Has Apple lost its religion of simplicity?

Launching into a new product category always has its risks and naysayers, but with the Apple Watch the world's leading tech company is in danger of a fundamental departure.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the Apple Watch.
Image: CNET/James Martin

Most of the companies in the tech industry need to be more ambitious. There's way too much copying and overlapping and not enough true innovation and problem-solving.

But there's also such a thing as being too ambitious. It means you're not disciplined enough. You're not focused enough.

The Apple Watch is too ambitious.

From a product standpoint, the Apple Watch is a bit of a mess, honestly. I'm sure it will become less of a mess over time -- it is still a 1.0 product -- but the fact that Apple released the product in its current form says something. In fact, it says a lot about Apple under the new leadership regime because it's the first new product category of the Cook-Ive era. And as far as innovation and discipline goes, this is a wobbly start.

The problem with the Apple Watch is that it fundamentally departs from Apple's core religion: simplicity and ease of use. Apple products usually start by doing less and then layering on greater functionality as they evolve. It's a proven strategy. While that can be frustrating to power users, it has made all of Apple's most popular products -- Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad -- very accessible to everyday people.

The Apple Watch tries to get there all at once. And as a result, it's too complicated and convoluted. You have to operate it using two different buttons and one of the buttons has two different functions -- pushing and turning. Then there's a combination of tapping, swiping, and the new "Force Touch" feature (pressing harder) to bring up more options. That is a ton of things for a user to figure out, and many of the functions are unlike any other Apple or tech product so they aren't naturally intuitive.

But Apple needed to add all of those interface elements because it has introduced so much functionality into the watch itself. There are mini apps called Glances that provide quick looks at weather, news, stocks, and other information. There are a bevy of built-in Apple apps. And, unlike the iPhone, there will be third-party apps right out of the gate.

Some of these will be super useful. American Airlines has an app that will let you check in for your flight, see the most important details and updates and even check the plane's progress during the flight from the watch app. The Starwood Hotels app will let you turn your Apple Watch into your room key. Those things are simple and useful, but other apps are examples of stuff that's better to leave to your smartphone. For example, who wants to flip through Instagram photos on a tiny watch screen? Or, why would I want to look at an Uber map to make sure I was being picked up in exactly the right place on such a tiny screen? There are lots of things like that on the Apple Watch -- things that make me think, why would I want to do that on a tiny watch screen? Both Apple and app makers need to do a better job of thinking through the stuff that doesn't make sense on the watch.

Strategically, Apple has the right idea that a twatch can be an excellent way to receive smartphone notifications less intrusively -- Android Wear and Pebble are on to the same thing. Apple leaders say the right things about the watch being about brief interactions. But then the apps from Apple and third parties (using Apple's development kit) try to do too much, leaving users to push buttons, spin little wheels, swipe little screens, and hard-press their watch faces.

When Apple enters a new product category, it tries to bring a level of polish and simplicity that improves on the products that are already out there. I don't think we can say that with the Apple Watch. We've already talked about the simplicity issue. In terms of polish, there are already some very polished Android Wear products from the Motorola Moto 360 to the LG G Watch R to Huawei Watch. That leaves the Apple Watch to simply compete on better marketing.

This isn't a product review. I'll leave that in the able hands of my colleagues at CNET. My point here is that Apple's uncharacteristic approach with the Apple Watch has given us a product that doesn't live up to the high standards for simplicity and ease of use that have defined its products over the past decade and a half.

Because of the power of the Apple brand, the Apple Watch will likely sell more watches in its first month than the 1 million that pioneer Pebble has sold in the two years since it first started shipping products. Nevertheless, the Apple Watch remains a shaky first foray for the Cook-Ive regime.

The company could thrive for a decade by incrementally improving the strong product line of iPhones, iPads, and Macs. The new MacBook that was unveiled on March 9 at the Apple Watch event does hold to Apple's simplicity ideals. It introduced a USB-M port that replaces power, USB, and other ports with a single port (and an associated dongle). But that's an existing product line with a team that already has over a decade of momentum in Apple-ness.

The Apple Watch, on the other hand, is a creation of the new regime at Apple. And it has a lot more to prove. So far, it's failing an important test.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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