It’s too early to tell how successful Apple Watch will be. But what is clear is this: Apple continues to invent. It was striking, in fact, to realize — as Tim Cook, Kevin Lynch, and Jony Ive presented it – the amount of R&D that Apple has invested into making Apple Watch.
In terms of hardware, for instance, Apple developed unique or highly-customized technology in no less than seven areas. And these aren’t small achievements. They’re not feats of squeezing a camera into a watch or forms of specsmanship. They’re in important areas: related to CPU, interface, sensors, and very fundamental mechanics. The software achievements are equally impressive, spanning a range of 15 different problems Apple had to solve. All of these – hardware and software – are tough, fundamental advances aimed squarely at helping users achieve their goals.
I won’t re-explain each major technology area; others have written and said plenty. Instead, here are several of the high-order points, in my view:
1. The S1. Very customized. As if Apple said “a new class of device deserves a new class of computer”. This degree of customization is the right call – because it affects everything that’s supposed to make a smartwatch appealing and valuable: size, functionality, performance, battery life, and upgradeability. I don’t claim 100% certainty, but I’d venture to say Apple’s competitors don’t take this aspect as seriously. If you have more color, please email me.
3. The Digital Crown. It’s a zig toward the tactile when the industry has zagged so far toward the digital. (And it’s not for the sake of contrarianism.) Very cool solution. If an Apple car had 10x more of this physical interface ingenuity, that would be amazing.
Also, just as the mouse, scroll wheel, and multi-touch were central to the identity of the Macintosh, iPod, and iPhone, the digital crown really is central to the identity of the Apple Watch. If you had to pinch, or weren’t able to zoom in and out, it would be an entirely different experience.
4. Force Touch and Taptic Engine. These take the most widespread mobile interface, the touchscreen, and make it meaningfully richer. Pretty good achievement. And yes, to say the obvious: some form of Force Touch and Taptic Engine will land on the iPad and the iPhone. Like any new input approach, expect these to be used, over-used, and fine-tuned over time.
5. Digital Touch (the ability to share a tap, a sketch, or a heartbeat). Apple could have taken the best-fit smartphone interactions (e.g., notification vibrations), transferred them to the watch, and called it a day. But they didn’t. Someone stepped back and thought “The fact that this product is touching you *means* something; there may be value in a new kind of communication.” First-rate thinking.
6. Sketch. Time will tell if this perspective matters, but it’s as if the Sketch aspect of Digital Touch combines the best of Instagram (pictures) with Twitter (brevity) and Snapchat (the moment). And speed, a fourth attribute, was inherent in the demo examples.
7. The design, including the bands. The budget and attention here likely rivals the entire investment that any of Apple’s competitors put into their first-generation programs. Perhaps by a multiple. Ditto with the “making of” videos that Apple showed.
8. Heart rate sensor. The difficulty is in getting accurate readings. Let’s see how well Apple Watch performs, and how it addresses the challenges.
9. The incumbents. There is SO MUCH here that traditional watchmakers can’t touch. In short, everything in blue in the chart above. Why? Because of everything else in all the other charts in this article.
10. This is what it takes. This – all this new hardware and all this new software – is what it takes to launch a new category, and to have a shot at success. (And this doesn’t even get into the product management, marketing, and point-of-sale excellence that’s also required.)
A user interface tailored to the form. A communication method tailored to the context. A design that is careful and considerate, rather than a cost-reduced imitation of design. And the custom hardware, software, and manufacturing that optimizes each of these.
These achievements embody Jony Ive’s comment to Ian Parker of the New Yorker. (The quoted words are Jony’s.)
The creation of Apple products required “invention after invention after invention that you would never be conscious of, but that was necessary to do something that was new.”
A DIFFERENT FOCUS
How is Apple able to do this, while competing smartwatches (e.g., Samsung Gear models) deliver features like an “IR blaster”? I don’t think the answer is “complicated”, but it is a multi-part answer, best saved for later. (Many people have a perspective and, by helping my former company compete against Apple, I have mine.) For now, here’s a short version.
At the highest level, it has to do with company identity. Identity reflects the values of the founder(s), and it determines whether a company chooses to prioritize the new or the familiar, and whether it values quality or quantity. In turn, this drives resource focus: where a company allocates its resources – people, processes, technology.
Apple allocates more resources than other mobile companies (call them “component integrators”) in two key areas: Product Direction and Technology Development. The “vision thing” and the “invention thing”. It chooses new problems to solve for consumers, and it creates the technology to do so. That’s the short answer to “how is Apple able to do this?”
In contrast, most other mobile device makers either don’t invent, or they do so very sporadically. If you peered into each and counted the number of leaders, engineers, product managers, assets, and hours devoted to i) identifying new jobs to be done and ii) creating new technology to solve them, you might be surprised. Mostly, they purchase standard, complex components and work hard to integrate them into products.
To be clear, component integrators are important companies. They serve a valuable role: they help many of us get effective, reliable, reasonably-priced products. And the engineers at these companies are some of the best in the world. Component integration that is high quality, fast to market, and cost-effective is quite difficult.
But integration is not invention. As a company of invention, Apple conducts both broader and deeper exploration, it demonstrates the ability to take on higher risk, and it often reaps the resulting greater reward.
A DIFFERENT OUTCOME
Invention and integration produce different outcomes for the companies that specialize in either. Generally speaking, the differences are in performance and impact.
- Performance. By shaping their technologies, companies that invent increase their ability to shape their products. Invention enables differentiation. Differentiation – or doing valuable jobs in a better way — enables healthy pricing, and healthy profit. That’s why, in smartphones for instance, the vast majority (~ 99%) of the operating profits belong to the companies that invent the most: Apple and Samsung. Invention isn’t the *only* driver behind their performance, but it’s a major driver. The component integrators, in contrast, have been disrupted. (See Nokia, BlackBerry, Motorola, and HTC.) And Xiaomi? Yes, selling a product for minimal profit will move a lot of units, but the company has yet to make a significant profit.
- Impact. Component integrators, by virtue of (mostly) competing on price, help spread technology across the world. That’s important and valuable. But inventing companies also do this. They don’t do it via rock-bottom prices; they do it by offering functionality that’s both powerful and inspirational. Moreover, inventing companies do something that component integrators can’t: they shape the future, they push frontiers. They introduce the hardware, software, apps, or services that previously didn’t exist or weren’t polished enough for mass consumption. They create the NEW. And if it’s good enough, soon others make something similar.
Component integrators bring new advances to market, too (BlackBerry: the keyboard; Samsung: the phablet; Nokia: PureView camera; Motorola: Moto Voice). It’s just that companies that invent are able do so repeatedly and more frequently.
That’s what makes Apple – one of many technology inventors – so fascinating: watching it perform well, stumble at times, and watching it move mobile forward.
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