From pocket watch to wristwatch to Apple Watch? Time will tell

Technology that lets us do things faster, cheaper or better will win. That is one test the Apple Watch has to pass

One of the less important legacies of the First World War was the shift from the pocket watch to the wristwatch. Wristwatches had long existed but they were considered unfashionable, at least for men. However, it was so much more convenient for serving troops to glance at their wrist rather than fish out a watch from their uniform, that when they came home the fashion shifted. By 1930, sales of wristwatches had soared ahead of pocket watches and the latter took on their present fogyish place among male accoutrements. They remain profoundly unfashionable. You can pick up a gorgeous Victorian gold hunter watch for a few hundred pounds on eBay, much less than it would have cost in real terms when new.

Whether people want to look at their wrist or pull something out of their jacket will be crucial to the success of the Apple Watch. No one can possibly know. It is beautiful, of course, and it may change the world, as Apple did with the iPad and the iPhone. Or it may totter along without really finding much of a market. We have had wristwatch calculators since the 1970s, wristwatch televisions from Seiko in 1982, and a wristwatch camera from Casio in 2000. Right now, there are smart watches that  do most of what the Apple one will do, and if they are clunky by comparison, they will get better.

Apple is the most valuable company in the world in terms of market capitalisation and if anyone can persuade us that this is what we want, it can. But maybe it can’t.

One of the fascinations of technology is to see which innovations immediately succeed, which dominate a while and then fade, and which never really take off. The steam engine made the Industrial Revolution possible, yet now has disappeared from normal use. The internal combustion engine transformed the 20th century but – who knows? – may be replaced this century if we can figure out a cheap way of storing electricity.

More recently, some technologies have dominated our lives, whereas others have been useful for a while and then flopped. Mobile phones have transformed Africa; faxes have vanished in most countries, with the possible exception of Japan. Cassettes and CDs have gone the way of the LP, while television viewing seems to have begun a long, relentless decline. So what are the rules, or at least guidelines, as to which technologies are likely to be transformative and which are likely to disappoint?

 

I suggest there are three principles. The first is that people don’t change, or at least don’t change much, in what they want. The second is that we are all subject to the laws of physics, and they don’t change either. And the third is that technology moves in bursts, and those run for at least a generation. A word about each.

The idea that people don’t change is contentious because over time there are certainly huge changes in social attitudes: consider the changes since the 1950s in how we regard race and marriage. But if you look more narrowly at what people like to do with their time, the shifts are surely smaller. We like to go on foreign holidays, to live in nice homes, to look after our families and so on. Some displays of status never seem to change. The poshest version of the Apple Watch is gold; when my grandfather came to London in the 1890s, his first luxury was to buy a gold watch. We still need to chatter, to gather, to compete. We just do it in slightly different ways now. Facebook has replaced the postcard; eBay and Amazon, to some extent, the street market.

It follows that any technology that lets us do what we have always done, but faster, cheaper or better, will win. That is one test the Apple Watch has to pass.

But Apple, like the rest of us, is a prisoner of physics. It still takes as long to cross the Atlantic now as it did when I first flew to New York on a student charter in 1964. The cruising speed of a Boeing 707 was 590mph; that of the Airbus A380 is 560mph. Incremental advances in design have more than halved the seat-mile cost of air travel in real terms and so vastly more people have access to it. But in time terms, we are stuck.

Electromechanical technology will continue to advance incrementally and over time can be transformative socially. But we still have to live in houses or flats, which have to be heated, have to have bedrooms and bathrooms and so on. The boxes we live in are part of a physical environment that does not change very fast. We can have enlightened policies on environment and land use (or, I’m afraid, less enlightened ones) but we are confined by past decisions. Technology can help us to use the physical environment more effectively but it cannot suddenly double the London housing stock.

However, the information technologies that took off a quarter of a century ago – of which Apple has been one of the prime drivers – have got a long way to run. We are, I suppose, where the motor car was in the 1930s. We can see the technology and we can imagine how it might change our society but we cannot fully think through the detail. So in the 1930s people still shopped locally. Even though the car existed, the out-of-town supermarket had not yet been conceived.

Apply this to the IT revolution, to the new Apple phone indeed. We can see how it can monitor our health and nudge us towards better (or at least more healthy) lifestyles. But we have not yet invented a health service that can hook into that information and use it efficiently. We have not got the equivalent of the ring road or the supermarket. Maybe the app-world is about to enable us to create that next stage.

The big point here, surely, is that what Apple is creating is one part of the giant jigsaw that will show in another generation how we have transformed our lives for the better. We cannot see the picture in full because there are still so many missing pieces, and some bits that don’t seem to fit. Perhaps the watch will not fit. But we should salute its creators for trying.

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