Apple Watch: This is what happens when tech and fashion collide

Watches are useless but filled with meaning, while smartwatches are useful but impersonal; Apple will have to work hard to bridge that divide.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director
Apple's Watch. Image: Apple

If politics is showbusiness for ugly people, then tech is rapidly becoming the fashion industry for people who get dressed in the dark.

This is most obviously embodied in the Apple Watch — a device born of the technology world but one which will have to thrive in the even more brutal world of fashion.

Apple understands that challenge — that's why there were so many fashion editors at the launch of the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch this week. However, it's a different sort of challenge to the one Apple has faced with previous launches.

With the iPod, iPad, and iPhone, Apple was dealing with products which were still in flux; the idea of what a great tablet or an ideal smartphone hadn't been entirely defined. That meant Apple could set the rules (perhaps one of the reasons why all tablets and smartphones look the same — one the concept is successfully defined it's very hard to deviate).

But Apple can't do that with watches. We already know what a desirable watch should look like, and what it should and should not do. And right now smartwatches definitely aren't watches, and don't behave like watches: they need to be paired with a smartphone, they need to be charged every day, they demand our attention.

I think that cognitive dissonance is one explanation for why smartwatches haven't taken off (as an aside, the fitness band makers actually have it easier for that reason — they are creating a new category of wearable device so we are mentally more forgiving of it).

William Gibson once described mechanical watches as "so brilliantly unnecessary" and among the "very finest fossils of the pre-digital age". In the intervening 15 digital years that's become true of all watches — they've been brilliantly unnecessary since we all started carrying around phones with clocks on them.

As a result the wristwatch, has become a peculiar object — we've emptied it of utility and filled it up again with meaning. For those of us who still wear them, watches are now items of identity rather than functionality — they tell us (and those around us) about our status and our desires; they are no longer needed, but — in their own little way — they help us define ourselves.

There's also that tension between the world of rapidly-replaced consumer gadgets and the craft of watchmaking. Will anyone ever be presented with a gold Apple Watch for long service? Will we consider our grandfathers' smartwatches (battery long dead, operating system obsolete) as family heirlooms?

That shift in meaning is a difficult one to reverse. What the smartwatch is trying to do is take the watch back to its origins of being useful, but without doing away with that new role too.

When Gibson was talking about the allure of mechanical watches he described them thus: "Each one is a miniature world unto itself, a tiny functioning mechanism, a congeries of minute and mysterious moving parts. Moving parts! And consequently these watches are, in a sense, alive. They have heartbeats. They seem to respond, Tamagotchi-like, to 'love', in the form, usually, of the expensive ministrations of specialist technicians."

To me that sounds a little bit like the smartwatch of today. Indeed, the Apple Watch literally has a heartbeat — that of its user — which can be transmitted to other Apple Watches. But perhaps the big difference is that while watches have their own identity, smartwatches are trying to measure you, to quantify you.

If any company has a chance of making a smartwatch that is useful and meaningful and personal, it's Apple. Jonny Ive's Apple Watch video talks a lot about the how personal the Apple Watch is, so Apple clearly understands this problem is of a different order of magnitude — it ends with him saying, rather modestly for a company so steeped in hyperbole: "I think we are now at a compelling beginning, actually designing technology to be worn, to be truly personal."

It's possible that smartwatches will be the last gadgets that are obviously computing devices. We're approaching the point at which the technology is small enough (even now a smartwatch is roughly as powerful as a first generation smartphone) and that there is enough computing power embedded in the fabric (perhaps even quite literally, in our clothes) of the world around us, that we will be surrounded by it — and we won't notice it at all.

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