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Apple Watch Plan B Might Really Be Plan A

Apple Watch Plan B Might Really Be Plan A

June 25, 2015

Well before Apple Watch launched, I wondered about the realistic pragmatism of a smartwatch and how usefully it might inject (interject?) itself into the normal mobile user’s daily workflow. I also wondered if Apple wondered about that, and whether or not they had any misgivings going forward. In the buildup to launch and beyond, it seems pretty clear that the company had and has plenty of them, and they likely knew such doubts would linger well after the general public was hyped into general satisfaction with the product. In this context, then, perhaps part of the company’s justification for Apple Watch — internally and secretly — was to position it as a field test for various new hardware and software paradigms that might make the cut for inclusion in iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

I even hinted at my renewed interest in this line of reasoning with my earlier “Conspiracy Theory” post. And while I do think Apple Watch is destined to be its own decently-selling (read “sub-iPad volume”) product and round out Apple’s mobile family, I still think — perhaps more strongly than ever — that the wearable’s primary strategy was to vet new technologies for use elsewhere. (And if such isn’t its main goal, it’s certainly a co-headliner, as far as I can tell. “Plan B” it is most assuredly not.)

I come to this conclusion for two reasons, both of which I’ve written about (but not really connected) in the past.

The first is that Apple Watch is not now, nor will it ever be, intended as a long-term iPhone replacement. The future of wide-scale portable communication is not at the wrist. The option will certainly be there for those who want it, but there won’t be enough of these kinds of users to make wearables trump smartphones as the world’s preferred category of mobile device. It’s just not happening.

Secondly, Apple Watch, while presumably the fastest-selling Apple launch product to date, will not maintain that pace. That is to say that, despite its strong start (which, to be fair, any new Apple category flagship would likely enjoy due to the power of brand awareness and customer loyalty for a company with some 750 million active users), Cupertino’s wearable won’t be the brand’s best-selling product at any time in its lifecycle. My outsider opinion — without access to any numbers (since real numbers aren’t available and my guesses are as reliable as any well-known market analyst’s because I’ve successfully navigated grade school) — is that Apple Watch will settle in comfortably behind iPad while both remain dwarfed by growing iPhone sales. And that doesn’t mean Apple Watch will flop — I think Apple will sell a hundred million of them over the next half-decade.

It simply means that, as everyone already knows, Apple is The iPhone Company. In any given quarter, Apple sells between 40 and 75 million units of its handset worldwide. No consumer product of any kind (except maybe ammo or oil) comes close, and there’s no real reason to think there’ll be any lull in those figures any time soon. With the preponderance of renewable subsidies and the allure of “new” every few years, iPhone is a force that cannot be reckoned with by any internal or external competition.

However, because of its overwhelming popularity, iPhone is a force that can be undermined at its source by large-scale screw-ups on the introduction of new technologies. If a heavily advertised feature is a dud, there will be global ramifications. Scott Forstall lost his job — and his apparent status as heir apparent — because Apple Maps wasn’t up to snuff at its introduction. When iPhone 4 launched with “antennagate” (a real problem with a pair of real consequences, as opposed to “bendgate” and the various other such hotel-themed memes since), the backlash made the ever-savvy, late Steve Jobs say the dumbest, most dismissive thing of his entire career. Somehow, most folks accepted it as Apple hurried behind the scenes to remedy the issue with an invisible bridge, but Apple doesn’t have that guy anymore, and they’ve got to be very careful when they tout new tech or seek to explain away its potential problems.

But beta testing that new tech with a few thousand engineers over the course of several months won’t cut it with a product aimed to consistently move at least a million units every couple of days once it hits store shelves. However seemingly small, any fundamental problem dropped on a crowd that big that fast will be overwhelmingly amplified. No other company on Earth needs to worry about this, but Apple does.

To that end, Apple Watch is the perfect testing platform.

Force Touch, which is moderately useful but pedestrian in Apple Watch (pre-watchOS 2), has already made its way to the MacBook line, where it is majorly useful and downright game-changing. After a month with my Apple Watch, I recognized that Force Touch might be cool elsewhere. But after only a few days with my new laptop, I actively miss its functionality when using my iPhone, iPad, and Magic Mouse. And by all accounts (with the possible exception of the latter), Force Touch is indeed headed to those products ASAP.

One compelling use case in the not-so-distant offing goes like this: Wacom is in deep trouble.

Another compelling use case: Once Touch ID can be embedded beneath solid bezel glass instead of localized on a small moving part that gaps the build of iPhone and iPad, Force Touch can then be used — in the bottom central region of said devices — to activate unlocks, app downloads, Apple Pay, etc. This would summarily eliminate the home button, which is something Jobs publicly pined after on an almost yearly basis since 2007 up until his passing. The same applies to side buttons, should Apple find that necessary. But that might be a hard sell without some sort of tactile feedback for the end user.

To wit, the Taptic Engine!

This development, being woefully underpowered and (so far) underutilized on Apple Watch, also has a more prominent future ahead once embedded under the screens and cases of Apple’s other mobiles. And by the time that bit of kit gets there, you can be sure that — by field testing it through Apple Watch’s several million users over a nice, long year or two — the big kinks will most certainly be worked out. As with Force Touch, the Taptic Engine is already present in new MacBook and MacBook Pro trackpads, and the effect — virtualizing the tactile movement for both normal clicks and deeper Force Touch clicks — is impressively convincing. Still, there’s immediate potential for the feature to be even more useful and impactful once it’s baked into iPhone and iPad. From making games more engaging to granting alerts more specificity to giving virtual button clicks that distinct hardware feel, the Taptic Engine will be the haptic end of Force Touch across Apple’s entire mobile family.

Lesser Apple Watch “introductions” apply here, too. Raise-to-wake would be extremely useful on iPhone or iPad (if you roll sans security, like I do), as would a “tap-to-wake” function. Like the Force Touch examples above, this too would eliminate these products’ needs for the home button and nudge them further towards the mobile durability — and design purity — of the solid state.

Apple Watch also showed Apple fans that Jony Ive isn’t the only one with the vision and ability to churn out attractive items while preserving contemporary Apple DNA, and while the device’s Digital Crown has no place on iPhone or iPad (or, for that matter, on Apple Watch itself), a non-screen-obstructing scroll might makes its way to those other devices’ side panels. Even the battery-management lessons learned via Apple Watch’s P-OLED display might allow those colorful, rich pixels to debut in Apple’s bigger wares.

Magnetic inductive charging is certainly the future for all Apple mobiles, and further down the line — and in the interest of further refining that aforesaid purity of design — I can see iPhone and iPad eliminating their headphone ports altogether. Except for a speaker grille and microphone pinhole, these slates will then be smooth and unbroken all the way around. They could be made to be totally ambidextrous, too. The home, volume, and power toggles would be where the user decides, and in the event that a central, screen-embedded camera comes to fruition, nobody will ever again know which way is up. Because every way would be up, including Apple’s market cap.

Especially once Apple starts using its ceramic 18K workaround to sell solid gold iPhones and iPads to the Chinese, Russian, Indian, and Middle Eastern markets for a markup of around 1000 percent. Apple Watch Edition is a huge hit on that side of the world, and there’s every reason in the world for Apple to sell gold way over the market price to whoever wants to buy it.

Of course, had any of these technologies been unveiled in one of Apple’s much larger lines, public outcry over the inevitable first-generation problems would be much larger than they’ve proven to be on this tiny device that Apple doesn’t really plan to move in any real volume any time soon. If the Taptic Engine causes production issues on Apple Watch (it did!), no big deal. If the Taptic Engine causes a similar delay with a new iPhone model (it won’t, now), major stock losses and company restructuring are an almost guaranteed contingency. Ditto (but to a lesser extent) with iPad. If Bluetooth audio isn’t where it needs to be once iPhone ditches the headphone jack (and it’s darn sure not there yet, according my two most recent Amazon returns), the backlash would be cataclysmic, both internally at Cupertino and externally on Wall Street. (As a related aside, the Beats acquisition is shaping up to be as much or more about the hardware than it was about the software, for this very reason.) If Apple doesn’t practice with touchscreen-based Force Touch and haptic feedback for a little while on a platform where users are much more patient, they might have a disaster when that stuff doesn’t work right in more primary roles on much bigger (and bigger-selling) devices.

And that’s just it: patient users. Early adopters of Apple Watch, more than any other early adopters I’ve ever seen (or been among) are exceedingly patient with the device. Any problem is generally met with enthusiasm for a solution, and anyone who laments these issues (yo!) is dismissed as a “hater” or a disgruntled fringe moron with no real claim and even less understanding. People want to love this device in a way that’s unprecedented, partly because — if they don’t actively feel that desire — they’re not going to enjoy it at all, even when it gets certain things right. Whether this is due to the understood nonessential nature of wearables in general or the fact that nobody expected much out of Apple Watch 1 to begin with is impossible to say, but I’d reckon it’s a healthy dose of both. Plus, Apple fans know that Apple usually comes through eventually.

But this reality of a product that — to the majority of its buyers — can really do no wrong is a massive boon to Apple R&D, because they can now more than ever before test new tech among a large, willing populace that won’t give them (or their stock) any real grief when any problems arise.

“Rinse it under running water” did not become “You’re holding it wrong” for a reason.

And that reason is going to prove very, very valuable to Apple’s other products going forward.