Apple’s Slow, Subtle Build to New Products

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.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

31 thoughts on “Apple’s Slow, Subtle Build to New Products”

  1. Totally agree. This is one of the keys to Apple’s amazing success. The learning curve for new hardware products is stretched out and most of the time starts even before the new device is released. Years before in some cases.

    Part of stretching out the learning curve means the first model comes out with a relatively small function set, with features added in succeeding model iterations. Whether this is intentional on Apple’s part or dictated by the pace of R&D, here’s the big payoff: They get a bigger cohort of early adopters, since learning to use the new device is easier, then as they add on features in succeeding model upgrades, the early adopters form a large corps of enthusiastic and FREE technical support for the later adopters who face a steeper learning curve (because their entry device is more complex than the earlier models).

    Contrast this approach to the typical Sony new product of, say, 10-15 years ago when they strayed from the Walkman aesthetic after illness forced Akio Morita to step down from Sony management. Or one of my favorite examples, Windows Media Center Edition.

  2. iOS doesn’t have widgets, it has interactive notification. Widgets are on the home screen, not the notification shade, and thus are available at a glance, with no need for user interaction. Having more room, they can be very content rich, customizable… Calling actionable notifications widgets is Apple trying to novlang its way into feature parity with Android and Windows.

          1. Which was also a reimagining of Applets in Pre-OS X days. How far back do you want to play this game?


          2. Google “desktop accessories”, which goes way back to early Mac os days, even the beginnings System 1. It was the closest thing to multitasking the Mac had for the longest time.


          3. Had to add “finder”… to find them, with a first line referencing Borland Sidekick
            I was thinking X11, specifically the eyes that followed the pointer, only X started in 1984 according to WIkipedia.
            That leaves as candidates for earliest availability
            – MS DOS’s TSRs appeared in MS DOS 2.0 (1983), and had the ability to display stuff. Can’t find a specific example though. Gosh, still exists, I spent hours on there. Sidekick was the pinnacle of TSRs (but released in late 1984). There must have been clock widgets before it.
            – I’m thinking there must have been a Unix daemon that displayed stuff before that. Can’t find it though, and daemons might be an edge case since they’re not really interactive apps. Does a custom prompt count ? I did some fancy stuff with them a long time ago ^^

          4. The wiki article you posted about Dashboard widgets has a note about Apple’s Desk Accessories, released in 1984 along with the first Mac. I’m going to assume your own link counts as a source 🙂 Man, you have a bad habit of proving yourself wrong by not fully reading the links you post.

    1. Android’s Widgets architecture, like the Mac OS Dashboard it was essentially based upon, requires continual refresh and processing any time you bring up the desktop. That’s extremely undesirable on a mobile device, where you want your battery reserved for things you explicitly need to do, rather than constantly updating stuff you may not even immediately be interested in.

      That’s why, despite having a mobile Dashboard model to copy in Android, Apple instead gave iOS its current Notification Center mechanism allowing users to explicitly bring up Widgets that only refresh when explicitly brought up by the user. You can navigate throughout Home screens without the system having to refresh a random collection of widgets doing work behind the scenes to pull up weather or disk IO or stock data. That’s one reason iOS has much better battery life than Android, despite many Android phones packing larger batteries.

      Achieving feature parity by copying isn’t really Apple’s bag. That’s what Android and Windows primarily do, which is why you describe it as necessary and expected. Apple regularly goes out of its way to not copy ideas that are not good.

      1. It might be undesirable to you, it is indispensable to me:

        0- widgets are extremely valuable to me, they save a lot of time opening/closing apps, calling up notifications… they actually inform my whole workflow, I disregard notifications because I know I’ll be able to see all the incoming stuff at one glance when I wish to.

        1- my tablets spend most of their time next to my screens, plugged in, as dashboards to news, mails, messages… no power consumption issue here, I’ll take the functionality speed and efficiency.

        2- my phones have serious batteries and can take the hit and still last way over a day, so ditto even for phones.

        3- if widgets’ power consumption is an issue, people can elect to.. not use them, which makes the whole “undesirable” shtick pointless: if you don’t desire them, don’t use them. Choice…

        Apple *is* copying like crazy these days. Pen, Multiwindows, Intents and 3rd-party keyboards, smartwatches, 5.5″ phone (which it decried so stridently the year before), 12+” tablet… Apple copies when it feels it needs to, not indiscriminately, but it does copy a lot.

        1. So problem solved: buy Androids.

          Thing is, most people who are willing to pay money for things want things to work, which is why Apple is doing well and why other Android vendors are struggling. Also: your depiction of “copying” is liberal to the point of meaningless. Apple’s products don’t follow the designs of others or it would have a Pencil that isn’t very accurate, windows that worked like Samsung’s (Android itself doesn’t even support multiple windows!) and a round watch because that’s what some Google engineer’s child told them. Also, Android phablets aren’t 5.5 inches, they are mostly larger than that. But “copying” a size isn’t really on the level of Samsung studying the design and software of iPhone and then building a copycat product that attempts to look identical, or Google copying the entire architecture of iOS and then copying Java code without licensing it to create something that can compete and be offered for free. That’s stealing, not just having similar aspects.

          1. Mmmm… you must be from an alternate reality: Google has been found innocent of copying anything Java. Twice. And that was not about the code, that was about the APIs (hint: if using others’ APIs is a crime, Apple -and everyone- is guilty of it too, including Oracle)

            As for watches being round because Google’s children wanted that… who’s the child ? Also, there are square Android watches too. I know, “choice.. that can’t be right” is the unofficial iFan motto.

            Android’s architecture is not similar at all to iOS’s and predates iOS’s release. The UI is clearly inspired in part from iOS, but the architecture, not at all: iOS doesn’t have “intents” (well, didn’t, until they copied them from Android), Android doesn’t have a top-priority rendering thread (hence its early struggles with smoothness), iOS initially didn’t support 3rd-party apps nor flexible screen layout which Android did, etc…

            5.5 inches is generally considered a phablet. . Sorry. Samsung’s 2011 Galaxy Note is generally considered the first one. Copying a size is equivalent to copying rounded corners and the on-screen version of sliding locks. Here’s a list of stuff iOS recently copied from Android: . Goes both ways, probably balanced. As for attempting to look identical… the iPhone itself is a copy of the design-award-winning LG Prada…

            Android vendors aren’t struggling because Androids don’t work.
            First, many are thriving, not struggling. Even more so compared to non-Android OEMs (Palm, RIM, Nokia, MS…)
            Second, Android has 85% share: it works well and is gaining users and share.
            Third, the US’s most high-rated phone is an Android. It works better than an iPhone !
            Finally, Android vendors are struggling because there’s inter-ecosystem competition (customers get a better deal !) and they’ve been struggling with marketing at the high end. It seems Samsung has finally fixed that problem though.

  3. The biggest past example of Apple’s patient groundwork-laying behaviour might be of how the iphone was a technology demo for the ipad — apple had been working on a tablet for most of the 00’s, then they pivoted and made a phone first because the mobile GPUs available couldn’t support a 1024×768 size screen. Then, with the phone ecosystem firmly in place, and the necessary GPU power finally available, they came out with the ipad tablet, which leveraged the phone ecosystem, developer community, and OS. Result: the ipad took off incredibly quickly, killing off an entire category of notebook computers and leaving apple’s competitors without a credible competing device for well over a year.

  4. OpenCL is classic example.
    First llvm development had to be in-house.
    OpenGL stack was written to use LLVM jit into Intel GPU.
    OpenCL was developed in stead of CUDA using Clang and LLVM.
    had to be taken to Khronos.
    AMD hired GPU Vice President Raja K and others.
    AMD hired load of engineers in Florida.
    GPU customization happened.
    All the lessons of OpenCL (good and bad) were put into Metal was developed.
    OpenCL is now on the back burner.

    This timeline is like 2005-2015.

  5. Bluetooth example can be expanded.
    Apple didn’t have NFC so they extended Bluetooth
    to be able to do tagging and such.
    Bluetooth wasn’t secure. It had to be extended in Committee.
    Bluetooth wasn’t fast enough for Watch.
    so 3.1 is coming which will be faster still.

    All this had to be done in the Bluetooth SIG.

    Kroner loyalty card can already be put into passbook.
    For P2P payments, Apple would have to get money processing
    license. Microsoft just did that.
    For drivers license, government would have to come with a standard.
    much harder. Every citizen having a private key in governmnet DB and your phone having public key is one way it would work. May not be to everyone’s liking. If it used to track also.

  6. Agree with your assessment, but as implied in AngriBuddhist’s earlier comment, I think you left two important items off your list, iBeacons and HomeKit. The Apple Watch will soon be thought of as the best (in the sense of most immediate/responsive) experience screen for interacting with iBeacons and HomeKit-enabled devices (though iPhone/iPad will be better suited for configuring HomeKit-enabled devices.)

    Since Apple is organized like a small company with a single integrated Senior Mgmt team for all Apple products, and from conception to sales to support, I’d think many of the “features” proposed to be added to any specific product (Mac, iPhone, AppleTV, etc), are assessed against all the products in the OS X and iOS ecosystems in terms of setting priorities (allocating resources) and launch timelines. I’d think Apple Pay and a much-improved Siri were pre-requisites or co-requisites for launching Apple Watch.

  7. The threads can go back a long ways. Capacitive touch, 2003, 3rd-gen iPod. (Of course, those ran on ARM too, which dates back to Newton in 1993.)

  8. Apple and Google must help make a paradigm shift in how TV is watched and how TV subscriptions are handled. I am surprised Apple has not attempted own a cellular company as a part of its eco-system. Google is working on fiber optic cable expansion. Apple’s products will sell better when it builds an eco-system first and then brings in a product that works well in it.

  9. Apple can target the elderly market with its watch where emergency can be called through the press of a button using an active app. It could even be designed to monitor the pulse and sense a potential heart attack. Medical field is where the Apple watch can expand rapidly.

  10. I like the observations in your column. It does seem like Apple is always thinking ahead.

    I think there is another aspect to this. As of this month, someone can spend $15,000.00 on a gold Apple watch and then pick up a gold MacBook for $1,500.00 – as an accessory, so to speak.

    That person will have high expectations of their watch. I suggest that their expectations of the MacBook will be high as well. They certainly won’t expect a MacBook to be ten times worse because it costs ten times less.

    Apple has to consider a different type of buyer now than they did in the past. In fit, finish, utility and emotional appeal, I think Apple has been working towards a goal that luxury watch buyers will not be disappointed by other Apple products they may buy.

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