Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Future Present

The past two days have seen the embargoes lift on the first reviews of the Apple Watch and new MacBook. If anything has emerged from the narrative so far, it’s that both products appear cut from the same cloth. Yes, the Watch appears the most high-tech of the two, effectively establishing the precedent for its market, while the MacBook is a take on the decades-old concept of a laptop, albeit an innovative interpretation. But they’re extraordinarily similar in a conceptual sense.

Joshua Topolsky:

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. Its second task—making me feel that I need this thing on my wrist every day—well, I’m not quite sure it’s there yet. It’s still another screen, another distraction, another way to disconnect, as much as it is the opposite. The Apple Watch is cool, it’s beautiful, it’s powerful, and it’s easy to use. But it’s not essential. Not yet.

Nicole Phelps:

In the nine days I’ve worn it, the Apple Watch didn’t replace my iPhone, but I don’t think that’s the intention. Our wrists simply can’t support a device big enough for everything we do on screens these days. I came to think of it as a filter instead, bringing what’s essential or pleasurable to me closer to me and editing out the rest.

Geoffrey Fowler:

Still, in these early sketches of an experience, I can already imagine so much more. I’d like for the Apple Watch to be my train ticket and my office key, for starters.

For now, the Apple Watch is for pioneers. I won’t pay the $1,000 it would cost for the model I tested, only to see a significant improvement roll in before too long.

Farhad Manjoo:

The New York Times announced last week that it had created “one-sentence stories” for the Apple Watch, so let me end this review with a note that could fit on the watch’s screen: The first Apple Watch may not be for you — but someday soon, it will change your world.

The reviews of the new MacBook follow a similar pattern. Joshua Topolsky and Stephen Pulvirent:

The MacBook isn’t for everyone. The Retina display is beautiful but hogs processing power that might be better used elsewhere. And if you do a lot of photo editing or like to multitask, you’ll notice some lag and jitters. Even scrolling quickly through typical Web pages produced a noticeable lag and stutter compared with my standard MacBook Air.

Joanna Stern:

But as ahead of its time as the MacBook is, there’s a slight problem: You have to use it right now. Here in 2015, the majority of us still require two or three ports for connecting our hard drives, displays, phones and other devices to our computer—not to mention a dedicated power plug.

[…]

The new MacBook represents an exciting evolution in portable computing, but at this point it is more a proof of concept than your next computer.

Tech reporter biases of power, expandability, and all that aside, both the Watch and MacBook are seen as visions of the future. They’re not perfect or even truly great yet, but they represent what will be great.

This isn’t new for Apple. Here’s Walt Mossberg in 2007:

The iPhone is missing some features common on some competitors. There’s no instant messaging, only standard text messaging. While its two-megapixel camera took excellent pictures in our tests, it can’t record video. Its otherwise excellent Web browser can’t fully utilize some Web sites, because it doesn’t yet support Adobe’s Flash technology. Although the phone contains a complete iPod, you can’t use your songs as ringtones. There aren’t any games, nor is there any way to directly access Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

Apple says it plans to add features to the phone over time, via free downloads, and hints that some of these holes may be filled.

Here’s Ryan Block in 2008:

The [MacBook] Air is a tough call. On the one hand it proposes to be a no-compromises ultraportable, but on the other hand it compromises many (but not all) the things road warriors want. We’re all about removing unnecessary frills and drives (we rejoiced the day the original iMac bucked the floppy), but laptops are increasingly becoming many users’ primary — often only — machines, which is why the Air’s price doesn’t do it any favors, either. It’s hard to justify almost two grand for a second laptop (or a third machine) just for travel needs — and even then, that’s only easily done if all your data lives in the cloud. Given those sacrifices and that higher-end sticker, it’s more than likely not going to replace most peoples’ current workhorse laptop.

In summary: “It’s a glimpse of the future, but it’s not quite enough yet.” That’s par for the course for first generation Apple products. And that’s okay.

Apple tries to strike a balance between two extremes. The first-to-market companies don’t ever do it right — take a look at the Samsung Galaxy Gear or the scores of thin notebooks released before the MacBook Air. Apple is never the first to market, but neither are they waiting it out until they have a product that’s ideal, like the MacBook Air of 2010 or the iPhone 4.

Apple seems more interested in bringing a product to market that they’re very proud of in a way that defines both the future of the market, and establishes the roadmap for how people will use their devices in two- or three-years’ time. Apple couldn’t do the 2010 Air in 2008 or the iPhone 4 in 2007 for myriad technical and engineering reasons, but also because they didn’t know how customers would actually use these devices. The 2008 Air laid the blueprint for future thin notebooks, but the 2010 Air required everything they learned from the prior two years of customer use. It’s the same for the iPad in 2010, the iPhone in 2007, and will be for the Apple Watch of 2015.

Apple’s unique skill is in understanding the roadmap for several years into the future, and building according to that. If you use a post-2010 MacBook Air today and you enjoy type-A USB ports, it’s easy to see how the MacBook could fit into your life in a couple of years, but perhaps not now.

Today, the MacBook and the Watch are exciting glimpses as to what the future will hold. They’re ready for primetime for the early adopter set — which, by the way, seems to grow with each major new product — and those users will help Apple better understand how these products are used in the real world. And they’ll help define the future.