After covering a big Apple event, I usually feel similarly to how I feel after a drunk brunch: tired but pleasantly buzzed.
But on Monday, following the Apple Watch presentation in San Francisco from across the country, I felt something different: a sense of dread that I couldn’t quite explain.
Many tech industry observers smarter than myself have already weighed in on the initial shortcomings of Apple’s line of smartwatches: It doesn’t have a standout application to be fully differentiated from the iPhone. The watch is surprisingly confusing to set up and use. The battery life and pricetags are lol-worthy.
And it’s unclear exactly why the device needs to exist, other than for the sake of giving Apple’s disembodied voice/top designer Jony Ive a project to stay engaged — and, of course, providing more incentives to buy an iPhone. Lest we forget Apple is an iPhone company first and foremost.
All of that might be true, or these might be the kind of knee-jerk reactions that some clever blogger collects in five years under the headline: “10 Tech reporters who stupidly thought the Apple Watch would be a flop.” I tend to be of the mindset that the Apple Watch is very much flawed, but that doesn’t necessarily matter: Apple launched the original iPhone without the App Store and at the wrong price, but it still took off.
Apple can launch a flawed hardware product and still sell millions. Tens of millions. It will iterate and improve on the obvious flaws, then sell millions more. Will the Apple Watch ever rival the iPhone in units sold? Probably not. But will millions and millions of people buy it, flaws and all? Yep. And that’s where my anxiety kicks in.
The promise of the Apple Watch, like any smartwatch or fitness band, is that it can help us lead healthier and more productive lives. The Apple Watch shows some promise with the former: It measures your steps and calories burned (though you can already do this with an iPhone) and tells you when you should get out of your chair (other apps do this too.)
It’s the productivity side, I realized after a few hours of thinking, that makes me sweat. I recalled one paragraph in particular that writer Tim Wu published last month in The New Yorker discussing the downside of “convenience technology” like the smartphone:
Our technologies may have made us prosthetic gods, yet they have somehow failed to deliver on the central promise of free time. The problem is that, as every individual task becomes easier, we demand much more of both ourselves and others. Instead of fewer difficult tasks (writing several long letters) we are left with a larger volume of small tasks (writing hundreds of emails). We have become plagued by a tyranny of tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive. And, when every task in life is easy, there remains just one profession left: multitasking.
The “tyranny of tiny tasks,” as Wu called it, may only get more tyrannical if the Apple Watch draws in more developers and users, pushing the smartwatch beyond the early adopter community. Computers shifted us from writing occasional time-consuming letters to writing a mounting number of emails. Smartphones allowed us to fire off an exponentially larger number of emails as well as quicker messages through other applications.
The Apple Watch has the potential to atomize communication between friends and colleagues even more, simplifying each individual response for the smaller screen, yet ultimately adding to the number of tiny tasks in any given day.
The key phrase Apple uses in describing communication on the watch is “quick.” You’ll be able to quickly communicate with others using sketches, emojis, stock phrases, heartbeats, voice and more. Those quick actions may only multiply to create additional quick actions. When necessary, the watch supposedly makes it easy to shift to a phone call or a proper email on your phone.
On Tuesday, I half-jokingly tweeted my fear that Slack, a popular workplace communication tool, would build an app for the watch that notifies you of messages from colleagues, effectively handcuffing us to our jobs at all hours of the day. Then I realized my mistake: Slack isn’t considering releasing an app for the watch; it already has one.
Slack (just barely) makes the watch launch ad. Lower left. pic.twitter.com/3dRVzmDNCY
— Stewart Butterfield (@stewart) March 9, 2015
Slack isn’t the first or only workplace tool on the watch. At launch, Apple is highlighting an app from Salesforce, which “gives you a quick snapshot of your business analytics, such as the top 10 sales opportunities for your company or for a particular division.”
“Did you get that report I sent you? You sure? Did you check your wrist?”
If you thought it was difficult to come up with a decent excuse for a late response to an email while carrying a smartphone, just wait until the messages are sitting squarely on your wrist. The expectations will increase all over again.
Productivity and convenience come with tradeoffs, like anything else. More small tasks. Less “unplugged” time. An erosion of the boundaries between us and our peers. Many may conclude these are tradeoffs worth making, but everyone should at least take a moment to consider the tradeoffs before rushing headlong for the next shiny new Apple product.
During his presentation for the Apple Watch, CEO Tim Cook showed off its ability to make phone calls and then said, “I’ve been wanting to do this since I was 5 years old.” He said it with such earnestness that you really had to believe it was his dream, perhaps inspired by pop culture years ago. When I saw his presentation though, I couldn’t help but think it looked more like a nightmare.
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