I sometimes watch Apple keynotes to keep up with the world of Apple. Owning a stationary iMac, a MacBook laptop, an iPad and an iPhone 5, I have both a curiosity and a vested interest in keeping an eye on what Apple does. I therefore recently watched the two hours long video from the September 2014 Apple Event where Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the upcoming Apple Watch. Cook spent no less than 45 minutes talking about the watch. Apple Watch will be released at the end of April and prices will range from $349 to $17.000 USD (depending on materials). As this is a new product category, sales for 2015 are estimated to land anywhere between 8 and 60 million, which is still is a huge leap compared to the less than 3.5 million (non-Apple) smartwatches that were sold during 2014. As a comparison, Apple sold almost 15 million iPads in the first nine months after it was released in April 2010. It is of course impossible to yet know if Apple Watch will become a success or if smartwatches will continue to struggle in the marketplace. While Apple Watch most certainly represents a new technological feat from Apple, I still think Apple Watch is a terrible idea and I will tell you why.
Early in Cook's presentation, I became hesitant when I understood that the watch requires the owner to have an iPhone from the latest or the second-to-latest generation (iPhone 5 or 6). The iPhone 5 was released two and a half years ago, in September 2012, but you might need to upgrade the operating system of your iPhone for it to work together with the Apple Watch. While a lot of Apple Watch-compatible iPhones have been sold (200 million back in September according to Cook but estimated to be closer to 300 million by the end of 2015), only a limited portion of humanity - iPhone owners - will fulfil the prerequisites of buying the Apple Watch. That might not be a problem for Apple since iPhone users of course are part of an affluent global elite with money to burn. Already in 2010, with a market share of barely 4% of all cellphones sold, Apple "pulled in more than 50% of the total profits that global cellphone sales [generated]". I do however find it slightly disturbing to design a new product (a watch) that can be used only by a small subsection of all the people who can own an ordinary watch. It's as if you design a TV that can only be used with loudspeakers from a specific company or iPod loudspeakers that work fine, but becomes obsolete when the physical interface of future iPods changes (which happened to me). I find it slightly offensive when dependencies and limitations are erected between consumer products that previously did not have any.
This led me to have a second look at a really interesting article I read a few years ago in (of all places) the Australian Defence Force Journal. Major Cameron Leckie wrote an article called "Lasers or Longbows? A Paradox of Military Technology" where he compares high-tech but fragile military technologies (lasers, jet fighters) with low-tech but robust military technologies (longbows, spears). His basic argument is that while a jet fighter in the air is immensely more powerful than spear-wielding aborigines, the jet fighter is also a more vulnerable and less robust technology. A functioning jet fighter is dependent on modern fuels (and the long infrastructural chain behind the production and transportation of jet fuel), on complex financial arrangements and government debts, and, on modern communications and oodles of data, together resulting in "a highly-complex, globally interconnected and interdependent supply chain". Increased military capability thus correlates with increased complexity, but, erecting and maintaining complexity always comes at a significant cost. That cost is spelled increased vulnerability since every part has to work exactly as planned while there at the same time are a near-infinite number of possible points where the system can fail. This is the paradox of military technology; with increased capabilities comes increased complexity, increased costs and increased vulnerabilities.
While spears are pitiful weapons next to a modern tank, a spear could be produced "in situ" with very limited resources (some timber, stone and resin) and the appropriate know-how (no industrial base required!). By comparison, "the best tank in the world is useless without trained crews, sufficient fuel and ammunition, and areas in which to train, supported by a sound maintenance system, all of which are dependent on the allocation of appropriate financial resources".
Leckie's point is that sometimes the appropriate response can be to decrease complexity rather than to increase it (military precedents are mentioned in the article). Leckie argues that for a country like Australia that imports 80 per cent of its transport fuels, it is important to find a balance between capabilities and costs. It is more important for the Australian military to think about cost-effective (e.g. simple) ways to maintain relative levels of capability (in relation to neighbouring countries and possible future threats), rather than aiming for the highest absolute levels of military capability (having the best jet fighters in the world).
My problem with the Apple Watch then is that it increases the complexity and the vulnerability of an emerging ecosystem of personal intimate (wearable) technologies that you are supposed to carry with you all day. With increased complexity comes increasing costs of maintaining such an ecosystem and an increasing number of points where things can go wrong. Increasingly complex systems also lead to the possibility of cascading failures taking down the whole tightly coupled system - something that can't happen in systems with more robust, independent components. Thomas Homer-Dixon, in "The upside of down" discusses characteristics of complex systems:
"machines like windup clocks or car engines aren't complex. They may be extremely complicated - they may have thousands of parts - but all their parts work together to produce a system with a relatively narrow and predictable range of behaviors. ... Complex systems, on the other hand, have properties and behaviors that can't be attributed to any particular part but only to the system as a whole. ... Sometimes, for instance, small changes in a complex system produce huge effects, while large changes make little difference at all. In other words, cause and effect aren't proportional to each other. ... The behavior of a complex system with these features is highly contingent - how it behaves at any given time, and how it evolves over time, depends on a host of factors, large and small, knowable and unknowable."
While the Apple Watch surely is a feat in terms of precision, engineering, materials, style, capabilities, breakthroughs in ways of interacting with a very small display etc., I feel that the watch is problematic from a sustainability point of view. In terms of ecological sustainability, I assume Apple will use the highest standards in terms of materials and manufacturing processes (e.g. what Apple refers to as "environmental responsibility"). That should not detract from the fact that the paring of the Apple Watch to Apple's iPhones means that at some point in the future, your watch's software requirements (etc.) may force you to buy a new iPhone or vice versa. The hardware-software obsolescence cycle, where new software requires new-ish hardware and vice versa - just sped up. Instead of designing technologies that can be used for a long time, Apple has designed a technology that will speed up the obsolescence of co-dependent gadgets and increase your "need" to constantly buy new high-tech gadgets. Do note that the top-of the line $17.000 Apple Watches are made of hardened 18-karat gold. It would be a shame to have to retire such a watch just because the iPhone 8 requires the watch to have Watch OS 2.0 which only works on the second generation of Apple Watches...
A discussion about the costs of complexity could also be regarded as part of a discussion about social sustainability. Apple Watch is an example of how simple and robust technologies (mechanical watches) are replaced by capable but also more complex and frail systems (smartwatches) that surely will work most of the time but that will fail synchronously and catastrophically at times - and perhaps at the worst possible moment.
Self-winding mechanical watches were invented in the 1920's. The first electronic watches came in the 1970's and required you to replace their batteries at times. While smartwatches with enhanced functionality (beyond timekeeping) have existed for decades, current smartwatches are in fact computers with complex operating systems and where the battery life has typically been reduced to 3 or 4 days before the watch needs to be charged. The Apple Watch will work for 18 hours and thus needs to be charged every day. You need to dedicate a socket in home to your Apple Watch charger, you need to remember to charge your Apple Watch every night and perhaps also to buy a second charger that you carry with you at all times (including on trips) or that you have in your workplace. Perhaps you need a charger in your car too. A natural question is if these developments represent a step forward or a step backward? It's not always that easy to tell.
The Apple Watch is of course much more than just a watch - a device that tells you the time. It is also a "remote control" to many of the functions and services your smartphone provides and it also offers new functionality that your smartphone can't provide. It is probably a great product, but, it is for good and for bad also the equivalent of a jet fighter operating at the apex of a large and complex infrastructure with many interdependent parts - an infrastructure that is costly and vulnerable in comparison to non-digital stand-alone components. That infrastructure is also a superstructure, a new layer of complexity on top of an already complex system and I for one worry about what Apple Watch represents for issues such as vulnerability, sustainability, resource use and for further stoking the already revved-up engines of consumerism.