Why Apple Watch isn't the most advanced timepiece

Apple Watch teardown
Apple Watch teardown   

When Apple CEO Tim Cook first unveiled Apple Watch last September, he proclaimed it as "the most advanced timepiece ever created."

The Apple Watch went on sale this past Friday. So let the revolution in the revolutions of a watch hand begin(!).

After allowing us to stop the watch for a minute, because a few experts beg to differ with Cook's ease of use with the term "most advanced timepiece ever." Taking on Apple is dangerous business. You run the risk of not only having another U2 album automatically loaded into your iTunes account as a Godfather-like sample of what Apple can do to you, but getting the hordes of Apple fan boys and fan girls mad at you.

But these experts should know—they may not write for Re/code or Consumer Reports, but they've spent their lives studying the history of timepieces, a field known as horology. It may be less sexy than current consumer thrall to every gadget coming out of Silicon Valley, but to horologists the measure of how advanced a timepiece is depends on how much it advanced society.

And by that measure, when you wind back time on time, it becomes obvious why horologists are reserving judgment on Apple's latest innovation and accusing Tim Cook of just the slightest bit of marketing hyperbole that doesn't stand up to history's greatest timekeepers.

A brief history of time ... keeping

Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2015, in San Francisco
Getty Images
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2015, in San Francisco

Consider the introduction of the pendulum in 1657, which enabled clocks to keep time to within a minute per day (from roughly 15 minutes before that). The development was a product of, and then catalyst for, the Age of Enlightenment, according to Oliver Cooke, curator of horology, British Museum. It enabled scientists to make observations and conclusions about the laws of the universe that previously would not have been possible (no small thing). Though to be fair, the Apple Watch does give you the ability to have an image of Mickey Mouse serve as your watch hands. Tough to beat!

Mickey's next competitor: When the balance spring was introduced to the balance wheel of watches in 1675, it was the first practical controller for portable timekeepers. That led to one of the largest technological contests in history—think an arguably more important version of Netflix offering coders a $1 million prize for figuring out an algorithm to recommend movies to users. The stakes were pretty high in the 18th century—not just whether someone who binge-watches "30 Rock" would also like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"—but trying to create a timekeeper sufficiently stable on a vessel at sea to enable its longitudinal position to be determined effectively, even after several weeks at sea.

"The Apple Watch may currently be the most 'advanced' timepiece ... at least in its context as a wearable electronic device, but whether it will have similarly significant effects on the development of society remains to be seen!" -Oliver Cook, curator of horology, British Museum

An unheralded clockmaker named John Harrison would go down in history—and be immortalized in the best seller "Longitude" by Dava Sobel—for solving what was considered the greatest technological puzzle of his time with the H4 timekeeper. It was the forerunner of chronometers, which, by the 19th century, were providing many ships with the vital information of longitude.

Where did Harrison's advance lead? An exponential increase in the speed of global expansion by sea, Cook said (and, we might add, to its more complex by-product, centuries of imperialism). Harrison was voted the 39th most important Briton of all time in a BBC poll, so Steve Jobs might have him beat there when the American version of the poll is next conducted. The Longitude Prize paid millions in today's money (though Harrison was paid in grants rather than a lump sum over time as he worked to improve his design), even better than the $1 million paid out to Netflix prizewinners. Netflix's prize, it may also be noted, did not come into being through an Act of Parliament but a whim of CEO Reed Hastings.

Zoom ahead to the era of electrical horology, which began in the 19th century and allowed for time distribution—organizations and citizens of a nation could work in sync, whether it be a train network or utility grid. Next came atomic clocks of the 20th century, which had a profound effect on science and navigation.

(Note to Tim Cook and the rest of Silicon Valley's wearable wannabes: There is an atomic clock at the heart of every GPS satellite, and atomic clocks play a role in synchronization of data networks across the Internet, which enables the speeds society now relies on.)

All of this is what leads British Museum's Cook to conclude that "The Apple Watch may currently be the most 'advanced' timepiece ... at least in its context as a wearable electronic device, but whether it will have similarly significant effects on the development of society remains to be seen!"

You could say that's one Cook on one side of the Atlantic playing nice with another Cook, even when unleashing the full sweep of his horological wisdom.

Here's the fundamental difference between the revolutions in the timekeeping past and the Apple Watch introduction and all of the "tech utopia" exaggeration that surrounds it:

"The Apple Watch is only a new way to see information which already existed," said Grégory Gardinetti, historian in watchmaking, culture and patrimony manager at Geneva-based Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie. "Except for the sensor (for heart), you can do the same on your smartphone."

In fact, you can't do anything without your iPhone if you want to use the Apple Watch.

A 17th-century 18-hour miracle

If there's one particular aspect of the Apple Watch trumpeted by the tech company that horologists find the least impressive when judged by history, it's the battery life of 18 hours.

A quick horological quiz explains why: When did timepieces reach the point where they could run for 18 hours without needing to be re-wound. Before the introduction of the balance wheel in 1675, that was the standard, but after 1675, mechanical watches could run for 30 hours.

Today mechanical watches can be wound (i.e. recharged) in less than a minute. "Just a thought!" Cook said.

"Eighteen hours is unimaginable for a mechanical watch!" Gardinetti said. "People don't want to think about autonomy of the watch, it's why we have self-winding watches! The 18 hours between charges of the Apple Watch is a real problem."

Horologists do give Apple credit for being comparable to one moment in watchmaking history: the first wristwatches becoming a consumer item at the beginning of the 20th century. Wristwatches were a new way to wear the watch after pocket watches.

"It was the opening of a new market," Gardinetti said. "The Apple Watch is a new way to wear your smartphone. ... It will have an impact on society because it's Apple. The brand creates a need for consumers with each new product. Smartwatches in general will be great because new consumers, like teenagers, will wear watches again."

That's less an advance than a brand extension.

Gardinetti went even further, daring to call into question Apple's most basic claim at this moment in time:

"For me the Apple Watch is not a timepiece; it's a connected device worn on the wrist," Gardinetti said. "A lot of other brands are currently producing other connected devices with the same or more features."

And maybe once there's a wrist-wearable that lets us keep time on our Mars colony and synchronize with our relatives back on Earth (texting through the interstellar dust to them with the tap of a watch face some canned expression or emoticon), Silicon Valley will finally be on an equal horological pedestal with John Harrison.