The existential mystery of the Apple Watch

October 5, 2014, 2:14 PM UTC

Nobody has worked harder — or more publicly — to figure out what the Apple Watch is for than Ben Thompson, an independent analyst who expressed his initial skepticism in all his many forums: On Twitter (where he has 32,000 followers), in his daily e-mail updates (subscription required), on his (free) Stratechery blog, on three one-hour episodes of Exponent, a weekly podcast he co-hosts with James Allworth, and one marathon three-hour guest appearance on The Talk Show with John Gruber.

The central conundrum, as Thompson sees it, is why Apple is releasing this device without a built-in cellular radio.

Every futuristic watch in fiction and popular imagination — from Dick Tracy to the Jetsons — is a communications device. Yet the watch Apple demoed on Sept. 9 and is scheduled to release next year needs to be paired with an iPhone in order to talk to the outside world.

This fact was downplayed on Sept. 9 — Kevin Lynch mentioned it briefly in his demo and quickly moved on. But it gnawed at Thompson in the days that followed. He’s convinced that future versions of the Watch will be both tiny wristworn computers and fully functioning mobile phones.

If that’s the case, he wondered aloud, why did Apple release this version now? Why does it exist at all?

434209007688We wrote about Thompson’s reaction to the product introduction that first week — see Apple Watch: Trying too hard to do too much — and you can follow his thinking as it evolved in subsquent Stratechery columns:


What Thompson eventually concluded is that the current Apple Watch is a precursor product, one that Apple released in order to get the ball rolling.

This approach – the one that Apple chose – allows the hard work of user interface iteration and app ecosystem development to begin in 2015. Moreover, that iteration and development will happen with the clear assumption that the Watch is a standalone device, not an accessory. Then, whenever the Watch truly is standalone, it will be a complete package: cellular connectivity, polished UI, and developed app ecosystem.

“The tradeoff is significant confusion in the short-term: the Watch that will be released next year is not a standalone device. It needs the iPhone for connectivity. To be clear, this is no small matter: the disconnect certainly tripped me up for a week, and if the feedback I’ve gotten is any indication, it continues to befuddle a lot of very smart people. How on earth are normal folks who don’t follow this sort of stuff for a living going to grok the idea of a standalone Watch that actually needs an iPhone?”

Samsung, it should be noted, is in the same boat; none of the Galaxy Gears it has released works without a Samsung phone nearby. It’s one of the reasons Gears aren’t flying off the shelves.

But we expect more from Apple than we do of Samsung, especially when Cupertino gives a product as big a sendoff as they gave the Watch. Besides, as Thompson puts it, “Confusing people seems so very un-Apple-like.”

So why did Apple do it?

What Thompson concludes in the end is that what seems like a huge issue — dependence on the iPhone — is at the moment a non-issue because nobody today who might be in the market for an Apple Watch ever goes anywhere without an iPhone.

What I think Apple realized was that they could, in jujitsu-like fashion, use this reality to their advantage: it’s OK – not ideal, but OK – for the Watch to use the iPhone for connectivity because the iPhone is always present anyways. Apple is not asking anyone to change their behavior in order to get the full functionality of a Watch – it is entirely additive to your day-to-day experience.

OK. Fair enough. That explains why Apple might want to release the Watch in its current form. But it doesn’t tell me whether I should buy it when it comes out in 2015 or hold out for the future version Apple will release, Thompson is convinced, as soon as cost and battery life permit.

Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter at @philiped. Read his Apple (AAPL) coverage at or subscribe via his RSS feed.