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Apple made a true fashion statement today, but it wasn't the Apple Watch

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Computers as fashion, and fashion as computers

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For an object made to resemble a fashion accessory, the Apple Watch sure is busy. It’s telling you the weather and reading you your email. It’s taking your phone calls and texting your daughter. It’s sharing your heartbeat with your lover, and animating the messages they tapped back to you. It’s counting your steps and telling you to stand the hell up. "It’s like having a coach on your wrist," Tim Cook said on stage today. Move over Coach purse; say hi to Coach Apple.

The default posture of humanity has become the chin on the chest, thumbs at chest level

The thing is, I was hoping the wearable revolution would play out differently than this. It bothers me that the default posture of humanity is rapidly becoming the chin on the chest, thumbs at chest level, tapping on glass. For a time I naïvely believed Google when it said Glass would rescue us from staring at our smartphones, bringing us relevant information in a subtle heads-up display. Unfortunately, Glass turned out to be about as subtle as a head wound, and it served primarily to get people to ask if you were recording them.

It’s only natural, then, that we would turn our attention next to the wrist, where watches have been capably blending fashion and function for almost 150 years. We know watches can be stylish, unlike Google’s cyborg glasses; and we know they can be functional, keeping time for months on end without needing their batteries replaced. If anyone could bring watches into the digital future, surely Apple — who all but invented the modern smartphone — would be up to the task?

Less fashion accessory than iPhone accessory

I’ll leave it to our reviews team to make a full assessment. But I’ve been struck at how Apple presents its watch less as a fashion accessory than as an iPhone accessory. There’s little you can do with the watch unless it’s paired with an iPhone; once you do pair it, it can then do … iPhone things. Things like pay, with Apple Pay. Or show your boarding pass, via Passbook. This was one reason that the watch-focused portions of today’s event felt somewhat draggy: in many cases, we had seen them before. And not just at the first watch event, but rather on our iPhones. For all the talk of Apple’s grand debut as a fashion house, it’s notable how much its debut product resembles nothing so much as an inbox strapped to the wrist.

I’m no fashion expert, but it strikes me that the best clothing and accessories grab our attention and hold it, fixing the moment in time as we consider the color, the shape, the way they move. The paradox of a smartwatch is that however nice it looks, it so often takes you out of that moment, flickering at you with all manner of distractions. Perhaps an inbox that buzzes at you perpetually is a kind of status symbol — a way of telling the world how desperately you are needed elsewhere. But watching extended demos of the Apple Watch today made me crave something quieter, calmer. Something that acted less like a computer and more like an art object.

As it so happens, Apple introduced one of those, too: the new 12-inch MacBook. Consider the differences in how the two products were introduced. The watch was presented as the sum of its many features: as a fitness tracker, a phone, an email client, and so on. The MacBook, by contrast, was presented as a MacBook. No one spent any time explaining what it is, or does. We know what it does, just by looking at it. We see the keyboard and the premium display and we know.

MacBook gold press photos

Why the MacBook has more visceral appeal

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that on balance the MacBook has more visceral appeal. You see that gleaming display, and the precision-engineered aluminum, and you understand how good it’s going to look when you bring a gold one with you to the coffee shop. It’s sleeker than what came before, having shed every port but one plus a headphone jack. But it’s smarter, too: the extra room has been filled with contoured layers of batteries, for example, and the touchpad is more capable, now that it recognizes different levels of finger pressure. It’s lithe, the way an athlete is lithe: every muscle serves a purpose. Not an atom looks out of place.

Look at the "reveal" and "design" videos that introduced the MacBook: they sell you on how the laptop looks and feels, rather than what it does. When you see one tucked under the arm of a person walking into a meeting, it will catch your eye — and if you’re a fan of the Mac, you’ll likely wish you had one.

Strange, then, that when it comes to the watch, the focus today was on anything but how it looks. This, I think, will cost it. Perhaps in time the story will cohere, and I’ll find myself lusting after the damn watch the way I lusted after the iPhone and the iPad. But today I’m still scratching my head. What does it mean when Apple is marketing its fashion accessory as a computer, and its computer as a fashion accessory?