Keep the Catwalks out of Silicon Valley

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Easily the most unfortunate thing about Apple releasing a $10,000 gold-plated watch is that it shows one of the great innovators of consumer technology in our time has stopped innovating at the furious rate it once did. The second most unfortunate thing about the release – and it is very closely related to the first – is that otherwise sensible people begin asking questions like, “can high tech do high fashion?” and the corollary, “can high fashion do high tech?”


Technology is, in its nature, practical. It is applied in an ever-increasing array of situations to find logical, cheap and scalable solutions. Technology needs to be practical to survive. Fashion, on the other hand, needs to be superficial to survive: it has to keep changing its appearance. The substance (clothing) is always broadly the same. Therefore, when humankind turns to fashion at the expense of technology, the result will be anything but progress. The example of the Apple Watch is an excellent example of this rule in practise.


The Apple Watch: Apple’s “Most Personal Device yet.”


Apple’s website describes the iWatch with the following blurb[i]: “High-quality watches have long been defined by their ability to keep unfailingly accurate time, and Apple Watch is no exception. In conjunction with your iPhone, it keeps time within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard.” As attractive as the blurb makes it sound, it is still only referring to a wristwatch – first developed in the late 1800s[ii]. And for the record, even a wristwatch that keeps time to within 50 milliseconds is not an innovation.


The blurb continues, “And because it sits right on your wrist, it can add a physical dimension to alerts and notifications. For example, you’ll feel a gentle tap with each incoming message. Apple Watch also lets you connect with your favorite people in fun, spontaneous ways — like sending a tap, a sketch, or even your heartbeat.” The only way both paragraphs could be made more ridiculous would be by saying, “and we do a solid gold version…”


None of this is to say that the Apple Watch won’t be a resounding success. Some analysts expect it to sell up to 20 million units in its first year[iii] But the success needs to be viewed in context of what has come before from the same company. Apple didn’t just bring us the most admired products on the market, but was also responsible for highly practical technology: the longest-lasting batteries in consumer products, the lightest notebook computer and going further back, the first graphical user interface. Now, they’re releasing a watch which allows you to send a heartbeat.


When Product Design becomes Fashion


There are those who will counter that technology firms have long run a tightrope between what constitutes sophisticated product design and fashion, but they are missing the point. Nobody is suggesting that a product’s design shouldn’t be given due attention. But at what stage is the balance tipped towards fashion? This point is reached when true innovation – practical innovation - comes second to superficiality. This point, as Apple’s blurb for its watch illustrates so well, is characterized by corporate hot-air and buzz words.


The curve below roughly charts the move away from practical innovation towards marketing and fashion. The Y-axis represents innovation while the X-axis represents the passage of time. The curve is notional – no company can innovate effectively forever so there is a natural tail off in innovation over time. In effect, what we are witnessing with the Apple Watch is not an early stage innovation at all, but rather the late stage of the Apple iPhone: the technology is all already there – it’s just being packaged differently.



Wearable Technology


Technology may have a future in clothing – in fact, it almost certainly does. But just by creating the term, “wearable technology,” the emphasis has moved from practical advances in technology, to advances in how technology can be worn. It starts with a smartphone in the form of a watch; a year later, there’s a smartphone in the form of cufflinks and a year later still, there’s a bikini with a built-in smartphone. The aggregate is that humankind has lost two years of progress and ultimately, all that it has is a smartphone to show for it.


To summarize, technology is evolving in ways which promise to bring huge advances to humankind: in medicine, education, engineering and energy. We should be absolutely indifferent whether the innovations are in PC grey, leopard skin or denim. Bringing fashion to the world of technology is not only silly – it has the potential to slow humanity’s progress. It moves the focus away from what is important to what is frivolous. None of the great moves in technology in the past had anything to do with fashion. Why should those in the future be any different?