Yesterday’s Apple event was jam-packed with new stuff. The company introduced new iPhones, a new mobile payment solution dubbed Apple Pay, and the long-rumored Apple Watch (I told you I wasn’t so sure it would be called iWatch). Let’s go over each of the announcements in a bit more detail.
This keynote was different from all other keynotes in recent memory for one simple reason: the iPhone was not the main star of the show. Far from it, actually. Tim Cook unveiled the new iPhones only 7 minutes into the event. That’s nuts. Then, they quickly went over the new features, wrapped it up nicely and went on to spend significantly longer on the new stuff. That’s a first for Apple, but I’m waging it won’t be a last. As cool as new iPhones are, they’re basically still iPhones, and it’s hard to get people super excited every single time. I believe the iPhone’s role in these keynotes will slowly evolve into something closer to MacBook refreshes: It’ll get its time in the spotlight, but the main focus of the events will lie elsewhere. We’re probably still a few years from that, though, so don’t worry, there will be more iPhone goodness in keynotes to come.
The event itself was nicely paced, with all presenters firing on all cylinders. Phil was great as usual, and Tim Cook looked way more confident than in previous outings. I believe he is slowly becoming more comfortable with the spotlight, and Apple is certainly better off for it. No appearance from Craig Federighi, though, which I thought was a bit odd, given that he’s not only leading the software teams at Apple, but also clearly the best presenter in the company, and a crowd favorite. I suspect we’ll see more of him in the next Apple event, when new iPads and Macs are introduced.
All in all, it was a great keynote, and the icing on the cake was having U2 on stage to perform their new single. On top of that, they released their new album exclusively on iTunes for free (at least until mid-October), in what I thought was a pretty savvy marketing move. If you’re a U2 fan, you can download the album today from the iTunes Store at no charge.
The live video stream
The official live stream of the event on Apple’s website was so incredibly awful that it deserves its own section. It was, by far, the worst experience I have ever seen: the video would crash every few seconds, reset itself to the beginning of the event or randomly jump between different timestamps. If that wasn’t enough to ruin the event for everyone, there was a lovely Chinese translator creeping up behind Tim Cook’s sound. It was so bad that if anyone had tried to imagine a way to screw the stream on purpose, they wouldn’t have come close to what happened yesterday. I’m sorry for the people responsible at Apple, because they surely must have lost their jobs by now.
I get that errors occur, shit happens, and sometimes mistakes are hard to prevent, but this was inexcusable. Apple bragged about the live stream like never before. On their homepage, no less. The fact that they screwed up so badly after creating so much hype is absolutely their own fault, and they should be held accountable.
The iPhone 6 (and 6 Plus)
Let me just get this out of the way: these are the best iPhones Apple has ever made, period. I’m not crazy about the bigger sizes, I admit, but other than that they are pretty close to being perfect. They’re as thin and light as you could possibly want them to be, the displays are gorgeous, battery life is great and the level of polish in both hardware and software is exceptional. The iPhone is really a mature product line by now, and it shows.
Regarding the two new sizes, I’m pretty sure the 4.7-inch is the better device overall, but I will reserve judgement until I see them in person. The extra functionality of the 5.5-inch display would be nice to have, though, and if you’re going big, you might as well go all the way.
One important difference that popped up on twitter yesterday is that, instead of the normal 2x Retina resolution of older iPhones (and the 4.7-inch iPhone 6), the 5.5-inch model is running at a 3x Retina resolution of 1242x2208, which is then downscaled to fit the 1080p Retina HD panel. This behavior is similar to the desktop scaling modes of current Retina MacBook Pros, and it means the iPhone 6 Plus’s display is not pixel-perfect: it’s not possible to draw 1px lines without anti-aliasing of some sort. At over 400 pixels-per-inch it may not matter much, but scaling could also imply some performance penalty vs. the smaller iPhone 6. Nobody has been able to test this yet but if it holds true, it could be a good reason to skip the iPhone 6 Plus in favor of its smaller brother.
This is when things started getting interesting. Apple yesterday unveiled a mobile payments solution that is meant to replace your credit card. It’s called Apple Pay, and its main goal is to make payments as easy as possible while improving security at the same time. Judging from the videos they showed, it certainly looks pretty simple to use and if adoption is wide, it will be a very convenient way to spend your hard-earned money.
However, I think there are a few issues with Apple Pay that could prevent it from truly replacing your wallet.
Credit cards are used today for two main purposes:
Making purchases in stores, restaurants, etc.
Withdrawing cash from an ATM.
So far, Apple Pay tackles the first use case, but as far as I know there’s no way to get actual cash from an ATM using Apple Pay. If banks don’t offer this functionality, it may severely handicap Apple Pay’s potential to become ubiquitous. There are many common situations where cash is preferred, or even the only accepted form of payment. Until there’s a solution that enables me to get additional cash on the go, leaving my credit cards at home will not be an option. And if I need to have my credit cards with me at all times anyway, retailers will be much less motivated to adopt Apple Pay. It’s a pretty hard problem to solve, and I hope Apple has thought of this.
The Apple Watch
This was clearly the absolute highlight of the event. After much speculation in the preceding months, Apple finally unveiled their take on the smartwatch, and it’s called Apple Watch (not iWatch, unfortunately). It won’t be available until next year, but the sneak peek they gave us was more than enough to get a feel for what’s coming. And that’s something that was subtly ingrained throughout the whole introduction: this is a product that is every bit about feel as it is about technology. In Tim Cook’s own words, this is what Apple does best.
There were a few things that made the introduction of Apple Watch special. First, this was Apple at its most confident since the introduction of the original iPhone in 2007. The way they handled the event made it clear that Tim Cook absolutely believes this is the next mega-hit for the company. There wasn’t even a hint of speculation or doubt about the device’s potential. Not even the original iPad received this much love during its debut keynote. I actually felt they were overdoing it a bit, and perhaps they should have shown a bit more restraint. Overconfidence can be a dangerous thing if it makes you oblivious to the challenges ahead. Siri and Apple Maps were also unveiled to much fanfare, and they both failed to take the world by storm (Maps in particular).
When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, he specifically set a seemingly ambitious but attainable goal of 10 million units sold in the first year. He absolutely knew he had a hit on his hands, but he didn’t want to overdo it. He was cautiously confident, and that’s exactly how you want to unveil a new product because it sets expectations accordingly. I didn’t get that impression at all from yesterday’s event.
Second, I don’t recall another Apple product that debuted with so many different configurations and options. I really wasn’t expecting Apple to announce two different sizes of the device, for example. Typically, first-generation Apple products tend to be extremely focused: you could have any color you wanted as long as it was black. Now they’re offering a wide array of styles to suit almost every taste. From a manufacturing and operations standpoint, this is an incredible feat and a great show of force. This is what today’s Apple is capable of.
Then there’s the watch itself. The fact that it actually looks like a watch was also surprising to many, including myself. Most of the speculation around the device specifically avoided calling it a watch. The most used term was “a wearable device”. There was this idea that whatever Apple was set to unveil, it probably wouldn’t resemble a traditional watch at all. And yet, everything about the product, from the name to the actual physical design screams watch to me. It’s weird that Apple would choose to mimic traditional analog watches so prominently, particularly at a time when they’re deliberately moving away from skeuomorphic design in their two major operating systems. Of course, there are other watchfaces that you can set in order to not have it look so much like a watch, but at the end of the day, if they’re calling it Apple Watch, they clearly want us to think of it as a watch. That seems odd to me, for some reason.
Much of the emphasis about Apple Watch was emotional. They want us to think about it as a way to connect with people on an emotional level, even going as far as to let us send our own heartbeat to someone else in real time. I thought that looked pretty cool, but again, it didn’t feel particularly Apple-like to me. The visual design carries a very different tone than what we’re used to seeing from Apple. This is the first child of new Apple: closer, more personal, more open. It’s a remarkable product, but it feels strange. Not wrong, just different.
Whenever there’s a visual design departure, it’s difficult to evaluate the new visual language because your instincts are telling you that everything is different, and we typically don’t like different. It takes us a while to get used to new things. This is a change similar in scope to what iOS was when it was announced. We don’t have a way to measure if it’s good or bad yet, and it will take some time for our instincts to adapt. But we’ll get there.
Ultimately, the Apple Watch will thrive or wither depending on the answer to a very simple question: does it truly add value to our lives? The fact that it requires an iPhone for most of its functionality is kind of a bummer. After all, most times it’s really not that hard to get the iPhone out of your pocket to do whatever it is you need to do. And the experience of using an iPhone is still leaps and bounds ahead of doing the same things on the watch. Is it compelling enough to justify its purchase for the small number of occasions when it is more convenient? For now, I’m not so sure. Fitness-wise, I think it will be nice, but again, I wish I could just leave the phone at home. One use case that I think will be awesome is using Maps while riding my bike. Having your route displayed on your wrist eliminates the need for bulky iPhone mounts and it’s a considerably better solution.
While I do find the Apple Watch interesting, its appeal to me is limited for a different reason: I love watches, and I’m extremely particular when choosing a watch to wear. Most of the watches I’ve had in my life have been passed on to me by my father, and as such there’s an emotional component to them that is hard to quantify, but that goes beyond their features and technology.
Aesthetically, I also have very clear preferences on what a watch should look like and how it should behave: it should be appropriate and understated in any situation while remaining classic and elegant. The Apple Watch is a remarkable device, but it doesn’t quite fit these criteria for me. I want to like it, but I don’t want to have to give up my current watch for it.
We tend to think of technology as a means to improve things, and for the most part, that’s true. I just don’t happen to think watches are an area that needs much improving. A watch is something special, and a quality watch should be a companion for life. I suspect many people have similar feelings towards their watches, and these people will be the hardest for Apple to sway.
Whatever happens with the Apple Watch, what we saw yesterday was the first new chapter of Apple after Steve Jobs. Judging from what we saw, they’ll be OK. These are exciting times for technology: for the first time ever we’re witnessing the advent of truly personal computing devices, and things are only bound to get better. I can’t wait to see what the future holds, and the role Apple will have in shaping it.