Apple certainly had a lot to announce and preview during its almost-two-hour media event for the launch of the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which included not only new phones but the company's new mobile payments system known as Apple Pay and the first preview of the Apple Watch -- set to debut sometime early next year.
The event, for which Apple built a special facility at the Flint Center of DeAnza College, the Cupertino facility where both the original Mac and the first iMac were introduced by Steve Jobs, was also significant because it was also the first truly post-Jobs Apple product launch.
Although CEO Tim Cook and his team have launched several products since the iconic co-founder and CEO died three years ago, including three generations of the iPad and two generations of iPhones, they were all iterations on existing product lines. (The only product that you could truly call post-Jobs to date is the iPad mini, which took Apple into the small tablet market, something Jobs publicly derided before his death.)
The first real look at Apple under Cook happened during the company's annual WorldWide Developers Conference keynote in June. That keynote very much illustrated that Apple had found its bearings again in the post-Jobs world. Yesterday, however, offered the first glimpse of the products and services that Apple has taken on without Jobs' influence -- and it should finally put to rest the ridiculous idea that Apple was no longer capable of innovation.
Right is better than first
Yesterday's showcase melded both the classic Apple showmanship with a slightly different, more open company. And it reinforced a hallmark of Apple's strategy: It's more concerned with doing a product right than doing it first.
Apple announced a larger iPhone and its first phablet. Neither category is new, and neither smartphone was a surprise. It also introduced an NFC-powered, contact-less mobile payments system. There have been several attempts by Apple's competitors and industry consortiums, including Google Wallet and Softcard (the industry group formerly known as Isis). Indeed, Apple was long thought to be working on such a system and many people assumed -- correctly -- that Apple's Passbook was a stepping stone to that goal. Apple is also far from being the first company to produce either a wearable fitness tracker or a smartwatch (or a combination of the two).
The same could be said of the first iPod (not the first portable MP3 player), the original iPhone (not the first smartphone), and the iPad (not the first tablet -- and if you consider the Newton line, not even Apple's first tablet). Yet, Apple threw out the design and user interface rulebook for each of those categories, went back to the drawing board on how to best design a device for them, and then created category-defining products that turned obscure technology into mainstream sensations and disrupted whole industries.
That same innovative fire was particularly evident in the previews offered up of the forthcoming Apple Watch. Note that innovation isn't cheap. The Apple Watch will sell for $349.
Doing the smartwatch right
The most Apple-like and innovative part of the Apple Watch isn't that the company built a smartwatch. It's that it went back to the user interface (UI) and experience (UX) drawing board. Delivering a clear jab at Samsung (and Android Wear devices in general), Cook noted that Apple deliberately didn't try to shrink an iPhone and put a strap on it. That's what most of Samsung's watches are like, particularly the original Galaxy Gear and the Tizen-powered Galaxy Gear S announced last week.
Instead, Apple looked at how people would use a smartwatch and actually developed a device with a unique mix of UI elements. Yes, there's a touchscreen, but it's not the only input mechanism. Although I think the term "Digital Crown" is a little ridiculous -- it's nothing more than a tiny knob -- it is something unique in smartwatch design. The closest comparison is the Pebble's brilliant four-button approach that allows you to scroll, select and go back a step without having to touch the screen -- an approach that more closely matches what people might do on a watch, though it is a bit basic and limited.
By combining the Digital Crown with a touchscreen, Apple took the best of both types of interfaces -- touch and swipe when it makes sense, scroll or zoom or return to the homescreen using the Digital Crown when that makes sense. The ability to integrate a press along with a touch or swipe thanks to a pressure-sensitive screen adds another intuitive input option. Each alone would deliver a subpar user experience -- the Pebble is limited because its interface is scroll-and press-based (like Apple's Digital Crown, albeit with buttons and not a knob or scroll wheel).
In order to be truly functional, many touchscreen watches already on the market need to be larger than most people feel comfortable wearing. Size and style were clearly on Apple's list, which is why the Apple Watch will come in two sizes, both sporting the same intuitive experience.
Apple also recognized that a watch or wearable needs to be less geeky and more fashionable than its competitors. The Apple Watch is, in many ways, the antithesis of Google Glass. It's designed to look fashionable, yes, but it's also designed not to draw attention to itself. It actually looks like a high-end watch. Even the taptic notification experience allows the user to be aware of an incoming message or other event while not making noise or vibrating loudly or obviously, something that people in meetings and restaurants the world over will undoubtedly appreciate.
Going the distance for fitness and well-being
There is already a sea of fitness trackers on the market. What really stands out about Apple's take is that it doesn't try to track everything the same way. Walking isn't running, running isn't biking. And while lifting weights or doing pilates are both types of exercise, they're very different from each other. This is one of the things where many health trackers fail -- they may excel at tracking one type of activity and a handful of metrics, but not others. Apple offers a dedicated experience for general activity tracking and training, as it should. They aren't the same thing.
Even within the general fitness or wellness category, Apple breaks out tracking into three separate rings on this device. That gives you a much fuller sense of what it takes to maintain wellness than most devices. Given all the research we have about the importance of standing, in particular to postural or musculoskeletal health it's great that Apple has broken out standing as a metric in its own right.
This will all tie back into Apple's HealthKit platform in iOS 8. Having worked in healthcare IT, I was already excited about HealthKit's potential to consolidate a diverse array of health and fitness information, along with actionable medical data that could be securely integrated with clinical systems like electronic health records. Given the direction Apple is taking with sensors in the Apple Watch, I think healthcare developers will be able to devise a lot of interesting apps for it. Linked to HealthKit, one app I can envision would remind you not just to just to stand, but to perform certain physical therapy exercises, including those assigned by a doctor or physical therapist throughout the day. Then it would report back to the provider about how often you do them and whether you do them for the requisite amount of time.
Apple spent a lot of time putting together a catalog of fitness and medical experts, including regulatory experts, in developing how both the Apple Watch and HealthKit would function and ensuring they're on the right side of regulations. I think that we've only scratched the surface of what these technologies will ultimately offer.
Apple makes geeky ideas mainstream
With both the Apple Watch and Apple Pay, Apple is taking concepts that were once far outside the mainstream and making them something everyone is aware of, even if they don't use them or if they choose an alternate already on the market. This has always been one of the company's strengths -- along with its ability to step back and rethink how human beings can best interact with a technology. Together, they represent much of how Apple has always innovated: by pushing the technology sector forward and new ideas into the mainstream.
Tuesday's event demonstrated that Apple is still adept at doing just that. Even Tim Cook showed a new level of comfort and confidence onstage, aside from the weird overly rehearsed moment with Bono, and looked like he was having the time of his life at some points. This is the new Apple. It really isn't much different from the old one.