Time is on Apple’s side

Since the ancient Egyptians and their sundials, we humans have been fascinated with the idea of measuring “time”. And our reasons for measuring time often inform the design of tools we use to track it.

For instance, during the dark ages, clocks were essentially used for religious purposes and found place on top of towers. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, watches became part of the kit for military men, especially those who led the troops, for synchronizing manoeuvres during the war. The watches became indispensable during the First World War. Later, with the emergence of a 9-to-5 office life, wrist watches became ubiquitous. This eventually gave way to a more synchronized time — whether it was on quartz watches, digital clocks or cell-phones. The time-measurement devices and their true purpose have always had a product market fit.

And perhaps that is why I find Apple Watch and other so-called smartwatches, confounding. It is a topic I discussed with Ben Clymer (founder) and Stephen Pulvirent (Editor) of Hodinkee, a thriving community for horological enthusiasts. In this podcast, I pointed out that just because it is not as big as the iPhone, I don’t believe Apple Watch is a failure.

Ben Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, a research group, estimates that Apple has sold 52.7 million watches and that is between $14 billion to $17 billion in revenues. Bajarin estimates that Apple can log anywhere between $10 billion to $15 billion a year from Apple Watch sales. That doesn’t sound like a failure. As Ben (Clymer) said, “It is a failure only relative to Apple’s other successes.”

That said, I believe that calling it the Apple Watch does the wrist-bound wearable a disservice. Just as the iPhone was not really about the phone, the Apple Watch isn’t really about watch and time. However, if the iPhone was unlike any phone before, the Apple Watch sadly looks very much like how we think of wristwatches. From its screen to its straps, the watch takes its visual design cues from a century old idea of a wrist watch. And yet, it is anything but.

As I said on the podcast, watches should be viewed from the context of society and their environment. About a century ago there was a disagreement between philosopher Henri Bergson and physicist Albert Einstein on what is time. If the philosopher delved into the subjectivity of time, while the eminent scientist was all about objective reality of time. Einstein’s idea of time would be what the clock measures and Bergson’s argument is why do we need a clock. Why indeed?

Lewis Mumford, a New York City-based historian once argued that “clock, not the steam engine or the printing press as the ‘key machine of industrial modern age.’” The idea of minutes and seconds has defined the workplace and so much of our society.

A key driver of new technologies – telegraph, telephone, television, the Internet is the notion of faster time. Today, we live in a world that is so insanely fast, that to think of time in hours and minutes seems like such a quaint idea. I wear a time only analog watch to actually feel a sense of time, even though my iPhone calendar keeps me moving through the day.

Time, in post-Internet society, is now all about fractionalized attention. The idea of work is not defined by 9-to-5 anymore. And as such time as we have known through the Industrial Age has lost its purpose. For example, as gig economies become more pervasive, the idea of what constitutes a “job” is becoming more fluid. You don’t have shifts, instead you have notifications you swipe on to determine if you are going to take a rider somewhere or not. The farms, factories and offices are being replaced by a new notion of workspace. We don’t know what it is — and with robotics and automation, what it will be in the future. It won’t be what it was — that is for certain.

The rise in communication options has turned what was confined by four walls into something more porous and fluid. And perhaps that is why I argue, that we need to think of time differently.

The world today is about information streams, notifications that allow us to be connected and interact with the real world. The most irrelevant thing on the watch (like the phone on the iPhone) is the watch face. Apple, if anything should be spending more time and energy thinking about how to actually help grow the app-ecosystem and help develop apps and services that leverage time as a unit of attention.

Like I said, time is on their side.

August 2, 2018, San Francisco

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If you would like to listen to the podcast conversation between team Hodinkee and me, here is a link to their website. You can find it on Apple Podcasts, TuneIn and other platforms.

Letter from Om

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