How is the Apple Watch doing?

'Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful'

- William Morris

New Apple product categories tend to compress the hype cycle, going from elation to despair and back again before anyone outside Cupertino has even laid hands on the thing. They also tend to create confusion - what is this thing, is it useful, and why would I want it? Confusion is the mark of a transformative product - the iPod or iPhone, for example. But it's also the mark of a failed product, such as Google Glass. 

Looking at objective measures like sales (is it just that you, personally, don't get it?) doesn't necessarily help, at least not yet. Apple had said that it wouldn't give sales figures for the Apple Watch, but in the event it gave some pretty strong hints: well over $1bn in revenue and something around 3m units in the first (partial) quarter of sales. That can't be called a flop, at least not yet. But you also can't call the success or failure of a new Apple product by looking at sales in the first quarter or even of the first version - there's too much variability. The iPod and iPhone looked like failures at first and the iPad (not a failure, but certainly disappointing at this stage) looked much better. 

That is, the Watch has done well enough so far, but that’s not really the question - now that they’ve sold to the people who self-select in, what next? Is it actually any good? Good at what? What is it for? 

The simple answer is that it gives you lots of small conveniences. Walking directions are a good example: no more pulling your phone out to check the route every block as you walk through a city, just glance at your wrist. No more pulling your wallet or phone out to pay, just tap your watch and wave it over the terminal. No more pulling your phone out to see where the meeting is as you walk down the hallway, just glance at your wrist (it's not a coincidence that Apple uses 'Glances' as a UI model). And triaging notifications is very different - instead of fishing your phone out to see what that buzz was, flick your eyes down and see if you need to deal with it now or later. These are some of mine, but this is software, and like the iPhone or iPad this is just glass - it can be anything. The difference is that this glass can be in your eye-line all the time. 

None of these are killer apps or 'use cases'. All of them could be done with your phone. They're just better with a watch. They're luxuries, and I think this gets to the heart of the thing. The Apple Watch tries to be beautiful and it tries to be useful. It tries to bridge two worlds - to be a beautiful tech product and a useful luxury product. But really, it's the iPhone or Macbook that are beautiful tech products - the watch is a useful luxury (though one that starts at a lower price than any previous Apple product). Being able to see the next turn on your route as you walk along a crowed street on your wrist instead of pulling out (and dropping) your phone is not necessary and you don't need it - it's a luxury.

But luxuries are good. If we only bought things that we need, and that have clear use cases, then we'd all wear nothing but overalls and have a single bare lightbulb in each room of our homes.  

This is also the source of the confusion, I think. Reading the Watch's launch reviews, I sometimes got the sense that the tech press was writing about it as though the luxury goods industry didn't exist and that the luxury press was writing as though technology didn't exist: no-one spends money on things because they're just nice and no-one buys things that don't last forever. The gold version brought this out best - a tech product that's $10,000 but has the same spec as the $350 one - heresy! And a gold watch that probably doesn't last a lifetime - again, heresy! But all rules can be broken with the right product - that's how progress happens. Meanwhile, the irony is that it's not actually the gold that's the luxury but the software - that tap on the wrist telling you to turn left. In a sense, the gold case is an accessory to the software in the same way that the strap is an accessory to the watch. 

Meanwhile, well... it’s early. 3rd party apps are very slow until v2 of the OS comes out later this year (or that's the promise), since they will then run on the watch itself instead of on your phone. And a smartphone experience is not, quite, based around notifications and nothing else (though we might end up there in a few years), so the idea of floating all the notifications onto your wrist and using your watch as a router (see the headers and take action, or not, but don’t read what’s inside) is incomplete. 

Using some 3rd party apps reminds me painfully of J2ME apps on feature phones in 2007 - four menu items and a scroll bar, and little half-useful snippets of information, and it would always be better just to take your phone out. Just as the way to make a great app was not to squeeze the desktop site down to a smartphone screen size, so the way to make a great watch experience is not to squeeze down your smartphone app. Rather, it has to be something better or simpler than taking your phone out of your pocket. The things that seem to work are ‘fat notifications’ rather than slimmed-down smartphone apps - tweets rather than blog posts, if you like. Give me the one point, not the complete argument. You can see Apple itself doing this editing - for example, the watch doesn't show meetings more than a few weeks into the future, because, well, you can feel the ghost of Steve Jobs looking over your shoulder and saying "you have a phone in your pocket for that, idiot!"

On the other hand, there are some things that really aren't issues at all, and indeed that itself is interesting. It’s the first device I’ve had since 2007 where I never thought about the battery - it always lasts all day. In normal use there’s no battery indicator, sleep/wake button or security code, it's waterproof and there's no charge port. You look at it to wake it up, and swipe on it once or twice, and otherwise you don't have to think about it at all. A lot of the friction and mental load of using a piece of electronics is gone. 

This removal of friction is fundamental to the Watch - many, small, personal, micro-use cases around friction, seamlessness and ease. It’s hard to demo this to people and hard to explain. In 2007 you could put an iPhone on a table and do two things and half the people in the room would want one. There’s not really anything similar on the watch (symbolically, the screen turns off if you rotate your wrist to show someone). You can see this just by looking at the launch ads: the iPhone launch ads were a very simple product demo - "this is what it does". The Watch ads are about ordinary life, with brief, unobtrusive glances at a watch that shows something useful, or helpful, or pleasing. Pleasing, like luxury, matters a lot. And again, pleasing isn't a bullet point on a spec sheet, or a use case, but when you're wearing something, it's the starting requirement. 

In all this, the watch reminds me a little of Google Now. It’s not essential - you don’t NEED it. There’s nothing you couldn’t do with a smartphone, not even telling the time. But, like Now, if you let go, flow into it and just let it work, it removes a lot of small tiny daily moments of friction (this was also a common theme at IO and WWDC this year). You wouldn't make a phone call on it, but if you're walking up the stairs with a bag in one hand, a child in the other and a dog on your wrist, and the phone rings, seeing who it is, tapping 'Answer' with your nose (an under-hyped interface innovation) and saying a few words without stopping or putting anything down is, well, a superpower. It's as though you're Elastigirl, doing the laundry.