by Jean-Louis Gassée
Product reviews of the Apple Watch launch are reaching new summits — and depths. A Business Insider post gave me an idea for a revealing experiment.
This isn’t an Apple Watch review — I don’t even have a Watch, yet. I’ve been told that my 42mm alumin-ium Sport model will arrive in “4 to 6 weeks”, mid to late May. Even then, I’ll hold out for my third impression. I’ve learned to distrust my first reaction: I thought the iPod was a bad idea because MP3 players had already been commoditized. The Apple Store? It will never catch on because it threatens the livelihoods of independent Apple retailers. When I came home with my first iPad five years ago, I resented the fact that my new tablet wasn’t very good at the “productivity tasks” I performed on my Mac… (I still think this, and, last year, called the iPad a tease – but I’ll leave the continuation of that saga for another day.)
As the first wave of Apple Watch reviews shows, waiting for impressions to settle down isn’t part of the Product Review genre. The psychoactive toxicity of Apple product launches that I made fun of two weeks ago is in full display as reviewers climb to the rooftops in a race for income-producing pageviews.
The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern wore a helmet strong enough to support a full-size Canon DSLR while researching her review:
No flimsy GoPro camera, we’re professionals here, this is a Wall Street Journal production. How this relates to your everywoman’s user is left to us to figure out. That said, I sincerely bow to Joanna Stern’s stamina and dedication to her mission.
Or we have the (presumably) unintended humor of a reviewer who felt “ridiculous” wearing the Milanese Loop on his left wrist:
I’m not the only person who questions the “hot take” nature of modern Product Reviews. In his Above Avalon post, Neil Cybart says Product Reviews are Broken [emphasis mine]:
“There were 21 Apple Watch reviews published, but the 4 reviews that were more critical of the device got the most attention, leaving the 14 glowing reviews behind. Meanwhile, most of the important features of the Watch such as watch bands and durability were either not included or buried within lots of other text. Simply put: product reviews are broken.”
Our historian/philosopher Horace Dediu concurs:
Ignoring Dediu’s advice, I stumbled upon a Business Insider “meta-review”, an edited summary of other reviews ominously titled The Apple Watch reviews are (quietly) brutal. The piece starts well:
“Apple Watch reviews are out today.
At first, they seem positive.
For example, New York Times tech reviewer Farhad Manjoo writes that he ‘fell’ for the gadget — ‘fell hard.’
The Verge’s Nilay Patel says it is ‘the first smartwatch that might legitimately become a mainstream product.’
Joshua Topolsky of Bloomberg Business says, ‘you’ll want one…After using it, I had no question that the Apple Watch is the most advanced piece of wearable technology you can buy today.’”
The article then attempts to demolish this happiness by citing carefully chosen damnations from the same reviews (“Topolsky says the Watch isn’t a very good watch.” “Patel says the Watch is too slow”), and concludes with a back-handed compliment [emphasis mine]:
“The most exciting thing about the Apple Watch isn’t the device itself, but the new tech vistas that may be opened by the first mainstream wearable computer.”
“For now, the dreams are hampered by the harsh realities of a new device. The Watch is not an iPhone on your wrist.“
These initial reviews say more about the Product Review genre than they do about the Apple Watch. As the word genre implies, there are rules. One is that you have to provide quotable fragments that support your view — think of how movie posters and trailers quote reviews. Second, write what you want but remember you still need to eat in this town. In the case of tech reviewers, “lunch” is being among the select few invited to do the next “under embargo” product review — you don’t want to go hungry. Third, you have to be “fair and balanced”: You must provide at least a hint of negativity, no matter what, so you won’t be perceived as having “sold out”. Lastly, you have to write quickly, steamroll annoying counter-narrative trifles, and use strong words.
As an experiment, I cherry-picked quotes from the same sources as the “(quietly) brutal” Business Insider meta-review to see if I could come up with a different result. Much like the BI review, I decided what I wanted to say and then found the quotes that supported my thesis.
Burning Insider Meta-Review
The Apple Watch reviews are (giddily) enthusiastic
Apple Watch reviews are out today.
At first, they seem negative.
In his New York Times tech review Farhad Manjoo sounds disappointed:
“Third-party apps are mostly useless right now. The Uber app didn’t load for me, the Twitter app is confusing and the app for Starwood hotels mysteriously deleted itself and then hung up on loading when I reinstalled it.”
Out of the gate, The Verge’s Nilay Patel is unimpressed:
“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.”
Another noted blogger, Joshua Topolsky of Bloomberg Business says:
“Yes, all these new functions, notifications, and tapping do make the Apple Watch very distracting. In some ways, it can be more distracting than your iPhone, and checking it can feel more offensive to people around you than pulling out your phone.”
But once you move past the obligatory “fair and balanced” negatives and get into the details of what the writers really say, it’s clear: The reviews are giddily enthusiastic.
“So Apple has succeeded in its first big task with its watch. It made something that lives up to the company’s reputation as an innovator and raised the bar for a whole new class of devices.”
Nilay Patel concurs:
“There’s no question that the Apple Watch is the most capable smartwatch available today. It is one of the most ambitious products I’ve ever seen; it wants to do and change so much about how we interact with technology.”
The NY Times’ Farhad Manjoo sees the Apple Watch as an extension of his body – one that makes him more sociable [emphasis mine]:
“I began appreciating the ways in which the elegant $650 computer on my wrist was more than just another screen. […] the Watch became something like a natural extension of my body — a direct link, in a way that I’ve never felt before, from the digital world to my brain. The effect was so powerful that people who’ve previously commented on my addiction to my smartphone started noticing a change in my behavior; my wife told me that I seemed to be getting lost in my phone less than in the past. She found that a blessing.”
David Pogue, one of the industry’s most thorough, experienced, and prolific tech writers, concludes his Yahoo Tech review thus:
“And this much is unassailable: The Apple Watch is light-years better than any of the feeble, clunky efforts that have come before it. The screen is nicer, the software is refined and bug-free, the body is real jewelry. First-time technologies await at every turn: magnetic bands, push-to-release straps, wrist-to-wrist drawings or Morse codes, force pressing, credit card payments from the wrist. And the symbiosis with the iPhone is graceful, out of your way, and intelligent.”
I think I can stop here.
If you, too, decide to ignore Horace Dediu’s advice, I found two reviews that stay away from the rooftops and make a serious attempt at providing insights into the nature of the Apple Watch, its user experience, and its future in the nascent “wearables” industry segment. (Keep in mind that while I have my own biases, the Monday Note doesn’t have advertising or other sources of revenue.)
Ben Bajarin’s Techpinions synthesis:
“Ultimately what I am convinced of is the Apple Watch represents a completely new computer interaction model. A PC is for when we have a few hours. Our smartphones is for when we have a few minutes. Our smartwatch is for when we have a few seconds. Each device, and the software and experience built for it, should help us maximize those hours, minutes, and seconds.”
John Gruber’s insightful Daring Fireball walk-through:
“Loosely, the path of all consumer electronic categories is to evolve as ever more computer-y gadgets, until a tipping point occurs and they turn into ever more gadget-y genuine computers. The sample size (in terms of product categories) is small, but Apple seemingly tries to enter markets at, or just after, that tipping point — when Moore’s Law and Apple’s ever-increasing engineering and manufacturing prowess allow them to produce a gadget-y computer that the computer-y gadgets from the established market leaders cannot compete with. That was the iPod. That was the iPhone.”
Those are nice exceptions to the Broken rule.
In the end, reviews don’t seem to matter much outside the kommentariat. In Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death classification, most reviews aren’t Information but Entertainment. As recent Kantar World Panel research shows, consumers don’t pay them much attention:
In the end, only Word of Mouth matters. After two or three months of actual availability, real humans will talk amongst themselves and decide the future of the Apple Watch, just as they did for the iPod and the iPhone. And, come to think of it, their conversation explains sagging iPad sales.