When Apple introduced us to the iPhone, there was a lot to absorb: Inertia scrolling, pinch to zoom, slide to unlock, predictive text, not to mention desktop-caliber web browsing, email, and maps on a 3.5-inch screen. But even with 15 apps, advanced sensors and the greatest iPod the world had ever seen, Steve Jobs was most proud of its most basic function: “What’s the killer app? The killer app is making calls!”
As I watched Tim Cook put the finishing touches on the Apple Watch demo he started in September, I half-expected to hear him say, “What’s the killer app? The killer app is telling time!” Everything you can do on Apple Watch—from the notification glances to the heart rate monitor and answering calls—is meaningless if it’s not an exceptional timepiece. It’s far more important to Apple Watch’s success than the iPhone’s dialing capabilities ever were. I can go days without using my iPhone to talk to someone, but I expect the lion’s share of my interactions with Apple Watch will be no different than they are with the watches I already wear: Checking the time.
For the better part of two years, Apple’s competitors have all been doing their best Jony Ive impressions. Ever since we first starting hearing rumblings that Apple was working on some kind of wrist-wearable device, we’ve been flooded with a steady stream of smartwatches, all trying to beat Apple at its own game.
The first out of the gate was Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, a clunky, bulbous affair that tried to shrink a 5-inch Galaxy S4 into a 1.63-inch screen. It was filled with the sort of things we expected a wearable to do, like fitness apps and notifications, but none of them actually improved on the common wristwatch. Case in point: Its grand innovation was a camera built into a strap, and one of the marquis software features was its ability to remotely control your Galaxy phone.
It was a classic case of doing too much. Apple’s philosophy has always been “a thousand no’s for every yes,” but a lot of the smartwatches on the market try to cram as many functions as possible without focusing on the one that matters: the clock. Even Motorola and LG, which went with classic circular designs for their Moto 360 and Urbane smartwatches, don’t offer as refined an experience as their enclosures would suggest.
Apple Watch is different. It might not have as many watch faces as Pebble Time or even Android Wear, but the ones Apple has crafted truly take horology to a new level. Apple isn’t just making an iPhone companion; it wants to stake out a claim in the annals of watchmaking history. Apple Watch doesn’t have the handcrafted perpetual motion mechanism of a Rolex Oyster, but in place of those tiny wheels and gears is a precision and customization not possible on a traditional timepiece.
Unlike most smartwatches out there, Apple built a watch and worked backward. Everywhere you go, time is never more than a touch away. When you’re looking at notifications, the time stays in the top right corner. It’s at the center of the home screen. And when you lift your wrist it instantly appears.
It might seem strange that Apple hasn’t opened up a time-telling API as part of WatchKit, but Apple Watch’s faces are its identity, much more than apps or glances. Just look at how proud the company is of its chronograph face: “Modeled on the very first analog stopwatches, this face measures time in incredibly precise increments. It uses two hands: one for total time and a second for lap times. A customizable timescale measures long and short time periods.”
Apple has even made it simple to swap out faces on a whim, but unlike Pebble or Android Wear, it is keeping a tight control over them. A variety of faces is the biggest advantage Apple Watch has over traditional timepieces, but rather than boast dozens of inferior faces, there are but nine to choose from. Most of them are tasteful modern spins on classic designs, like the tap-dancing Mickey Mouse or the Movado-like minimalism, and none of them are over the top. Perhaps the fonts will get more futuristic and the animations wilder down the road, but for the introduction, Apple is paying tremendous respect to the art of timekeeping while still embracing what sets Apple Watch apart. It’s modern elegance at its finest.
Even the customizable elements—complications, as Apple calls them, another nod to the serious world of watchmaking—harken back to a time when wristwatches were a staple of our lives. Somewhat ironically, the proliferation of the iPhone has made watches somewhat irrelevant, but Apple understands and respects the history of the industry it is entering. The little details are all impeccably designed and thoughtfully placed, and none of them distract from the centerpiece.
We were all waiting for Tim to pull out some killer Apple Watch feature it was keeping under wraps, but that moment never came. As developers sink their teeth into WatchKit and start figuring out how to best utilize the screen and new navigation methods, people are surely going to find all sorts of uses for the latest Apple gadget—but first and foremost, there will always be timekeeping. With Watch, Apple is standing on the shoulders of giants, keeping in the exquisite tradition of Rolex, Tag Heuer, and Breitling to rekindle people’s love of telling time.
The iPhone didn’t need to be a great phone to succeed, but Apple Watch needs to be a great timepiece, especially if Apple expects to sell many of those five-figure Edition models.
Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.