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By Thomas Baekdal - September 2014

Apple Watch is Nice, But Hardly a Trend

Back in March I wrote a Plus report about "The Trends That Form Wearables", and after watching Apple's Keynote this week, I still don't see any change from what I wrote back then.

The Apple Watch is nice, but it doesn't really change anything. What we are seeing from Apple isn't part a new trend, it's simply the power of Apple as a brand.

For comparison, here is what the Samsung Gear S looks like:

It's a square computer shrunk down to the size of a watch. It looks rather nice and is beautifully designed, but it still looks like a computer. It's not even curved to fit your arm. Surely Samsung could do better, right?

It does come with a number of nice features. It ties into your phone. It comes with a whole range of customizable watch faces and changeable strap designs. It has a beautiful interface. You can use it to respond to messages. It has your contacts. You can see what the weather is like. You can control your music or even your TV with it. It even has a UV detector, and it has maps for navigating.

It also comes with your Personal Fitness Monitor, of course. There is a slew of onboard sensors, like a heartbeat monitor and other things that allow you to track many health and exercise related things keeping track of things while you are running, measuring the amount of steps you take, your sleep patterns, or setting daily personal fitness goals.

It's a nice device.

At this point, of course, I have to apologize to you, because I just tricked you. The picture above is NOT what the Samsung Gear S looks like. Instead, that is a picture of the Apple Watch. The reason for my deception was to test if just changing the logo made you think differently about it. So did it?

Here is what the Samsung Gear S really looks like.

What exactly is it that makes the Apple Watch so special? Apple Watch looks beautifully put together. It's a stunning example of engineering. But the design is just a square with rounded corners, and a strap.

In many ways, it reminds me of a heavily updated version of the iPod Nano.

I don't get it. What is it about the Apple Watch that is so amazing? And is this especially puzzling if you look at it from a trend perspective, and you look at the kind of response we have seen from all the smartwatches that has emerged onto the market so far.

For more than a year now we have seen a complete indifference from the public as a whole. Most people are saying they don't like the idea of a square computer on their wrist. They think it looks ugly. And several media people directly commented that smartwatch makers would never succeed until they stopped making them square.

This was why Google and Motorola made the Moto 360. This watch was designed specifically to answer the call for a smartwatch that didn't look like a square computer.


Quite a lot of reviewers commented on this very fact.

I will ignore the tech press, but the New York Times wrote: "The round watch face makes all the difference: It looks and acts more like a normal watch, with an unadorned bezel, other than a raised power button on the side like you'd expect with any watch design."

So Apple is launching a square Apple Watch, with a power button on the side, and suddenly everyone loves the idea of something that looks like a computer on your wrist.

You see what is going on here?

The Apple Watch is not creating any new trends. It take advantage of a huge amount of brand value that goes with Apple. People are not responding to it because of they have a need for it, or because it changes something. It's all about the buzz that is caused by the vanity that exists around Apple.

This itself doesn't mean the Apple Watch is a bad product. It's a wonderful product that is beautifully designed, but it doesn't change anything. We are still very much stuck with the old problems of wearables.

Another thing people are saying about smartwatches is that they don't see a need for it.

All the smartwatches so far, even the Moto 360 and the Samsung Gear S have received very lukewarm responses. The tech press kind of likes the idea, but even they are not giving these smartwatches any favorable review scores. All of them are citing problems with battery life (Tim Cook hinted that the Apple Watch has to be recharged every night as well). They are complaining about clunky UI because of the tiny screens (did you see Apple's demo of how you constantly have to use both the wheel and touch to get around?). And they are generally just questioning the need for a smartwatch.

The trend is that smartwatches aren't really going anywhere. And I'm not seeing anything from Apple Watch that changes that.

There is a lot of vanity and a lot of 'fashion statement' in the Apple Watch, but I don't see any trends.

If we move on to the general public and the watch trend as a whole, what we are seeing is a continuing downward trend. And, so far, none of the things that have happened with smartwatches have been able to make any changes to that. The reason people (especially young people) don't want to wear a watch remains unchanged.

Don't get me wrong, Apple (being Apple)will probably sell quite a lot of Apple Watches. And that alone will probably have a big impact on the watch market. But considering this market is already in decline, it is not really spectacular in any way.

This is nothing like what we saw with the iPhone. When Apple launched the iPhone, that market and the trends for smartphones and were booming. And what Apple did was brilliant. They took this growing trend to the next level, redefined the category, and they did this at exactly the right moment where people wanted it most.

That is a very different dynamics than what we see in the watch industry today. Watches, to most people are boring. And to young people, it's a device their parents use because they don't know how to use a smartphone.

Apple did not change any of that. The Apple Watch is just like all other smartphone watches. And people, in general, have not seen a need for them.

This leads us to another trend about our smartphones. You might have noticed that they are all getting bigger.

Why is that? Well, it's because we are now all connected.

If your phone is only something you use for consumption (reading/viewing), then having a small phone is great. You don't need that big of a screen just to glance at an SMS.

But, in a connected world, this isn't good enough. Because in a connected world, using your device in an active and integrated way is as important as viewing.

This is the whole point of the multiple device trend. This trend dictates that isn't about the device itself. It's about giving people the freedom to connect in a meaningful way, using whatever device that happens to be nearby.

And it's because of this that our phones are getting bigger. A 4" screen is too small for many types of connections. Remember, a connection is a two way interaction. Doing and viewing have equal importance, and people don't want to decide which format to choose first.

This is a very powerful trend that the smartwatch is completely ignoring.

You might say that having a bigger phone is a good excuse for getting a smartwatch. If the phones are so big, don't people need something small as well?

Not really.

The connected trend dictates that people are moving away from thinking about specific devices. This was I wrote "Stop Thinking About Devices".

During the keynote, Apple illustrated it when you got a message saying: "Which do you like the most? Love Shack or Wild Thing?", the phone would understand that and give you an easy fast-click buttons you can use to reply.

This may seem cool for the first two seconds, until you realize how incredibly limiting it is. And, it's exactly because of workarounds like this that our phones are getting bigger. If people wanted this, our phones would be getting smaller, but they are not.

There is no trend where we are saying: "I wish I had a tiny computer the size of a watch." But there are plenty of trends pointing us away from a future of watches. Apple even illustrate this shortcoming on its product page:

Why would I want to start on a watch? Why wouldn't I just start on my phone? This is not a useful interaction. This is an interrupted workflow for something that didn't work.

It's because of this disconnect that I and many others have been saying that the future of smartwatches isn't to make a watch. Instead, it's to invent an entirely new form of interaction that isn't about shrinking the notifications and messages from a phone.

As John Gruber wrote one day before Apple announced the Apple Watch (emphasis mine):

Perhaps even if they use the word "watch", it may no more be a watch in the traditional sense of the word than the iPhone is a phone in the traditional sense.

Everyone else has gone skeuomorphic. The Moto 360 is earning kudos for being the Android Wear device that most resembles a traditional watch. Motorola explicitly states that this is why they based it on a circular design. The Moto 360 watch faces are mostly skeuomorphic; they mimic the look of analog watch faces. That sort of mimicry of real-world analog objects is exactly what Apple has just spent the last two years eliminating in iOS and OS X. I expect Apple to go some other way. I'll be very disappointed if this is just a device that shows a fake analog watch face, displays notifications from a tethered iPhone, and tracks your footsteps and heart rate.

In short, I don't expect to see Apple's take on the sort of thing Android Wear is trying to do. I expect Apple to do something different, and quite possibly something less but deeper.

And whatever it is, I think it will be controversial. Perhaps it will be expensive. Perhaps it will have far, far fewer features than do Android Wear devices. Perhaps it will appear under-powered at first.

But there will be something, or several somethings, that will cause it to be misunderstood by those who are only able to frame new creations in the context of what came before them. Apple's watch won't fit in an existing mold. It won't be a phone on your wrist. It won't be a watch as we know it. We already have excellent phones. We already have excellent watches. For the Apple watch to be worth creating, it must be excellent at something else.

Or, as I wrote back in March:

The future of smartwatches probably isn't a watch, but it is something far better than that. It isn't an accessory to your phone, it's something that is equal to all your other devices in a world that is increasingly becoming more and more aware of the world around us.

You see the problem? Apple didn't change anything. They just made exactly the same as all the others, but in a distinctive Apple design.

In terms of a fashion statement combined with the power of Apple as a brand, Apple Watch is brilliant, and they will sell millions of them. But in terms of the trends, nothing has changed.

People won't buy it because it's a smartwatch. If they did, they would also look favorably at Moto 360 and Samsung Gear S, which people are generally not caring about.

This is pure fashion and branding.

Two exceptions

As I also mentioned in my article about wearables, there are two very important trends that do hint to a future for wearable devices. I use the word 'wearable' because these trends don't mean it has to be a watch.

The first trend is all the things that are happening in the world of health, fitness, well-being, and exercise. And this is a very powerful trend. People have never been so health conscious as we are today, and this phenomenon is growing.

We see it everywhere. We see it in what people eat. We see it in how people value sleep. We see it in how much the exercise industry is growing. We see it in terms of safety and security (like what people value when buying a car). We also see it in terms of crime and drugs. Young people, in particular, are using less and less drugs. We see it in sexual activity, in which people are getting more concerned about the use of condoms.

This trend is incredibly powerful. People want to take care of themselves.

In the 60s, the trend was smoking cigarettes, drinking booze, and generally just living on the edge. Today, it's yoga, getting a smoothie and being a vegan. That's quite a change!

So, there is a gigantic market for smart health-based devices that can help us do all of these things in a really smart way. And all the smartphone makers know this. The Samsung Gear S has a Personal Fitness Monitor, which is nice (albeit a bit basic). And Apple Watch, of course, has a whole slew of fitness related sensors and apps.

So, I can definitely see people buying a smartwatch just for the sake of getting a good fitness tracker. Of course, 'good' is the keyword here. Most smartphones so far hasn't been that good. The step trackers often counted steps when people were merely moving their arms, and the pulse meters have often been off too.

But Apple's engineering is very good, so I have high hopes for the accuracy of the Apple Watch, and from the sensors on the back, it very much looks like they are taking this very seriously.

The other exception is the very interesting trend that we see around presence. Presence, of course, is the notion that your device becomes your companion, and is always taking care of the little things for you.

Google is currently leading this with Android Wear and Google Now.


But the key to understanding presence is that it's mostly about doing and the active state around that. It is much less so about viewing.

For instance, the presence trend has very little to do with notifications. For instance, it has nothing to do with, say, a newspaper sending you notifications about the latest local headlines from where you are right now. Sure, if something truly important happened in your local area (like an earthquake warning 20 seconds before it hits), it would be extremely useful, but most notification are not something you need to see right now.

The presence trend is also not about viewing social media. It's far more about being able to do something by having your devices connected to the things you work with. For instance, a smartwatch could unlock your car when you are walking towards it with both your hands full with grocery bags.

Presence is also about being able to look up things or get answers to something that is on your mind. Think about it as the connected world being an extension of your mind and body.

In this regard, Apple did reveal something that was truly amazing: Apple Pay.

This is a perfect example of presence. Just hold up your iPhone or Apple Watch, hold your finger on the TouchID sensor, and it pays the bill.

This is absolutely brilliant!

But is this enough to get people to use smartwatches? Not really, because we are already carrying our phones. Just look at young people today. When are they not carrying their phones? What exactly is it that makes it better on a watch?

Only old people wear watches while their phones are out of reach.

Again, I'm not seeing a trend here. I don't see a specific need or use case (except for exercise). And as such, why buy a smartwatch?

But the presence trend as a whole is very exciting. Of course, the problem is that most of the features that we are seeing aren't that useful.

Take 'airplane boarding'. We see examples of this from both Google and Apple, and they are talking about it like it's some kind of revolution.

This is the shallow type of presence.

First of all, only a very few people ever travel so often that they actually need a digital assistant in the form of a specialized app. Sure, some of my friends are on an airplane almost every week. And some managers go to so many meetings that you wonder if they ever do any actual work.

If that's the kind of person you are, sure... all of these notifications, boarding pass apps, apps that unlock your hotel door, and so forth sounds exciting.

However, most people(as in pretty much everyone on Earth)don't live like that.

Most people go to the airport maybe once or twice a year, and usually because they are going on vacation. And they have to show up at the airport long before the plane even takes off to go through all the security and things required by the airport.

So, buying an Apple Watch because it allows you to board the plane using NFC? Who the frak cares?

Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of a digital life and not having to go into my bag to find my boarding pass. But it's not a killer feature... and besides, I absolutely always have my phone with me when I go to the airport.

It's the same about notifications. Most people I talk with don't like notifications in general. They are an annoying interruption, and rarely about anything important.

I, for instance, have turned off every single notification alert from every single app. Simply because there is no time where any notification is so important that it can be allowed to interrupt what I'm working on.

When I'm deep into writing a big report, having my phone interrupt me because someone commented on a picture on Instagram is the worst type of interruption possible. And with that in mind, why would I possibly want notification on a watch?

Still, the trend of presence is very interesting. There are many times where I need to be able to do something in a faster and more convenient way. But only a few of those times am I in a situation where doing that on a watch would be better, because my phone is practically already in my hand.

I cannot come up with a single reason why I would want to spend $350 on a smartwatch (or the $450 it's likely to cost in my country). The few times where a watch does make sense, in terms of presence, it's often when I'm not able to move my hands (like unlocking the car), or when I am without my phone (like when going for a run).

But in those cases, if your watch connect via your phone, you can't do anything useful because all you would get is this:

You see the problem here?

At least, the Samsung Gear S comes with its own cellular connection, its own SIM card, and a mobile internet connection. The Apple Watch doesn't have any of those things. As soon as it's out of reach of your phone, it just becomes a dumb device in terms of presence.

Sure, the engineering is remarkable, but the concept isn't.

There is one small feature that is somewhat intriguing. It's the feature where you can draw something on your watch and have that appear on your friend's watch. You can even send your friend your heartbeat (useful for when you want to illustrate just how overly stressed you are ;).

This is a feature that I can see people having fun with. Of course, it's limited to only those with an Apple Watch. And from a trend perspective, it ties into the same phenomenon that suddenly made the 'Yo' app popular. In other words, it's mostly a fun gimmick.

As for the future, is it possible that this will be the new emoji of the next generation? Well, it is an innovative line of thinking, and I can definitely see how this could be used by two close friends or people in love with each other to send semi-secret messages.

From that perspective, it's interesting, and it might even start a sub-culture. But people are generally not very good at drawing stuff. And with it being limited to a single device, I'm skeptical.

It looks fun though!

The bottom line is:

This leads me back to the question: If people largely ignored news about the Samsung Gear S and the Moto 360, why are people suddenly excited about the Apple Watch?

And for those saying: "Apple Watch will get smaller, better designed, have a longer battery life, and get smarter", I completely agree. But that is a long way off into the future.

I do hope that we will soon see more useful uses for wearable devices. Because, so far, all of them are not really solving any real problems... again, except for the specialized niche of being a fitness tracker.

Now read: The Trends That Form Wearables.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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