Friday, 13 March 2015

The oh-so-geeky Apple Watch is not ready for my life yet.

I really want the Apple Watch because it’s so shiny, but I’m having trouble imagining how I’d actually use it.

So which Apple Watch are you going to get? The one with the rubber strap and retails at £299, or the one with exactly the same innards, but retails at £13,500? Put in those terms, it’s a bit of a trivial question, isn’t it? In value-for-money terms, the top-of-the-scale just doesn’t make sense – but then again neither does a top-of-the-scale Breitling.

Traditional watch manufacturers extol the complexity of their complications, that these feats of engineering excellence cannot be matched, and therefore justifies the price. Apple very much justifies its place in this rarefied club, as it too has achieved feats of unparalleled engineering excellence, but in its ability to mass-produce. The atomic delights blog does a great job of explaining the innovation that Apple has put into its manufacturing.

Gold is soft, deforms easily, and is a dumb material to want to make a heavy-wear item like a watch case. But it’s bling, so engineers have the problem of how to make something soft into something hard. The 18k gold that Apple uses for the edition cases is made hard using a new work-hardening technique: rolling precisely milled gold cases to flatten them by a few microns each time, in order to disrupt the crystal lattice structure with just enough dislocations to make them hard, not enough to make them snap. Ultrasonic testers ensure that there aren’t any density variations beneath the surface that could fail in time. A Coordinate Measuring Machine measures that the final case is within 0.05mm of its design.

A lot of decades have gone into developing stainless steal alloys that are hard, whilst ensuring that the nickel in the alloy doesn’t irritate the skin. The clever part is how to create the exceptional strength that Apple required. The Apple Watch innovation is to use cold forging. The steel billet is placed under such immense pressure that it flows into the shape of the case. Using cold forging, the crystal lattices remain intact and the case is immensely strong but not brittle.

Aluminium is a metal that we now associate with Apple, used in its MacBooks, even remote controls, and always to an exacting quality of finish. These techniques are further improved upon for the aluminium watch case. The extrusion process perfectly produces one of the edges for the case, so it’s one less surface to mill. Cases are anodized in densities that are beyond most manufacturers in order to achieve the production volumes. Lasers are used to remove burrs from machined edges so that the precision of the edge is not lost. A laser is also used to cut the serrations on the crown for the same reason.

Apple has deliberately chosen to go way beyond the normal manufacturing processes in making its watch. It is possible to make a gold case without work-hardening, a steel case without cold forging or an aluminium case without lasers.  The huge cost reflects that “good enough” wasn’t good enough for Apple. So by buying an Apple Watch, I’m saying that “good enough” is not good enough for me.

Let’s flip that around a bit: by buying an Apple Watch I’m demonstrating that I’m prepared to spend on something that is far beyond fit-for-purpose. To me, that’s the nub of my cognitive dissonance with the product. You see, I can’t figure out how it’ll fulfil any use case for me. It’s therefore simultaneously beyond fit-for-(Apple’s)-purpose and not fit-for-(my)-purpose.

The negatives outweigh the positives at the moment: the battery won’t last all day, it can’t do anything beyond the abilities of my current bevvy of gadgets, it’s expensive, I’ll irrevocably scratch it within days, and it’ll be obsolete when the next version comes out in 6 months. Which is why I’ve bought the Jawbone UP24 to measure my personal telemetry – I’ll report back on it in a later post.

However, there is one last trick up the sleeve of the Apple Watch that will change my mind, and that’s its apps. The experience of the iPhone showed that a billion possible apps can make a phone that’s terrible at making phone calls indispensible. I’m convinced that the right combination of apps will make the Apple Watch must-wear. Let’s see how long my nerve holds.

Published 13th March 2015

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