The Artful Dodge

From a 20 June 2014 story by WSJ reporter Daisuke Wakabayashi:

Apple is planning multiple versions of a smartwatch — dubbed the iWatch in the media — later this year, according to people familiar with the matter.

So far so good.

The devices will include more than 10 sensors to track and monitor health and fitness data, these people said. Taiwanese manufacturer Quanta Computer Inc. is expected to start producing the devices in two to three months, they said.

Not so good. Production did not start in September, not even close. And Apple’s website lists only two sensors for health and fitness tracking: the accelerometer and a heart rate sensor.

Yesterday, Wakabayashi explained the discrepancies:

When Apple Inc. started developing its smartwatch, executives envisioned a state-of-the-art health-monitoring device that could measure blood pressure, heart activity and stress levels, among other things, according to people familiar with the matter.

But none of those technologies made it into the much-anticipated Apple Watch, due in April. Some didn’t work reliably. Others proved too complex. And still others could have prompted unwanted regulatory oversight, these people said.

That left Apple executives struggling to define the purpose of the smartwatch and wrestling with why a consumer would need or want such a device. Their answer, for now, is a little bit of everything: displaying a fashion accessory; glancing at information nuggets more easily than reaching for a phone; buying with Apple Pay; communicating in new ways through remote taps, swapped heartbeats or drawings; and tracking daily activity.

Apple declined to comment.

If we’re to take Wakabayashi’s reporting, and his sources “familiar with the matter”, at face value, here’s what we’d need to believe:

  • As of 20 June 2014, Apple planned on shipping Apple Watch by the end of the year — which means October, in order to hit the holiday season. I.e., that in June, Apple thought they were four months away from shipping.

  • In June, Apple thought the watch would contain “more than 10 sensors to track and monitor health and fitness data”, but by September they’d abandoned most of them and still didn’t expect to ship until “early 2015”. In June they expected to ship a watch with more than 10 sensors by October, but by September they’d scrapped all those sensors other than the accelerometer and heart rate monitor and moved the shipping deadline back by six months.

  • In September, when Apple thought it was seven months or less away from shipping1, they deemed it strategic to pre-announce the Apple Watch. But in June, when, according to Wakabayashi’s “people familiar with the matter”, they thought they were only four or five months away from shipping, they did not pre-announce the watch at WWDC.

Maybe that’s exactly what happened. I don’t know. But it doesn’t sound anything like how product development within Apple works from my knowledge. I do know that up until some point, Apple expected to release the watch in 2014. I find it hard to believe they still believed that in June. I find it even harder to believe that they still planned on things like blood pressure monitoring and stress level detection as late as June while still thinking they could ship in 2014.

To be fair, Wakabayashi’s June 2014 story doesn’t say “blood pressure monitoring” or “stress level detector”, but it does say “more than 10 sensors to track and monitor health and fitness data”, and that turned out not to be true.

I also do not doubt for a moment that Apple looked hard at all sorts of sensors like those during the three-year development of Apple Watch. That’s how they develop products: come up with a slew of ideas, try the ideas that seem best, iterate and refine and change (narrowing focus) until they get to something that feels right. The iPhone, for example, started as a tablet project.

The way it reads to me is that Wakabayashi’s sources for the June 2014 story were not “familiar with the matter”, but rather were familiar with, at best, already-outdated plans to ship a more fitness/health-focused Apple Watch in 2014. And his report this week reads more like an attempt to make it look like it’s the Apple Watch that is actually coming in April that is wrong, not his reporting from last year.

The artful dodge: the rumor was actually right; it’s the shipping product that contradicts the rumor that is wrong.

  1. Tim Cook, during January 27’s quarterly analyst conference call: “And just to clarify, what we had been saying was early 2015, and we sort of look at the year and think of ‘early’ is the first four months, ‘mid’ is the next four months, and ‘late’ is the final four months. To us, it’s sort of within the range, so it’s basically when we thought.” ↩︎