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The Apple Watch seems useless — just like the first PCs and smartphones

Stephen Lam/Getty Images

One of the first questions to come up in almost every discussion of the Apple Watch is: what is it good for? People have trouble imagining why anyone would want a tiny, underpowered computer strapped to their wrist.

But the funny thing is that people ask this question every time a new computing platform comes along that's an order of magnitude smaller than the one that came before. And people keep being surprised by how useful smaller computers can be.

Perhaps the Apple Watch will surprise us, too.

In the 1970s, no one understood why you'd want a PC

(Daniel Bagel)

In the late 1970s, Apple and other companies began selling personal computers. By the standards of the day, these new computers were tiny, cheap, and ludicrously underpowered. They couldn't run the powerful business applications of the day's conventional computers, which were the size of a washing machine and cost tens of thousands of dollars. People who were used to these larger computers couldn't imagine what they'd do without it.

The answer, it turned out, was run a new generation of applications that wouldn't have made sense on larger computers. People used PCs for word processing, spreadsheets, graphic design, computer games, and more.

These are all applications that only make sense on computers small and cheap enough that there can be one on everyone's desk. It would have been absurd for a company executive to go down to the computer room and tie up a $100,000 mainframe typing a memo. It was a lot cheaper and more convenient to use a typewriter — or to dictate the memo and have a secretary type it up. But once people had computers on their desk, it became obvious that word processors work a lot better than typewriters.

People thought cameras and email on a phone were ridiculous

(Oscar Avellaneda-Cruz)

The same point applies to cellphones. It's hard to remember now, but a decade ago the idea of a cellphone with a camera in it seemed ridiculous. People mocked early BlackBerry users for trying to check their email on the go. But over time, people discovered that having a tiny, connected computer in their pocket is extremely useful.

And once again, people invented new apps that wouldn't have made sense on a PC. Apps like Uber or Instagram only make sense in a device that's small enough to always be in your pocket.

In both cases, what skeptics missed was that greater convenience (and lower cost) would lead people to use the new technology a lot more. If you've spent your life using film cameras — where developing a roll of film takes an hour and costs $5 — Instagram seems ridiculous. But once it takes five seconds to snap a photo and share it with your friends, people are going to do it a lot more.

Why small computers are a big deal

Apple CEO Tim Cook describes the Apple Watch on September 9, 2014. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A similar point applies to smartwatches. It's true that any individual use for a smartwatch — say, reading a text message on your wrist rather than having to pull out your phone — is going to seem trivial.

But the thing skeptics are missing is that smartwatches won't just allow people to do the things they already do more efficiently. It could cause people to do more and different things. Smartwatches eliminate the small but real time-cost of pulling your phone out of your pocket. So short interactions that would have seemed too trivial to be worth pulling your phone out of your pocket suddenly make sense.

Of course, this is hard to imagine, just as it was hard for a PC user circa 1999 to imagine Instagram or Uber — or a mainframe user circa 1975 to imagine Excel or Photoshop. By the same token, we don't notice the things we're not doing with our smartphones because it's too much work to pull them out of our pockets.

But in the aggregate, these interactions could create a lot of value. Chris Mims runs through some of the applications developers are working on. For example, our watches might help us find items on our shopping list as we walk through the grocery store, alert us to historical markers as we pass them during vacations, or let us know when friends are nearby. These are all things we could do with our cellphones, but it's annoying to have our phones buzzing in our pockets all the time. Once our computers are on our wrists, they might seem a lot more compelling.

But the really important apps are likely to be ones no one has thought of yet. Steve Jobs wasn't trying to revolutionize the taxi business when he created the iPhone, but Uber and Lyft wouldn't exist today without multi-touch smartphones. By the same token, there may be apps that only make sense once millions of people have computers on their wrists. We just don't know what they are yet.