The Day I Rubbed Shoulders With will.i.am

on December 8, 2014

The feel of Apple’s September launch event was both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Familiar in the way all Apple events I have attended since 2001 have felt. A similar format with many familiar faces but also unfamiliar because of the dramatic increase in the number of attendees. A casual observation by any regular Apple event participant would have seen a more diverse crowd from events past with even a number of high profile celebrities in attendance. There was also the feel something big was in the air because of the energy and buzz of the crowd.

After an hour or so of mingling with friends and colleagues, we filed into the Flint Center. Usually, at events like WWDC or Google IO or other large scale events, the media is allowed to get very close to the front to make a mad rush for the best seats before anyone else. These events have a very “running of the bulls in Pamplona” kind of feel. However this year, the same immediacy to get in was duplicated on the way out. The primary reason was because Apple had just announced and shown the Apple Watch minutes before.

As most of the crowd sped out of the Flint Center to get their pictures and “hands on” experience, I casually made my way outside to do on-camera interviews with some of the major news networks. After I completed them, I finally got a chance to experience the Apple Watch for myself. Which proved to be more difficult than I imagined.

The crowds surrounding the tables where the Apple Watch could be seen, held, and demoed were five rows deep of people. On the edges of the crowd, people were standing on their toes, or holding their cameras up as high as they could reach to snap pictures. People were pushing their way forward just to get close to the Apple Watch. I joked that seeing these crowds must have been what it was like observing people trying to see Jesus. Knowing the odds were against me, I decided to make a go and hope I didn’t have to wait an hour to get a demo.

I picked the least crowded table I could find and tried to get close. I was still at least three layers of people deep but at least I could see the Apple Watch and some of the demonstrations. As I watched intently, I felt another person press up against my back and lean over my right shoulder. At first I didn’t think anything of it until they started leaning on me with even more force. I turned to see why they needed shove their way to see the Apple Watch so badly. When I did, I recognized my inquiring compatriot as will.i.am.

I turned to look at him and his gaze intrigued me. The only way I could describe it was a stare of simultaneous shock and awe. He was mesmerized and fixated on the Apple Watch. He seemed so infatuated with it he didn’t noticed I had been staring at him for at least ten seconds as I tried to figure out the look on his face. I assumed he must have been simply amazed and marvelling at the quality and craftsmanship that would bridge technology and fashion for the first time. His intense gaze fascinated me because it was a look I have rarely seen on another person. As I talked with others after the event, I made mention of rubbing shoulders with will.i.am and how much he seemed to like the Apple Watch.

puls-will.i.am-smartwatchFast forward about a month and will.i.am takes the stage at a conference put on by SalesForce.com and announces a smartwatch of his own. It was a device that, while decent in concept and vision, it was left wanting in design. As I watched the news and saw the image of will.i.am’s smartwatch, I recalled our bumping into each other and the look on his face — it made perfect sense. He was looking at a product that had just made his smartwatch obsolete. He knew he was going to be on stage in a month and release a product that couldn’t hold a candle to the Apple Watch. If I were him, I would have had the same look on my face. A look I misinterpreted as shock and awe was was really a look of defeat.

What this story reminds me of is how difficult hardware is. More specifically, how hard it is to create mass market hardware products that are at the “intersection of technology and liberal arts”. Those who look well positioned to accomplish this because of their ties to entertainment, fashion, and culture are, in reality, not necessarily equipped to do so. It helps us appreciate what Apple has accomplished in creating mass market technology products that truly are at that intersection. Perhaps those in entertainment and fashion will learn the lesson that not just anyone can be a hardware/technology company and reconsider future aspirations.