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How Apple Watch laid the foundation for iPhone X

By Daniel Eran Dilger

With a vibrant, full-faced OLED screen sporting handsomely-rounded corners edged in polished stainless steel, passive biometrics that "just work" to authenticate you without conscious effort, buttery smooth swipe navigation for multitasking and a simple side control to invoke Siri and Apple Pay, iPhone X is nothing like other phones. But it's exactly like Apple Watch, which began paving the way for a generational iPhone leap back in 2014 at its introduction next to the more basic styling of iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

When Apple Watch was introduced, critics bemoaned that its base aluminum Sport version was also offered in a premium-price tier for stainless steel, as well as a more breathtakingly expensive Edition with a solid gold body, even though all three versions used the same technical internals.

Why was Apple so arrogantly offering technology differentiated by luxury materials, the way car makers have for decades with luxury marques sporting chrome, leather and rosewood detailing? The nerve! Tech bloggers all know that computers can only come in basic tin and plastic boxes with no style. A PC never got anyone laid. Apple was investigating--and investing in--the market demand for luxury class styling

A more astute observation would have been that Apple was investigating--and investing in--the market demand for luxury class styling using a brand new product category. We noted this direction even before Apple Watch arrived.

Can't innovate anymore? Phil Schiller's ass!

Remember when the braying jackasses all harmonized in unison that Apple couldn't introduce new product categories and was growing dangerously dependent upon just one product, the iPhone? That belief also supposed the Apple Watch had to fail. Just look! There were so many other cheaper watch options from all of the Android vendors and beyond!

Those competitors have since largely dried up and blown away. Motorola, once honked about as having a "gorgeous" round Android Wear watch face, failed so miserably with its garish, slow, flat tire of a wrist-worn tuna can that it now has humbly slithered out of the watch business entirely. Few in the real world agreed to vote with their dollars that the Moto 360 was worth wearing. Google's Android software was unfinished and the watch hardware was a middling gimmick only a reviewer with a free product loan could pretend to admire.

Google has been patted on the back so frequently for trying bold new things--from Google TV to Google Glass headsets to Project Ara modularity to Project Tango AR--that those abandoned money pits are deemed "almost worth the effort" as creative experiments, a set of smoldering participation trophies of pyrrhic busy-work victories.

In parallel, Apple has been portrayed as a boring monolith that could only manage to crank out refreshed new versions of Macs, iPods, iPhone and iPad--essentially stuck in a rut improving upon the things Steve Jobs single-handedly invented before his untimely passing in 2011, the point at which Apple's creative spirit left with him. But that's a lie.

Apple Watch: the profitable product concept

Between 2012 and 2014, Apple pulled its wrist-wearable "Fat" iPad nano off the market and initiated a dramatic rethinking of what a wearable could be. More than just a clunky iPod strapped to the wrist, Tim Cook's Apple envisioned a fashionable luxury product with advanced biometrics for athletes, offered in a broad range of finishes, materials and stylish bands that could suit anyone's personal sense of style.

Apple Watch is the kind of thing Jobs would have loved. His original vision for the Macintosh was inspired by the Cuisinart, an ambitious project initiated in the 1970s to deliver high-end, sophisticated, premium kitchen appliances using state-of-the-art design and engineering.

Apple Watch similarly advances tech into a new frontier by rethinking the status quo of existing tools and targeting ways to fix things that could be done better. And it has paved the way for new classes of wearables, including AirPods, which integrate flawlessly with it and with iPhones other devices in a way that is magical and delightful.

Hated it!

How could the original product introduction of Apple Watch--involving its new tier of high-end engineering, precision manufacturing and complete rethinking of a custom new user interface on the level of the original 1984 Mac or Phone's first 2007 iOS--have been met with such derision, contempt and scathing ridicule by tech bloggers who supposedly cheer on advancement of the state of the art?

That's summed up the image posted by Jean-Louis Gassee in his 2015 Monday Note skewering the generally low value of tech product reviewers' capacity to offer a useful evaluation of style and design, contrasting Nilay Patel's derision of Apple's Milanese Loop band for the The Verge as looking "ridiculous" while sporting a cuff that looked like it came from Hot Topic.

Jean-Louis Gassee took Nilay Patel to task for his fashion critique of Apple Watch bands in his Monday Note

Patel responded with profanity-laced series of Tweets that attacked Gassee's age and appearance, apparently unaware of his respected stature in Silicon Valley, or cognizant of the absence of ranting from Apple's executives and designers, who professionally refrain from making defensive comments every time Patel and his colleagues regularly ridicule their best work, even as they assign high review ratings to Google products--even ones that they warn shouldn't be purchased.

While bloggers where trying to poke holes in Apple Watch--desperately looking for any hint that Apple had finally delivered a flop that could be extrapolated into a slippery slope of failure that might finally open up the playing field for less competent companies--Apple kept marching ahead with engineering work on new materials, new display technology, new silicon and new fabrication methods that would not only improve upon the original Apple Watch but would also cross-pollinate with iOS devices.

Back to the Mac-style tech sharing for iPhone

Several years ago, as sales of iPods and then iPhones ramped up into the tens of millions, many fans of the Mac grew concerned that Apple's attention would shift to its new revenue drivers, leaving them behind. One of the first technologies that came from Apple Watch to iPhones was water resistance

In 2010, Jobs delivered his "Back to the Mac" a keynote outlining how Apple would be taking many of the lessons learned with iOS and applying them to improve and enhance the Mac platform. This included a new Mac App Store and support for FaceTime (introduced on iPhone 4), as well as the introduction of distraction-free, full screen apps like those on the iPad.

Apple is now doing a similar thing with its work for Apple Watch. One of the first technologies that came from Apple Watch to iPhones was water resistance. It also pioneered OLED, as well as a full screen display navigated almost entirely by swipes, a screen that could wake with a touch and register a hard press as different from a tap. iPhone 6s subsequently delivered 3D Touch, iPhone 7 brought IP67 water intrusion resistance and now iPhone X gets tap to wake and a full panel OLED display.

Apple Watch also introduced a "luxurious" setup process where you simply view the watch display from your iPhone to establish a secure wireless link between them. This year's iOS 11 brings the same kind of Quick Start setup to iPhone upgrades. Samsung, meanwhile, advertises that you can plug in a 90s-style dongle to upgrade between Galaxy phones.

iOS 11 got its wireless Quick Start from Apple Watch. Samsung didn't.

Passive biometric authentication

Another concept that began with the watch is using biometrics to passively authenticate. While Touch ID introduced the idea of explicitly providing a fingerprint when requested, Apple Watch uses its rear pulse sensor to detect if you're still there after entering your passcode. When you take the device off, it stops verifying you until you put it on and reenter your passcode to unlock it. This allows users to start an Apple Pay transaction without explicitly logging in or typing in a code.

iPhone isn't able to constantly, reliably verify that you're in contact with the device. So to bring passive biometrics to iPhone X, Apple had to develop its new TrueDepth camera to deliver Face ID, which does a just-in-time authentication based a scan of your facial structures, something that others can't easily spoof. This passively initiated step is done when you swipe up, but also occurs when you enter a locked app (such as a banking or dating app that requires login at each use) or want to unlock data including Notes or your iCloud Keychain.

Go to a website that asks for credentials that you've saved on your Mac, and you can simply tap the key icon and iPhone X will instantly verify you with Face ID, then supply your password. No need to even lift a finger to authenticate. It just happens.Most unlocking scenarios occur when you're looking at the phone and it's looking at you, making authentication an invisible event

There are some cases where Touch ID lets you explicitly login quick, such as when you have your phone plugged into a car where the screen isn't facing you; Face ID requires that you move or tilt the display. However, that sort of corner case is relatively rare. Most unlocking scenarios occur when you're looking at the phone and it's looking at you, making authentication an invisible event.

If Apple hadn't worked to build an easy-to-use, passive mechanism for authenticating Apple Pay on Apple Watch, it may not have ever considered the need to replace Touch ID with something superior in almost every respect. Certainly all of the Android makers haven't given much thought to ditching their catchup versions of Touch ID, and Google's own vision of Pure Android, embodied in Pixel 2, makes no effort to think beyond fingerprint authentication.

When Google, Samsung and others took their shot at facial recognition, they delivered systems that could easily be fooled, because they didn't want to invest in the development of expensive components that would drive up the cost of hardware. For Apple, developing advanced technology isn't a problem, because it can afford to take big leaps and aggressively work to bring down costs across high volumes of premium sales.

Material differentiation

Another thing iPhone X got from Apple Watch: a sense of luxury differentiation using advanced materials. Beyond its display and front-facing 3D camera, iPhone X shares a lot in common with iPhone 8: similar rear cameras, the same internal processors, identical memory and storage and a variety of shared new features including Qi and Fast Charging. Yet iPhone X can command a premium in part because it signals its value using materials.

Related

The outward difference in appearance of iPhone 8 and iPhone X has a lot in common with the difference between the entry aluminum-cased Apple Watch with standard rear glass and the premium stainless steel models with a back involving an additional component process (on Apple Watch it's sapphire; iPhone X, it's another layer of color there to deliver a more lustrous appearance).

That communicates a difference in value even to people who don't think about technical differences, and sets apart the more expensive iPhone X as distinctive, the same way a Cadillac, Audi, Maybach, Lincoln or Infiniti fetches a higher price than a Chevy, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Ford or Nissan, despite often sharing much of the same chassis and other designs.

Google and Microsoft have also followed suit, creating the Pixel and Surface brands that similarly aspire to grab a higher price. The difference is that Google and Microsoft are directly competing against their own platform partners, and the tiny volumes of premium products they are actually selling are evidence that there isn't really much demand for upscale versions of Android or Windows products.

Yesterday, Apple sold more iPhone X models than Google will sell in Pixel 2 units over the next year.

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