Apple Watch Takes Us Back in Time

Steven Brykman | April 14, 2015 | In the News

One thing we hear about a lot when it comes to the new Apple Watch is how effective it is at keeping us from having to stare at our iPhones all the time. The assumption is that, in a rare act of technological altruism, Apple is releasing a product to help us be less obsessed with one of their other products. But is this sentiment disingenuous? And isn’t the sentiment in some way an admission on their part that we a) spend too much time looking at our phones and that b) the act of looking at our phones is a bad thing.

I wonder how much of Apple’s decision to manufacture the watch actually stems from a desire to improve our offline presence and the quality of our real-world social interactions. I’m guessing not much, since any time someone pulls out an iPhone, a micro-environment is created in which those in the immediate vicinity get sucked into the information vortex, the end result being a highly-localized iPhone commercial.

That’s how it happens in my world, anyway.

According to an informal Tech Crunch survey, the effect is real, “People that have worn the Watch say that they take their phones out of their pockets far, far less than they used to.” One user claimed to have nearly stopped using his phone altogether. Of course, who knows the makeup of this anonymous group of Apple insiders privy to wearing an Apple Watch before everyone else? They may have been encouraged to say or do anything. True though it may be, I have a feeling the decreased-phone-check effect is likely more of a fortuitous marketing by-product Apple chose to capitalize on. It sure sounds good, though, doesn’t it?

“There are very, very, very few products that allow you to hand someone cash and be given back TIME.” And there are even fewer products that actually take you back in time—visually speaking, that is.

Let me explain.

The really interesting thing about the Apple Watch is the way my designer wife, Raegan, reacted when she first saw Apple’s video of it last week (admittedly long after most people saw it due to the fact she birthed too many children and hasn’t had a second to look at any of her devices in quite some time). “That’s the watch UI?” She exclaimed, “It’s so outdated-looking. What happened to flat iOS design? Did they decide to just get rid of all that?” At the time, I was too overcome with the fantasy of my employer buying me a $15,000 18K Yellow Gold Case with Midnight Blue Classic Buckle Apple Watch to respond coherently. How much time would I spend staring at it? As much as possible. Wait? What? Outdated UI? What are you talking about?
“Go back,” she said, “Rewind the video.”
“It’s an m4v,” I said, “You just click…”
“You know what I mean. Go back. Stop. Right there. What’s with the rounded buttons? Those are totally iOS 6!”

For those who have already forgotten, here’s what iPhone buttons used to look like:
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And here’s what they look like on the Apple Watch.
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Look similar? The beveling, the bright color, the white Helvetica Medium—it’s all there!

Here’s an iOS 6 and iOS 8 stopwatch side by side. Sure enough, it’s far closer to the old design.
2-3
The examples kept building-up—along with my wife’s discontent: “What’s with all the rounded corners?” “Why is the volume indicator so big?” Though history has shown Apple has a thing for oversized volume indicators. Check out the variations in controls on the Apple Watch versus iOS 8. Cool, but dissimilar.
4-5
“What’s with the Skeuomorphic flower?” She asked, “I thought those were a thing of the past.”7
“I’m not sure,” I said, “I guess because it’s a PNG sequence, it’s not technically a skeuomorph. It’s not saying, ‘This watch is a flower.’ It’s saying, ‘Here’s a nice little video of a flower.’”

And here’s Fandango on the Apple Watch versus the iOS app. Watch: ugly. iOS: not horrible. But notice no attempt was made to maintain the consistency of fonts and colors. I’m wondering if this will change once the watch actually comes out.
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Finally, Raegan passed-judgment, boldly declaring, “It’s all so kitschy!”

Which is interesting, when you think about it. Because this is exactly what was said about iOS 6 before Apple did away with it. Too kitschy!! Meanwhile The Verge editor, Nilay Patel, says that physically the watch is “rounder and friendlier” and “looks more like a first-generation iPhone than anything else.” It’s almost as though Apple feels they need to start over, visually. Back to square one. They need to reeducate the public and provide more visual cues to explain how interactive functionality works on the Apple Watch, just as they did when the iPhone first came out. Sure, everyone now speaks the language of Smartphone, but do they speak the language of Smartwatch? Not yet, I guess. And Apple is willing to go so far as to forgo some visual consistency between devices to help prevent user-confusion and bring back some of the less-pragmatic, device-naive fun of their earlier iOS’s.

Steven Brykman

Steven is a Digital Strategist and UX Architect focusing on Mobile Products with a diverse background in writing and literature. He spent much of the last decade as Creative Technologist/Lead Strategist of his own design company, helping Fortune 500 companies define the direction of their digital campaigns, websites and mobile applications. Additionally, he co-founded Apperian, a Boston-based mobile technology startup.

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