Apple’s Slow, Subtle Build to New Products

on April 10, 2015
Reading Time: 3 minutes

One of the things that has struck me this week as I’ve read the Apple Watch reviews (including Ben’s), is the Apple Watch builds subtly on work Apple has done over the last several years in other products. Yes, the Watch is an entirely new product for Apple, but it wouldn’t be possible without some of the groundwork Apple laid elsewhere.

A common pattern for Apple

And this is actually a common pattern with Apple, which often builds slowly and subtly to a big launch with smaller, incremental features and services. Some examples of this pattern:

  • Apple Pay – launched in 2014, but built to a great extent on Apple’s collection over the years of credit cards from users; the launch of Passbook in 2012, and the introduction of 2013 of Touch ID.
  • Siri – the basic model was introduced in 2009 with Voice Control. Apple then acquired the Siri technology from SRI in 2010, and launched Siri as a more fully-fledged feature in the iPhone 4s in 2011.
  • 3rd party widgets – Apple had a couple of its own widgets back in 2007, but moved them to the Notification Center in 2011, introduced additional widgets of its own in 2013, and only allowed third party widgets in 2013.
  • iCloud Drive – iCloud launched in 2011, iTunes in the Cloud in 2011, iCloud document storage within apps in 2013, but iCloud Drive didn’t launch until 2014.

Apple Watch builds on earlier innovations

So, which innovations does the Apple Watch build on? This won’t be an exhaustive list, but consider the following:

  • Bluetooth notification extensions – introduced in 2012 and the foundation of how Apple Watch delivers notifications today
  • Health and HealthKit – announced at WWDC in 2014, several months before the Apple Watch, and which the Apple Watch fitness tracking fits into
  • Canned responses in iMessage – introduced in iOS 8 and are a key feature of how messaging works on the Apple Watch
  • Voice messages in iMessage – also introduced in iOS 8, the other key element of messaging on the Watch
  • VIPs in email – introduced in iOS 8, helps to focus notifications within the Mail app and, by extension, on the Watch
  • Muting people/threads in texts – introduced in iOS 8, helps to focus notifications on the Watch
  • Blocking contacts – introduced in iOS 7, also helps focus notifications
  • “Hey Siri” feature – introduced in iOS 8, found its way into the Watch
  • Walking directions – introduced in iOS 7, a key use case for Maps on the Watch.

And these are all just specific features – in a broader sense, many of the key features of iPhone really come into their own on the Watch, notably Siri. Almost all of these are valuable on the iPhone too. I don’t think anyone questioned their inclusion in iOS 7 or 8, but many of them really make sense in the context of the Watch. So why does Apple take this approach? I think there are at least two main answers:

  • Testing – introducing these features in a partial or early form and building on them over time allows Apple to bulletproof them and make sure they’re really working right before it makes a big push around them (or, in the case of the Watch, allowed Apple to bulletproof certain things critical on the Watch but less so on the phone)
  • Familiarity – Apple teaches its users new behaviors in subtle ways, tending to stay away from massive changes and instead introducing them bit by bit over time. This is true both for new products and features and for design and interface changes in iOS, which have also evolved subtly over time (with the possible exception of iOS 7, which might also be seen as a precursor to the Watch UI). Apple gets users accustomed to things and makes changes subtly, because that’s less jarring and easier to deal with from a user perspective. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen, for example, is a gesture introduced in the last couple of years in iOS, but is a critical user interface element on the Watch.

What else is Apple building now?

All this raises an interesting question: what is Apple building up to with the other features and services we’re seeing in its products today? With hindsight, we can clearly see how some of the incremental changes outlined above paved the way for the Watch, but can we use foresight to see what else Apple might be building to? This is an interesting thought exercise, and I’m not going to go into detail here, but some examples might be interesting:

  • Continuity and Handoff – could Apple use these fledgling connections between Mac and iOS to drive deeper and more meaningful integration in the form of, not just notifications and communication, but potentially using Touch ID on iOS devices to unlock Macs running OS X?
  • Payments – could Apple Pay and iMessage combine to provide person-to-person payments a la Venmo within iMessage?
  • Touch ID, Apple Pay and Passbook – could these components combine to extend wallet functionality beyond simple payments and into loyalty cards or IDs such as drivers’ licenses and the like?

I’m sure you could go through some of the things Apple is already building and find other examples (perhaps you’ll chime in with some in the comments). I’m fairly certain Apple isn’t done with this model and there will no doubt be some more “Aha!” moments in the coming years as we see these products and features find homes or roles in new and unexpected places.