Essays on Technology and Culture

Eighteen Karets of “Why Should I Care?”

Apple is weeks away (according to rumor) from releasing a new consumer technology product that has the potential to revolutionize our relationship to technology. Sure, there’s been smartwatches before, but none have had Apple’s level of detail, polish, and integration on the hardware and software levels. If anyone can get a smartwatch right, and unlock the potential of a computer on the wrist, it’s probably Apple. We can’t say until it’s for sale and wrapped around our wrists. There’s plenty we don’t know about Apple Watch, and how we’ll be using it, and all those unknowns are fueling speculation around the Internet.

Well, maybe in some places. What I keep seeing in my circles is speculation about how much Apple’s going to charge for the gold, Edition models, theories about how many Edition models are being manufactured, and curiosity about how they’ll be sold.

Seriously, people. We’re about to get our hands on a piece of gear that could, if done right, change the way we interact with every piece of digital technology in our lives. Apple Watch can become the most personal piece of technology we have seen, changing the way we relate to everything digital… and we’re arguing about the price of the gold in the case, and whether the most expensive model will cost $3,000, $5,000, or $20,000. Spare me. It’s clear that Apple is targeting across the price spectrum for their smartwatch, and it’s a smart strategy. There are people who drop multiple thousands on mechanical watches without blinking, and making Apple Watch appeal to them is a reasonable way try and secure some clout among the fashion conscious. How much will it cost? “A lot” will suffice.

The more important price we know is $349, the price for the entry-level Apple Watch. I agree with the current theory that the $349 price will be for the Sports variant, and it’s only $100 more than the base model Moto 360, generally considered the best Android Wear watch out there. As prices go, it’s one that puts the Apple Watch within reach of many people with an interest in technology. It’s affordable, but not cheap, which is fast becoming Apple’s entry-level price point. I’m reminded of the discussion, pre-iPad about pricing, with some suggesting it would start at $999. Instead, Apple priced it at $499, shocking everybody, and instantly making the iPad seem more affordable. If we have to talk about the price of this product, this is where we should be having the discussion.

Instead, focusing on the high-end of the price scale for Apple Watch feels like navel-gazing of the highest order.

There’s real conversations we can have about the role of wearables, like John Pavlus’s recent piece in MIT Technology Review:

The unique promise of wearable technology lies in its intimate proximity to our bodies, which makes Apple’s inward-facing “taptic engine” particularly interesting. This lets the device deliver pulses of vibration, or haptic feedback, to the wearer’s wrist, and it is unavailable to third-party developers for now. If Apple removes that barrier, the watch’s true power as a new kind of personal communicator will be unleashed…

This is powerful, compelling, and exciting stuff! It’s why, wearables skeptic that I am, have undertaken an experiment of wearing a smartwatch for a month. I want to know the potential of what this new form of computing can do, and the potential of what we can do with it. The gold Apple Watch Edition isn’t going to differ functionally from its less expensive, steel and aluminum brethren. On the outside it’s shinier, and fancier, but inside, the hardware is the same, and so are the bits that make up the software. So why all the attention being lavished on the mysterious price point for the gold model?

As I think about this problem, I come back to a thought I had recently: “That which is not quantifiable is not valued.” People, especially technology people, love numbers. I remember comparing the specs on computers with my friends back in the day, grumbling with envy at the guy with the 500Mhz Pentium III while I still got by with my 266Mhz Pentium II. In 2015, the specs no longer matter that much, outside of heavy lifting truck stuff, like video editing and 3D rendering (for games and design alike). When the innards of our laptops and tablets don’t differ that much between brands, we have to find something else to quantify, gloat about, and argue over.

So, we choose to fight and die on the hill of our chosen brand’s market value. Apple had the biggest quarter ever, and is now worth more than almost all other companies in the world. Apple sold more iPhones last quarter, at a higher average selling price than ever before. If Apple sells a bunch of multi-thousand dollar gold watches, that’s a huge pile of profit, and yet another thing to cheer for, and another arrow in our quiver that we can launch at the Android fans with their flat-tire screened Moto 360s.

John Gruber has described two types of baseball fans: numbers people, and story people. Numbers people care obsessively about the statistics, while story people focus on the player, their interactions, and the arc of a team’s season. For baseball, Gruber styles himself a story person. In technology, there’s the same thing. Some of us care about the numbers: clock speed, RAM, cache, transfer speeds. Some of care about how we can use the darn thing: about apps, interfaces, and our relationship with our gizmos. It’s clear that I’ve moved into that latter camp, and the numbers people aren’t telling a story I care about.