Donald Clarke: Apple Watch launch marks a tipping point

Tim Cook’s presentation of Apple watch invited the assumption it might cure leprosy

‘So important is the need for tech companies to reinvent the market that they find themselves spending millions devising solutions for problems that don’t exist.’ Above, Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch in San Francisco, California. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

‘So important is the need for tech companies to reinvent the market that they find themselves spending millions devising solutions for problems that don’t exist.’ Above, Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch in San Francisco, California. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

 

I am going to hold my breath and make a prediction that appears to defy the drift of history. The launch of the Apple Watch is the computing giant’s corporate shark-jump moment. Referencing a famously absurd episode from Happy Days (during which the Fonz really did water-ski over a shark), that idiom indicates the point at which a once vibrant cultural entity appears to tip into terminal decline.

Those sad fools who have, over the decades, followed Apple’s various rises and falls – I have written on nothing else for 30 years – will recall such conspicuous failures as the Newton handheld and the dockable Duo laptop. Neither did what it was supposed to, but, launched during the period of Steve Jobs’s exile, the products were not presented with the messianic solemnity Apple now brings to its product launches. They could fail quietly.

Last week, Tim Cook’s presentation of “Apple Watch” (note how the company’s high druids pompously drop the definite article when describing their amulets) invited the assumption that the wrist-bound computer might predict earthquakes or cure leprosy.

Pundits both wise and foolish have been wrong about previous Apple launches. I was among those who couldn’t see the point of the iPad. How many people would need an intermediate product between the smartphone and their laptop? About 400 million as it happens.

Steve Ballmer, the bumptious former chief executive of Microsoft, got it fatally wrong about the iPhone. “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance,” he said following its arrival in 2007.

If you want to check how wrong Steve was just call up Safari on the iPhone that is currently displaying this column for you. We’ve been here before.

Pain in the polo neck

Steve Jobs

What proved truly sickening, however, was his ability to get it right. On the first day of sale, cult followers, entranced by sheer newness, would join similarly hollow-eyed acolytes at lengthy queues. No doubt the same worshipful maniacs will appear on news reports when the Apple Watch makes its first appearance in shops.

More significantly, two years later, despite the premium prices, the product would be found in the hands of unpretentious everyday consumers eager for a device that was easy to use. My aunt has an iPad.

What’s it for? When President Jacques Chirac first saw a model of the Millennium Dome, he purportedly agreed with Tony Blair that it was beautiful before asking: “But what is it for?” Apple’s decision to offer a $17,000 gold edition of the watch demonstrates how they have lost their connection to the common Zeitgeist. The recent forced importation of U2’s useless album seems, in comparison, like the height of good taste. But the failure to provide an answer to Chirac’s question is a much more serious issue.

The watch is, essentially, a wearable extension of the iPhone and it is largely useless without that device. It has a smaller screen. The sound will be less dynamic. It really does seem as if its only advantage over the smartphone is that you can strap it to your wrist. At least the ill-fated Google Glass looked to be offering (apologies) some sort of paradigm shift.

More than a few commentators have drawn a comparison with the move from pocket watch to wristwatch. The analogy doesn’t quite work. Unlike the Timex Indiglo I bought for €30, which runs unattended for two years, the $17,000 Apple Watch needs to be charged every 19 hours. That’s right. Whatever about its demerits as a computer, the new toy doesn’t even work very well as a bleeding watch.

So important is the need for tech companies to reinvent the market that they find themselves spending millions devising solutions for problems that don’t exist. We need a new product. This is a new product. Therefore we need this. That, presumably, is what Clive Sinclair thought when he invented the C5 electric vehicle.

Apple will fume that this columnist has yet to lay hands on the device. Why Stephen Fry hasn’t even written his regular breathless encomium – flush with familiar praise for designer “Jonny Ive” – that the Guardian commissions every time a new Apple product arrives.

This is all true. Here’s the thing. One of Jobs’s many talents was an ability to persuade punters they wanted the latest Apple gizmo before they’d even memorised its name. For the first time since he returned in the late 1990s, that sight-unseen buzz is nowhere to be heard.

I see a shark. I see a boat. I anticipate a jump.

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