or needed — to reply; but rather because we’re simply curious who it is that’s reaching out to us.
Want proof? Just think of all those times you get an “unknown” or “blocked” call on your phone. Ignoring it is fine — and perhaps wise — but what kills you is when the caller doesn’t leave a voicemail. That is simply maddening. Not because you want to talk to them, but merely because you are curious who called.
The point is: we don’t care about dropping everything we’re doing to extract our phones from our handbags or pockets because we want or need to reply right away; we do so merely because we are curious who is contacting us, and, admittedly, to a slightly lesser degree, we are curious whether it is something urgent that requires our immediate attention, an arguably more validly pressing question.
The Apple Watch solution
And this, then, is where the Apple Watch truly shines, and by shine, I mean it provides just that critical bit of illumination those few times you need it most. What the Apple Watch does so brilliantly is to take the same magical “glance at your wrist” action that, 200 years ago, surely blew people’s minds by enabling them to know the time of day, and it enables a similar functionality to know just about everything in your digital life.
The Apple Watch enables the same magical “glance at your wrist” action to know just about everything in your digital life.
The reason this is so subtly yet powerfully convenient — if not genuinely important — is because it completely eliminates the aforementioned frenzy most humans experience when hearing the audio notification of an incoming alert. Rather than frantically dive into one’s purse or jam a hand into a pocket — both legitimately dangerous acts in certain situations, for example, while driving — the Apple Watch enables you to rest your restless mind with nothing more than a casual glance to your wrist.
Curious who texted you? Whether it’s important? Glance. Done. No need to fret over whether it’s something important necessitating an immediate reply. Wondering what that reminder beep was for, or the CNN news alert? Just glance and know, instantly. And of course, curious whose call you just missed? Just glance, and know immediately that it was probably just some telemarketer since the number was blocked. Or an ex-girlfriend.
The Apple Watch actually makes our lives safer.
The point is, we humans will always want — need — to satisfy our mind’s curiosity about things that involve us. Texts, emails, phone calls, news alerts, the lot. And because we tend to be rather irrational about such things — reaching behind our seat while driving to grab a handbag and dig around for our phones — the admittedly quite comical reality of the matter is, the Apple Watch effectively makes our lives simpler precisely because it quite literally frees us from our phones; indeed, the Apple Watch actually makes our lives safer, as ridiculously, absurdly profound as that may sound. But it’s true.
And there’s more. Forget the very real safety benefits to the Apple Watch — hard to believe though they may be — and consider instead some very real practical benefits. How many times have you been carrying groceries; cooking; washing dishes; driving; doing anything at all that completely preoccupied your hands, only to receive a phone call, text, Facebook notification, news alert, right at that particular moment. Don’t deceive yourself: you know the frustration you feel not because you cannot answer or reply, but simply because you need to know who it is. (That you can in fact also reply quite easily via the Watch is just icing on the cake.)
Life changing simplicity or ridiculously unnecessary fad?
To answer this question I often turn to an admittedly absurdly mundane example in recent history: the scroll wheel and back/forward buttons on the mouse, first appearing popularly around 1997 with Microsoft’s IntelliMouse. I can still remember the first day I used one, and it absolutely blew my mind: the fact that I no longer needed to move my mouse to those little arrows to scroll up and down through a document or webpage; or the fact that I didn’t have to move all the way up to the top-left corner of Netscape Navigator(!) to click back or forward through my browsing history… this was huge! And by huge, I meant, impossibly, hilariously small, yet with a profoundly huge UI/UX impact from which, once experienced, one could never go back. Trying to use a mouse without a scroll wheel quickly became like trying use a computer without internet access. It just wasn’t possible anymore.
The best technologies become transparent, even entirely invisible.
Steve Jobs and other luminaries have often said that the best technologies become transparent, even entirely invisible. Certainly that’s been Elon Musk’s mission with the Tesla Model S — to make an electric car so powerful, so amazing, so absolutely incredible, that you stop consciously thinking “oh, I’m driving an awesome electric car,” and instead simply “I’m driving an awesome car, period.” And if you’ve ever driven a Tesla, however short your test drive, you’ll never forget the comically anachronistic, nostalgic feeling you experienced when you got back into your lumbering, fossil fuel-burning dinosaur of a car, with its thousands of little explosions propelling you forward, no different, really, to steam locomotives of the 19th century (this, from a certifiable petrolhead who would buy a car just for the cataclysmic noise it makes; think Mercedes AMG with its earthquake-inducing baritone bark, or Ferrari with its impossibly shrill banshee wail).
Where the iPhone took technology and put a beautiful dress on it, the Apple Watch gives technology an invisibility cloak.
It is with this complete transparency — indeed, almost a thorough invisibility — of technology that the Apple Watch so gracefully achieves its purpose. Where the iPhone — arguably the greatest personal electronic device in the history of the world — took technology and put a beautiful dress on it, the Apple Watch gives technology an invisibility cloak. You don’t even realize it’s there.
And that’s what makes the Apple Watch such a profoundly powerful thing. And while it may not exist in its present form for years to come, surely evolving and improving along the way, not only will it persist in some form or another, but just as we now think about the scroll wheel mouse, and will soon come to think about Tesla automobiles (and conversely, internal combustion engine cars), we will soon regard the Apple Watch, precisely because it frees us from our phones, actually makes our lives simpler and, incredibly, safer, and renders the magical technology of our digital lives virtually invisible.