Apple Appeal Episode II: The Store Under Sauron’s Watch
In our last editorial adventure we took a look at my first incursion into an American Apple Store, and how the experience differed from typical technology retailers. We explored the tactics that Apple uses to convince its customers that they are buying into something grand, and how manipulative some of their psychological exploits were. Moreover, the place was reminiscent of a creepy church of technology where magic tricks took place at every corner, clearly engineered by Apple’s Oz Wizards to impress naive consumers.
My second incursion gave me a lot more stories to tell, as well as some ironic developments that sparked a lot questions within my head. The tale began last thursday, as me and fellow XDA Portal Editor Chris Gilliam were discussing over hangouts whether it’d be wise to purchase a new upcoming smartwatch or a VR headset in the near future, for reviewing and experience purposes. The latter is something I find very valuable, as having a device, particularly a new emerging platform such as smartwatches or VR, gives you invaluable first-hand knowledge that proves useful when analysing the ecosystem. Anyway, we arrived to the conclusion that a new smartwatch wouldn’t be too useful unless it was a steal.
An Unexpected Journey
Cue the next Friday morning, and I woke up to a reddit post that read “PSA: Moto 360 has dropped to $179”. I didn’t think much of it, but when I jumped into the thread, a user let us know that he got an extra $25 discount by having a student e-mail account. So I let temptation run free and I bought into it for under $165, as I had craved one of these since my last trip to America. I had attempted to buy one then, but as many might remember the release was met with crazy shortages (I showed up at a Best Buy 5 minutes after it opened, and their 3 units were gone) and my plane left the next day.
Me and my girlfriend went to pick up my order at the Mall of America (one of the biggest malls in the U.S.), and I eagerly opened it up: it was even prettier than I had expected, with a polished steel frame that lit rainbows as I tilted it. I turned it on and the screen stretched from side to side, and I instantly fell in love. Then I heard a few people passing by and saying “that Apple Watch was awesome!”. At first I thought they confused my watch, but as they walked away I noticed they were talking about the Apple Watch. “Oh, the demo units are here today!”, I gasped, and I rushed to the Apple Store to get a hands-on – and see just how bad it was.
The Store of Oz, Once More
The store was packed. This being one of the densest malls in the United States, I expected it to be full, but the amount of buzz and conversation going on trumped any other store I’ve ever been to in my life. We went in and there was a large display in the middle showcasing every single Apple watch variant, from “cheap” to luxurious. At each side of the display, an Apple employee was acting as a salesman telling facts about the watch. Buzzwords such as “Taptic Engine” were thrown all over the place, and both employee’s speech were eerily structured.
One of the Apple employees began making small talk with us, telling us how much he wanted the sports watch, and details about the rest. He told us how the sapphire glass in it is “the second strongest material on Earth”, and how only diamonds can break it. We heard some more about the aluminum and gold used in it, and how the second was an alloy that was “twice as strong” as actual gold (apparently up to 290 MPa on the Vickers scale, which isn’t bad, but definitely not twice since gold has a hardness of 216MPa). After the talk was over, the guy “suggested” that we should check out the demo’s, and then do a try-on. I stayed for a little bit longer at the large center display to hear people’s comments.
It was immediately obvious to us that people came up to the display to see the highest tier watch, not the rest. “Is that the expensive one?” is a question we heard about 4 times from random people coming in, and when pointed to the expensive one they began chatting about it, then moved onto the cheaper ones. The sport (cheapest) watches had their side of the display completely barren. Some people said that they would never buy an expensive one, but many made it clear that they wanted it. A few minutes later, another employee “strongly suggested” that we “signed up” for a try-on and moved on to the demo units, as to not disturb the flow of customers. We did so.
This is where I tried the Watch for myself for the first time. I had written an article comparing the software design decisions of the Apple Watch and of Wear, with the ultimate conclusion that the Apple Watch was clunky, slow, and full of time-consuming filler. This is exactly what I found here, and the controls and interface felt downright silly. But we tried the notifications, and that’s where I realised that the Apple Watch had severe problems beyond what reviews mention. Let me make a quick comparison when it comes to replying notifications in Wear and the Apple Watch.
Android Wear: Get notification, screen lights up automatically – raise wrist, read – swipe left – click button – speak
Apple Watch: Get notification, screen doesn’t light up – do exaggerated gesture to bring it up – screen still takes a solid second to turn on – silly app icon animation (which takes over a second) appears – option to read and buttons to reply – reply with voice – talk to Siri, must wait until she is done catching your input and processing it – then must choose between sending it as text, or sending it as voice.
I used Wear to reply to dozens of messages on the run per day, and thus Apple Watch would drive me nuts. A few cringes and laughs later, my turn to try on the watch came. After hearing employees recite the same script about the materials, construction and everything that a smartwatch isn’t truly about, I had my mind set on pointing out the flaws, misconceptions or outright lies that the try-on assistant would try to spew on me. I was ready to go one-on-one on him, but the plan disappeared when they assigned to me an overly polite 4’8” tall asian girl with an endearingly squeaky voice. I just couldn’t do it.
So I sat there, listening about how the glass is used in space shuttles and the aluminum in mountain bikes from the future (or whatever) while trying out the two watches the session limits you to. The design is surprisingly small, and it does not look bad at all – but it looks like a geeky gadget toy still. What I noticed outright is that the watches felt much heavier than any Wear watch I’ve put on. The steel mesh band one in particular felt much much heavier than the Moto 360 I had with me, and while the employee tried to convince me that the mesh felt like silk, I simply felt a typical (quality) steel mesh. I took off the burning hot watch (to their defense, they were constantly charging and being worn in and out) and decided to simply look around and listen to people’s feedback.
The same process we went through is the same everyone there was intended to go through, and you could see the same movement patterns in every customer. The store was laid out in such a way that the captivating center display would allure you to check it out, and then the employees would guide you through. You would think this is simply efficient customer distribution, but with the way the employees were distributed and trained and the store set up it was a guided tour. Each employee was repeating the same thing to every customer, then sending them out somewhere else in a subtle way. “The hardest in the world”, “twice as strong”, “much richer” and “Apple Magic” (by far my favorite) were phrases that were uttered over and over.
Then I spotted a manager in charge of it all, a shorter and rounder Sauron talking on a bluetooth headset and looking around, watching over the developments and commanding the employees. If he would see a wandering customer alone, he would then say something and instants later someone would go get the clueless visitor. The employees were following strict scripts and guidelines, and the whole arrangement, movements and buzz made for a hive of technology. And I kept hearing the same things, over and over: “it looks so cool”, “I want the expensive one [laugh]”, “I can’t wait to get one”.
Return of the King
At no moment did I hear anyone talk about the capabilities of the watch or what it did, everyone in that store simply talked about the looks, the style, the prices and which one would fit “them” better. The employees also never mentioned any software features to us nor to anybody, not even those handling the demo units (I only heard conversations about how the crown and force-touch worked).
Apple has managed to get everyone talking about a smartwatch, but at the same time get nobody talking about a smartwatch. I truly had hope that the initial reviews that pointed out all of the watch’s faults would bring some sense into people, and that for once we wouldn’t see the “sheep mentality” that circumvents Apple products. Every fault I described in our software design analysis made for real-world UX compromises, and I felt it first-hand. But under this light, none of it matters. It is only a matter of looking at video interviews with casual consumers to realise that people don’t give a damn about what the watch does, they just want one because it’s the new Apple thingy, and thus they need it to be “cool” or in “the latest”. The video below features some of that in first-reaction interviews:
They has proved time and again to be at the bleeding edge of engineering of consent, and their Apple Watch is their magum opus. If Apple once more manages to see ludicrous sales, they should be crowned the King of marketing, because that’s what this is ultimately all about. With pre-orders selling out left and right (even for the expensive tiers), we can expect this to outsell Wear by a landslide for no good reason other than a manufacturer’s name and logo.
So I went home, utterly demoralized, but at least I now get to enjoy what I believe is one of the best purchases I’ve made. My precious cost me 4 times less than the equivalent Apple Watch configuration, and it provides a much better software experience (and to me, a much more stylish design). And as an additional bonus, educated consumers at XDA won’t think I’m a tool!
What are your opinions on the Apple Watch? Do you think that its success is due to hivemind buzz? Tell us below!