Skip to main content

Apple's Skeuomorphic Hardware

In a recent post to Asymco Horace Dediu provides a long list of cababilites in the Apple Watch. He comments:

The reason the Watch can do all these things is because it’s a computer. A computer with a dual core processor based on the A13 bionic chip also used in the iPhone 11, a retina display that is always on(!) and displaying at least 500nits at all times. It has on-board storage for music, WiFi, Bluetooth and a touch screen.

But although being a computer allows the Watch to do all this and more, no PC can do even one of these things. Nor does a PC have GPS, or Cellular connectivity or NFC and is certainly not swimproof. You don’t wear a PC in bed and it does not stay with you 24×7.

I’ve read and listened to the hot takes from the recent Apple event and most commentators make the same points that they have made since the Apple Watch found its niche with the Series 2. If you see the Apple Watch as a fitness device or use it primarily for notifications then you are happy. If you see it as a watch then you question its necessity.

Horace’s point above and his thesis in the article gets to the heart of the matter. Apple is officially a consumer electronics company. They changed their name to reflect this after the massive success of the iPod. The name changed but the company didn’t. It is still very much Apple Computer. When it debuted, the iPhone was unlike any other phone. Now the vast majority of phones follow the same design paradigm. The iPhone was never a phone though. Previously there were phones with apps. Afterward there are computers that make phone calls. The Apple Watch is exactly the same. It is a watch in name only. Previously there were watches, mechanical and digital. There were also smart watches. The Apple Watch is neither. It is a health and fitness monitor with a real time clock.

A few years ago there was constant talk about skeuomorphic software design. There isn’t much talk about skeuomorphic hardware design. The iPhone and Apple Watch are skeuomorphic designs. They provide familiarity to the user by mimicing common products. An iPhone can do everything that a PC can do. Yes it is limited by Apple’s rules and the app store but it can. The hardware is there. It doesn’t do many of those things as well, but it does other things the PC can’t and it is always in your pocket.

Similarly, the Apple Watch is now running an Apple designed A13 processor. Technically it can do everything a PC can do. It doesn’t for various reasons but it can. Instead it has been extended with sensors, some always on and some used as needed, to make it something more than a PC. The Apple Watch provides a suite of diagnostic information that was only available with a multi-thousand dollar hospital visit a few years ago. None of the sensors are as good as dedicated medical equipment, but there is no medical equipment that provides the same range of sensors for the money. Also, the Apple Watch is always on your wrist.

Since the development of the integrated circuit computers have transformed or replaced a significant number of products. The trend will continue. Computation is powerful and increasingly affordable. These skeuomorphic hardware designs will continue as more products become accessible through reduced size and cost.