clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Apple doesn't want to talk about the real use for the Apple Watch

New, 452 comments

Explaining what the watch is for means admitting that phones can be a burden

Yesterday Tim Cook showed off all the things you can do with an Apple Watch. You can transmit your heartbeat and open your garage door; you can summon an Uber and peruse Instagram. Basically, you can do a lot of the things you can do on your phone, but on your wrist. That seems nice but doesn’t really answer the question of why you’d spend a few hundred dollars (or more) for a device that does the same things as the device in your pocket. Apple’s challenge was to present a compelling use case for the watch, and it mostly failed to. "It still feels like an awful lot of interesting ideas without a unifying theme," Nilay wrote after testing the watch.

The thing is, the watch does have a use case, it's just one that’s hard for Apple to talk about. Last week Matthew Panzarino at TechCrunch wrote that the best thing about the watch, according to the Apple employees who’ve been demoing it, was that it let them basically stop using their phone. Instead of fishing their phones out of their pockets every couple minutes, they could check incoming notifications on the watch and choose to ignore or respond to them. Panzarino imagined a future where the watch helps us be less distracted and more present.

Read next: Read our Apple Watch review.

There is a case for the watch, but it's hard for Apple to talk about

But how do you get up on stage and say that the best thing about this new gadget is that it lets people use this other gadget, the one you spent the last eight years turning into a fetish object, less frequently? Of course you still need an iPhone for the Apple Watch, so it’s not like the watch threatens to replace the phone — but rhetorically it’s a tricky argument to make. You’d have to acknowledge that people can have fraught relationships with their phones, and that their attachment to them is deeply ambivalent. True, I feel relief when I check my phone and anxious when its battery dies, but that’s a very different type of obsession than the sort Apple encourages in its lavish videos of cold-forged steel watch cases. It’s much more compulsive and dependent. Making the best pitch for the watch would mean acknowledging that devices can be burdens, not just tools for empowerment.

It’s also a paradoxical case to make. How do you tell people who feel queasy about being too immersed in their phones that the solution is buying another device that they physically strap onto their body and buzzes them whenever they get a message? Do you feel too plugged-in? Maybe you’re just not plugged in enough! Cook’s statement that the watch is "not just with you, it's on you" is both appealing — no need to compulsively reach for our phone — and ominously oppressive, depending on how you feel about your phone's incessant pings.

Devices can be burdens, not just tools for empowerment

And of course there’s the strong possibility that the watch won’t free you from your devices — instead, it’ll do exactly the opposite. Will you really stop twitchily checking to see if you might have missed something, or will a screen that’s less of a hassle to glance at only make it an easier itch to scratch? Will you be able to relax in between pings, or will you exist in a constant state of anticipation and half-distracted awareness? At least now you can put your phone on silent and turn it face down if you want to log off for a bit; a watch is always on — and "on you," as Cook said — at least when it’s not charging. Moreover, if the watch becomes the norm, everyone will know you received their text, snap, or mention and expect you to reply immediately. Now a delayed reply might mean you didn’t hear your phone; with a watch, it means you’re just being rude.

I’m willing to entertain the possibility that a wearable device could alleviate some technological anxieties — in fact, I think it’s the strongest case for them — but I can also imagine plenty of cases where it makes all these problems far worse, which is just another reason for Apple to stay away from the subject.

Verge Video: Initial takeaways from the introduction of the Apple Watch