The first wave of Apple Watch reviews are out — my favorites are Nilay Patel's at the Verge and Farhad Manjoo's at the New York Times — and they are generally not stellar. Business Insider's Nicholas Carlson sums them up as brutal. I have not been favored with a review watch, so I'm not in a position to support or contradict anything the reviewers write. But reading them I'm reminded that reviewing a product is different from forecasting the prospects of a new line of products.
It sounds like the Apple Watch that's being released this spring is pretty meh — intriguing in some ways, but underpowered and inessential — but also that "the Apple Watch" as an ongoing category is positioned for success as future versions fix the flaws of today's model.
The hierarchy of negative technology reviews
Of course, any company's dream review is, "This thing is amazing, you should go get it." But if you don't achieve that dream, there are three basic ways you can fall short:
- Another company makes a better version of this category.
- This category is useless to most people.
- This is a flawed product, and you may not want to waste your money.
The Apple Watch reviews definitely aren't making the first claim — Josh Topolsky says Apple "has succeeded in making the world's best smartwatch" and Patel calls it "the first smartwatch that might legitimately become a mainstream product, even as competitors flood the market." And I don't think they are making the second claim. Nobody is saying they had the watch on for a week and never thought to glance at it. It definitely has some value.
So what's the problem? Patel puts the basic criticism very clearly.
Let’s just get this out of the way: the Apple Watch, as I reviewed it for the past week and a half, is kind of slow. There’s no getting around it, no way to talk about all of its interface ideas and obvious potential and hints of genius without noting that sometimes it stutters loading notifications. Sometimes pulling location information and data from your iPhone over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi takes a long time. Sometimes apps take forever to load, and sometimes third-party apps never really load at all. Sometimes it’s just unresponsive for a few seconds while it thinks and then it comes back.
That's not great. And since almost every person on planet Earth has been getting along fine without a smartwatch, it stands to reason that relatively few people are going to want to shell out $349 to $10,000 to buy a slow and unresponsive one.
Computers get faster all the time
That said, anytime a company rolls out a brand new category of consumer electronics and the big complaint is that it's too slow, I think you are making a fundamentally bullish call. Apple's stock tanked 0.6 percent this morning when the reviews came off embargo (a small percentage, but over $4 billion in market capitalization) before rebounding slightly, and I think the rebounders have it right. After all, the one thing we can be really sure of in the digital realm is that computer manufacturers will be able to manufacture faster computers tomorrow than they can make today.
In software development, people talk about the idea of a minimum viable product: something that's good enough to be usable, so that future improvements can be informed by actual use.
Apple has taken to doing a hardware version of this with its new product categories. I was one of the people who rushed out to buy the first iPhone as soon as it was available, and boy was it slow. The original MacBook Air was so comically underpowered I'm a little shocked anyone ever bought it. And the new thinner MacBook with high-resolution display is, again, really slow.
Very few people bought the first iPhone
Most people — the vast, overwhelming majority of people — probably won't want to buy the Apple Watch. But again, this is the one area where we can be sure of improvement. Stuff that "sometimes" takes a long time on this watch will do so more rarely on the next one. Things that take "forever" to load on this watch will load faster on the next one.
People forget that technology products typically start this way. The iPhone was introduced in 2007, and across its first 12 months of availability, Apple sold about 5.3 million iPhones. By the third quarter of 2009, the company sold 5.2 million iPhones in a single quarter. In the first quarter of 2012, it sold 37 million. In the first quarter of 2015, it sold 74.5 million.
The original iPhone, in other words, wasn't a very compelling value proposition. It was expensive and slow. But it was also the best smartphone in the world, and over time the number of people who wanted to buy the best smartphone in the world kept growing as the underlying technology improved.
For the Apple Watch to be a hit, it needs to clear two similar bars. None of today's reviews seem to dispute the idea that Apple has, in fact, made the best smartwatch around. Nor do they really seem to dispute that it could be cool to carry around a computer on your wrist. That leaves Apple in a fundamentally strong position to sell millions and millions of watches over the years.