By John Gruber
Regular readers of this column are well aware of my affinity for the James Bond movies. I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember. As a kid growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was a staunch Roger Moore fan. I loved the Connery films too, but they felt old, and as a kid, “old” is not cool. That perspective applied even to their watches. Roger Moore wore digital watches; Sean Connery wore mechanicals. Digital watches were cool; analog watches were old-fashioned.
Today, I’ve come to my senses, and I know that Connery was and always will be the definitive James Bond, and his Rolex Submariner — reference 6538 — the definitive Bond watch. The coolest of the cool. But Moore’s Bond’s digital watches were cool, too. Connery drove the most memorable Bond car, but Moore’s watches are the ones that most people think of when they think of a James Bond watch — the ones that were laden with secret gadgets. Connery’s Rolex was just a Rolex.
Look at this Pulsar from Moore’s first Bond movie, 1973’s Live and Let Die. It had a red LED display that, to preserve battery life, only turned on to display the time when you pressed a button. (Hold that thought.) And then there’s this gem — a Seiko DK001 from 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, which could receive secure text messages from MI6. I mean look at it:
The idea of a digital watch that can receive secure text messages was remarkably prescient. The idea that the messages would print out on ticker tape was remarkably silly. How could a device that size include a label printer? How many messages could it receive before running out of tape? Why would a spy want secret messages from headquarters printed out?1 The proper design, in hindsight, is obvious: the messages should have been displayed on screen — which is exactly how Bond’s Seiko worked in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only. And look at the design. Even the style of Apple’s link bracelet is reminiscent of that ’70s Seiko.
This is what Apple Watch is: an ambitious modern take on the digital watch.
I’ve worn analog watches since sometime in college, and in recent years I’ve fallen hard for purely mechanical automatics. But I’ve always had, and always will have, a soft spot for digital watches. I’ve always thought watches were cool. I’ve always thought computers and electronic gadgets were cool. Digital watches exist at the intersection of these interests.
My watches as a teenager were digitals made by Casio, pretty much like this one that you can still buy today for $10: black plastic watch, resin strap, two buttons on each side. The interfaces were complex, inscrutable at first. I always knew the interfaces were bad, but I accepted them because I wanted the features. I liked having a stopwatch and countdown timer. And of course the interface was complicated: all these features were packed into a tiny little watch.
During the past four weeks, I’m surprised how much I’ve been reminded of those Casios. In the way it felt cool in 1987 to have all those features on my wrist, it feels cool today to have these features on my wrist. This is the watch my teenage 1987 self would have expected my 2015 self to own. Apple Watch’s interaction model is complicated. That doesn’t mean it’s too complicated — and I don’t think it is. There’s simply no way to avoid complexity with the number of features — which, borrowing from the terminology of the horological world, Apple is calling “complications” — Apple Watch encompasses.
Do not expect to strap on Apple Watch for the first time and feel entirely at home. It’s different, new, and surprisingly expansive. Apple Watch demands exploration. Those old Casios were arbitrary.2 Apple Watch has a logic behind its interaction design — but it needs to be used to be fully understood. The basics are obvious — initial setup and pairing with your iPhone remarkably so — but not everything. It’s a tool you have to learn to use. It is not an iPhone on your wrist.
But here’s the thing. Much of the criticism of Apple Watch is being driven by the question “Do you need an Apple Watch?” And that is simply the wrong question. It’s not useful for evaluating the watch as a product or platform, and it’s not useful to answering the question as to whether you or anyone else should buy one.
Apple Watch is not hard to understand fundamentally. It’s just a digital watch, reimagined for today’s world, where wireless networking is nearly ubiquitous, and a fully functional computer that runs all day long can be fitted in a 38mm watch case. That’s it. “Just a watch” doesn’t mean “just a timepiece”. A watch is a gadget of which timekeeping is just one possible feature. Digital watches, in particular, have always been about more than just the time and date, and Apple Watch takes this and runs with it.
It needs to justify its existence no more than any other watch — mechanical or electronic — ever made. Of course you don’t need it. No one, not one person on the face of the earth, needs any $400 watch, Apple Watch or otherwise.3
The right question is simply “Do you want one?”
It’s about desire, not necessity. Convenience, fun, and style are not needs. They’re wants. And people will gladly pay for what they want. The iPad faced similar misguided criticism. How many times did you hear or read someone say of the iPad, “Why would anyone who already has a phone and a laptop need an iPad?” That was the wrong question, because almost no one needed an iPad. The right question was “Why would someone who has a phone and laptop also want an iPad?”
In my initial review of the Apple Watch three weeks ago, I wrote:
Loosely, the path of all consumer electronic categories is to evolve as ever more computer-y gadgets, until a tipping point occurs and they turn into ever more gadget-y genuine computers. The sample size (in terms of product categories) is small, but Apple seemingly tries to enter markets at, or just after, that tipping point — when Moore’s Law and Apple’s ever-increasing engineering and manufacturing prowess allow them to produce a gadget-y computer that the computer-y gadgets from the established market leaders cannot compete with. That was the iPod. That was the iPhone.
That, they hope, is Apple Watch.
Asked about wearable devices two years ago at All Things D, Tim Cook said, “The wrist is interesting. The wrist is natural.” That Apple would make a watch, if not necessarily this watch, is the natural, dare I say inevitable result of these two factors: the wrist is a natural place for a wearable gadget, and Apple can now make a full computer with acceptable battery life4 the size of a watch.
Half the fun of the gadgets like Roger Moore’s Bond’s watches was imagining that we — regular folks in the real world — would have them in the future, alongside jetpacks and flying cars. Phone calls on our wrists. Asking our watch, verbally, what time tonight’s Yankees game starts and getting the correct answer a few moments later. But importantly: packaged not as a clumsy, homely device, but in the casing of, well, a nice, stylish watch.
If you don’t see the joy in that having come to fruition — both sides of it, the function and the style, the engineering and the design — then of course you’re not going to see the point of all the hoopla surrounding Apple Watch. And if you do see the joy in it, if you do think it’s cool that it even exists, then don’t overthink it. It’s a cool watch that does cool things. ★
In theory, Bond’s watch could have printed “secure” messages by using some sort of self-destructing ticker tape material, but everyone knows self-destructing messages from HQ are a Mission: Impossible thing. ↩︎︎
Here’s a user manual I found for a vintage Seiko digital watch. Not quite the same model as the one from the Bond films, but close. Download it and see how un-obvious just about everything was — from setting the time to using the stopwatch. This four-button interface is more or less how every digital watch from my youth worked. (So much so that it makes me wonder whether Casio and the rest of the industry’s digital watches were in fact rather shameless lower-priced rip-offs of Seiko’s groundbreaking designs.) ↩︎︎
I can imagine future scenarios, where Apple Watch functions as a true medical monitoring device (blood sugar, for example), which could justify it as a true need for many. ↩︎︎
Josh Lowensohn, writing for The Verge on Google’s latest update to Android Wear:
Two other changes Google’s made in the update impact what you see on screen, and how you interact with it. One is a new low-power mode for the screen when you’re not actively looking at it. It allows apps to ambiently display just a minimal amount of data, usually in black and white, without a gesture to turn the screen on. Google already does this for your watch face, but is opening up the feature for apps too. This is especially useful for things like shopping lists, fitness apps, and music controls, Chang says. Developers will now be able to tweak how often the information you see gets updated in the low-power mode, but it could ultimately mean less fiddling.
This is a significant difference between Android Wear and Apple Watch. Apple Watch and most1 Android Wear watches use OLED displays, on which black pixels consume little power. Apple Watch embraces its OLED display by presenting an “on” UI where almost everything has a black background — its watch faces, the app home screen, and all of the built-in apps have black backgrounds. When you read email on Apple Watch, it’s white text on a black background. It’s a very different aesthetic from iOS and Mac OS, where the default has always been black text on a white background. The other thing worth noting is that when Apple Watch is “off”, the screen turns off completely. It’s just black.
Android Wear has a colorful Material Design-style UI for its “on” state — white backgrounds and lots of primary colors, very much the same aesthetic design as Google’s apps for Android and iOS. It looks like what its name implies: a version of Android running on a watch. Its “off” state, though, uses a black background and a small amount of static (non-animated) status information. Like, say, the hour and minute hands of an analog clock face, and/or the text of your most recent notification. Like with Pebble, something is displayed on screen unless the device is truly powered off. This is undeniably useful, and something like this ambient mode for Apple Watch would address my complaint about not being able to glance the time without moving my wrist at all.
Apple’s approach is more conservative energy-wise in both “on” and “off” states. Google’s leaves something informative on screen at all times.
Apple’s decision to have the screen display nothing while “off” was clearly a concession to battery life. But I’m convinced that Apple chose the black-background look for the “on” state more for aesthetic reasons than for battery life — a fundamental aspect of Apple Watch’s design is that you can almost never see where the screen ends and the surrounding bezel begins. It’s a compelling, elegant effect. The battery-life advantages of this design are just a nice side effect. ★
A weekend Twitter thread regarding custom watch faces for Android Wear and the prospects of custom faces for Apple Watch led me to FaceRepo, a repository of downloadable watch faces for Android Wear. Remember the sites with “skins” for SoundJam and Audion? Like that, but for Android Wear. A few thoughts that went through my mind after perusing the offerings:
I don’t expect Apple to open up watch faces to arbitrary designs, even when the full Apple Watch SDK ships later this year. If they do allow third-party faces, I think it’ll be through design partners hand-selected by Apple. (The Mickey face is arguably an example of this already.) The idea of fully-customizable watch faces is right in the sweet spot between the differing philosophies of Google (anything goes) and Apple (tightly controlled). Apple Watch currently offers 10 different faces, and most of those faces offer a lot of customization regarding which complications are visible, and the tint colors. It’s a lot of fun to play with, but here’s the thing: there is no way to set up a watch face that is ugly, or that doesn’t look very Apple-Watch-y. Even the Mickey face looks like an Apple Watch Mickey face, because of the San Francisco font on the hour markers and the complications. That is by design, and I don’t see that changing.
Among those in favor of full customization, Andy Ihnatko tweeted: “Like, what if Apple said ‘We don’t trust you to choose well-designed iPhone wallpaper.’” We don’t have to imagine — that’s exactly what Apple did until iOS 4 in 2010. For the first three years of the iPhone, you got a black background on your home screen and you liked it. This is what makes Apple so polarizing, and often unpopular with the tinkering crowd — they will limit user configurability, often severely, in the name of design purity and brand consistency. “This is what we, the designers of this product, want it to look like” vs. “Go ahead and make it look however you, the user, want it to look”.
I’m a little surprised at how heavily skeuomorphic many of these Android Wear faces are — they’re heavy on 3D lighting effects, textures, drop shadows, and in some cases even fake watch crystal gloss. That aesthetic feels surprisingly dated to my eyes today. That’s not just an Apple thing, either — Android’s Material Design has moved just as far from skeuomorphic textures. The default faces for most Android Wear devices are not like this (but some are), but these third-party ones skew heavily towards this blingy Kai’s Power Tools aesthetic.
And then there’s this one, which made my day.
To be fair to Google, the third-party faces featured on their Play Store are more in tune with the Material Design aesthetic. But most of them are very colorful. These, for example, fit right in with Material Design — and would stick out like sore thumbs on Apple Watch. Apple’s watch faces all have black backgrounds, as does the rest of the Apple Watch interface. That’s because Apple Watch has an OLED display, which doesn’t need to turn on pixels to show black — it’s a design aesthetic and an energy-saving move. (Update: I didn’t mean to imply here that Android Wear watches don’t use OLED displays, too — but clearly the Android Wear UI was not designed with black backgrounds in mind.)
Third-party watch faces for Pebble are generally terrible, even considering the constraints of the Pebble Watch display. This might improve with the upcoming Pebble Time, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
I just can’t see Apple ever allowing these sort of watch faces for Apple Watch — that’ll be left for the jailbreak crowd. A few weeks ago I thought third-party watch faces would be like third-party apps were for the iPhone — something that wasn’t there at the launch, but which came sooner rather than later. Having spent three weeks with Apple Watch, I feel differently now. Apps are the apps of Apple Watch — that’s where there will be thousands of third-party designs. Watch Faces are different. They’re more fundamental to the device.
Apple will almost certainly introduce more built-in faces eventually, including some that allow for more personalization. In September, they showed two that have since been removed: Timelapse (they showed two options: one with Big Ben and Parliament at night in London; the other showed a scenic lake and mountain) and Photo (which, in Apple’s press materials, showed a snapshot of friends at a beach).1 And they might work with hand-selected partners like Disney to create additional faces like the Mickey one. But I don’t think they’re ever going to open the gates to App Store-style “anyone can make a watch face” watch faces. I think Apple sees watch faces as part of the system, like the lock and home screens for iOS. We’re eight years into iOS and there still isn’t any support for third-party lock or home screens. I expect the same thing for watch faces. ★
It seems pretty obvious why Apple nixed these two faces: they’re the ones that use the most energy on an OLED display. Just about every compromise I’ve noticed in Apple Watch OS 1.0 is in the service of extending battery life at all costs. ↩︎