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Desire and Purpose

I’ve been thinking about yesterday’s announcement of the Apple Watch. Like WWDC ’14, it’s a lot to process in a single day – you’re looking at years worth of design and product vision condensed in two hours of video and a massive website update. I’m not sure I’ll fully grasp the potential of Apple’s wearable even after its release.

But I noticed this: I didn’t feel the same impact of the original iPhone and iPad keynotes. I’m not referring to the product, the pace of Apple executives on stage, or Steve Jobs. I’m talking about the message that I was left with and the explanations that Apple gave to demonstrate their new watch and how it can fit in people’s everyday life. It felt different.

There’s no point in striving to replicate the iPhone keynote from 2007. Apple was another company back then (not just because of its former CEO); today, they’re a huge corporation that spans dozens of smartphone models, tablets, computers, software services, and digital marketplaces. The Apple you remember from the iPhone keynote – wildly successful in the music industry, but still an underdog in many ways – is gone. 2014 Apple is expected to lead.

That’s not a bad thing. The scale at which Apple operates and the control it keeps on software that powers over 1 million apps allows them to pull out the kind of announcements we saw at WWDC. Integrated platforms for the connected home and for your health, a new programming language, and APIs that will reinvent how people use iOS devices. 2007 Apple couldn’t do this; it was that vision that brought them here today. And I think that many are going to let nostalgia for “the good old days” influence their judgment of what Apple showed yesterday.

This is uncharted territory for the tech press and longtime Apple users. The iPhone was a common utility reinvented and announced with a fairly basic feature set. The iPad let you hold webpages in your hands. The Apple Watch is fashion mixed with a lot of technologies that we’ve seen (in bits and pieces, often not as elegantly) elsewhere. It’s an object that was considered in decline, projected in the digital space. It’s a modernized tradition.

Make no mistake – Apple is going all out with the Apple Watch as a fashionable, desirable object. The website reads like a fashion magazine (five years ago, I used to sell watches for a living; I remember these layouts on catalogues in retail stores). Apple has assembled a team of metallurgists to develop 18-karat gold that’s twice as hard as standard gold. They have created an alloy to make a Milanese loop more durable – which is then woven on specialized Italian machines. They have announced 18 watch straps/bands and turned the traditional crown into a new digital input method. The iPhone was born as reinvented utility and later evolved into a status symbol; the Apple Watch wants to be both right from the start.

It’s a different Apple, and that can be concerning for longtime fans. It’s easy to explain and demo technology – not so much with taste and lifestyle. Desire – the key driver of fashionable goods and affordable luxury – is tough to sell through webpages. Have you noticed how the Apple Watch website lacks full tech specs? Have you seen the photography that Apple is using instead? Or how the Technology page insists on the “familiar” and “personal” aspects of hardware?

But that’s not the full story either, because there still is a strong technological aspect to consider. Apple seems to understand that the potential for wrist-worn tech – the true “always on” device – goes beyond fitness tracking and notifications, but those were focal points of yesterday’s keynote. I did get the feeling that, in many aspects, Apple Watch 1.0 isn’t that different from the current crop of smartwatches after all. The iPhone’s enemy was clear. Why do we need a reinvented watch?

I think it’s too early to tell, but I see encouraging signs.

For one, Apple understands the importance of a device that’s in constant contact with your skin and built in sensors and a haptic feedback system to take advantage of that unique placement. And the extent of Apple’s interplay of custom hardware and software will, of course, only be clear years after Apple Watch 1.0.

For health and fitness tracking, Apple described how heart rate could be used to measure intensity of exercise and workout sessions. The much ridiculed “heartbeat sharing” feature (also based on the heart rate sensor) showed a glimpse of how biometric data can be turned into a message shared with another person – I think that’s sweet and deeply human, even if it’s just pixels.

With reminders and suggestions for a more active lifestyle, Apple clearly thought about how data and trends could be turned into meaningful recommendations that aren’t just pretty graphs (like the upcoming Health app). As someone who’s trying to get back in shape after chemo and the consequences of other cancer treatments, personalized goals and suggestions could be a huge help to find motivation and achieve a better lifestyle.

I suspect that the reason Apple didn’t end up calling it “iWatch” is because they wanted to move away from the technical connotation that the “i” prefix has taken over the years. The iPhone, iPad, iMac, iCloud are computers and software you use. The Apple Watch is something that you wear, and it requires an iPhone. It’s an extension, an accessory, and also a mix of tech and fashion. With the Watch, Apple will need to find a balance between self expression and utility, desire and purpose. That’s fundamentally different from a cloud service, a bigger phone, or a fingerprint scanner.

Yesterday’s keynote may not have the same impact of 2007, but I think Apple Watch is the beginning of something much bigger.

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