Penman No. 145: Another Watch to Watch

Penman for Monday, April 20, 2016

KNOWING WHAT an Apple diehard I am, friends have been asking me about the forthcoming Apple Watch, and if I’m going to get one. So I’m going to make another little digression today to answer that question—although, arguably, technology is art and culture in contemporary society, particularly when it’s something close and familiar enough to wear on your person.

As half the planet now knows, Apple announced the Apple Watch last September 9 in a splashy event helmed by the company’s new and nimble CEO, Tim Cook. It’s due to be released this Sunday in the US, and preorders opened last April 10; within six hours, most models—about a million units—were sold out.

That’s the kind of first-day frenzy and manic marketing that Apple might as well take out a patent on, because no other company even comes close in making people line up on the sidewalk a week before the store doors open. It’s also what turns Apple haters—and there are more than a few—apoplectic, refusing to understand how the mere whiff of a new toy from Cupertino, California could leave a fourth of humanity in a hypnotic trance.

Well, the Apple Watch is finally here, heralding Apple’s entry into the fashion market—make that high-fashion, with its top-of-the-line, solid-gold model selling for a toe-curling $17,000 (base models start at $349, or about P15,500). It comes in two sizes and a number of finishes, with an array of attractive watchbands (attractive to most people, anyway, who sadly don’t include old leather-loving codgers like me.)

Given those numbers, it’s safe to conclude that the Apple Watch was made to do more than tell the time. While hardly in the same stratosphere of high-end watch brands such as Patek Philippe and Rolex, Apple hasn’t done too badly as a horological upstart. Designed to work best with an iPhone, the Apple Watch can receive your email and text messages, and show incoming calls. It can do Facebook and Twitter, and perhaps most hyped of all, it can track your health stats. It can play your favorite tunes, and store some of your favorite pics. You can still use it without an iPhone for neat little tricks like Apple Pay (if and when that comes to our shores).

What are its downsides? It doesn’t have built-in GPS; you’ll need your iPhone for that. And with its touted 18-hour battery life, you’ll probably need to recharge it every night.

Many of these features, I should point out—except for the Apple-specific apps—were and are available on other smart watches, for a lot less than what Apple is charging for their sum total. Before the Apple Watch, Beng and I had some fun with our his-and-hers Pebble watches, which basically told the time and displayed our email and SMS messages on a monochrome screen. Eventually, we both got tired of charging the buzzing beasties, and went back to our analog Hamiltons.

Which brings me to my answer to my friends’ question. Am I getting an Apple Watch? Heck, no—and this will probably be the first Apple rollout since the Newton that I’ll be passing on. But why not?

I’ll admit that the price is a factor—the Pebble didn’t cost me more than $100, and it’s way below that now (feature-wise, of course, the Pebble can’t hold a candle to the Apple Watch). But in truth, cost never did turn back the Apple masses, who seem convinced that the pricier and sleeker something with an Apple logo is, the more compelling it must be to possess.

It certainly isn’t for any lack of features, either, that I’m not in the buyers’ queue (where I was for the iPhone 6; I had ordered mine as soon as the online counters opened, and received it via UPS last September 19, the first day of delivery in the US). The Apple Watch is abundantly capable and versatile, and we’ve only seen the barest suggestion of all the lively apps that are going to be developed for this device.

Instead, I may have to admit, as I’ll do now, to the onset of what we might call digital fatigue—that awful sensation of drowning under an onrushing wave of 1’s and 0’s. I’ve never felt this before, and it must be my biological age showing, but it took the Apple Watch and its kaleidoscope of colors to tell me that I’ve had enough. Please, not another device to tether and feed like a pet goat, and one that will bleat mightily when some silly text message comes in selling a condo I can’t possibly afford, and one that will remind me with a smug chirp about how overweight I am.

I know that I can talk to the Apple Watch, which will be the coolest thing for my students to see since I stepped into class with a Nokia the size of a shoe strapped to my waist in the early ‘90s. But I have trouble enough talking to my phone; I hate making and taking phone calls, because they usually mean problems to deal with. My iPhone is, first of all, a camera, a jukebox, a browser, and a datebook; and then it’s a phone (come to think of it, it’s also and already a watch, and a damn good one).

As it is, I don’t even use my iPad often enough, and I have to remember to charge it after letting it idle for a couple of weeks in solitary stupor. There’s a nest of charging cables at the foot of my bed, with phones, power banks, and digital recorders huddled like suckling pigs; I can just see the Apple Watch joining that blue- and red-eyed menagerie—but again, I’d rather not.

The ultimate reason for my self-denial is, I guess, the romantic one. I love my vintage and my two-handed watches too much to trade them for some blingy upstart. I believe a watch’s first and only duty is to tell the time. I believe a watch should have a clear, round, and honest face, from which I can read the time at a glance, without breaking my train of thought. I believe a watch should have a soft and pliant strap, like good leather; it should be beautiful, but quiet and undemanding, except for the occasional turn of the crown.

Appwatch95

Kind of like the original Apple watch from 1995—I think the happiest watch ever designed—which everyone seems to have forgotten about in the mad rush to get the new one. I dusted mine off the other day, put a new battery in, and gave it to Beng. It tells the time, and puts a smile on your face. What more can you ask for?

[Apple Watch pic from wired.co.uk]

Penman No. 85: The Mac@30

MBAPenman for Monday, February 10, 2014

ONLY DIEHARD geeks and the tech and business media would have noted the event’s passing, but late last month, the Apple Macintosh computer marked its 30th anniversary. January 24, 1984 was the date when Apple introduced the Macintosh in what became an iconic commercial aired at the Super Bowl—directed by no less than Ridley Scott, who had already done the cult classics Alien and Blade Runner. In that video (which you can still see on YouTube), a female runner carrying a hammer smashes a screen on which an Orwellian dictator has been haranguing a hypnotized audience, breaking the spell. The clear implication, of course, was that a new hero had arrived, prepared to challenge and to crush the hegemony of industry leaders like Microsoft.

Today, three decades later, Apple has become the hegemon in many domains of computing, even outstripped in some respects by upstarts such as Samsung and Google’s Android platform. It’s sitting on one of the world’s largest stashes of cold cash—almost $150 billion, larger than the GDP of two-thirds of the world’s countries. The challenger has become the challenged; and with the loss and absence of its founder Steve Jobs, Apple under Tim Cook has had to deal with the “vision question”: what’s next for the company that built its fortune and reputation as the world’s most innovative? After the iPhone, what will Cupertino’s wizards come up with to create loops of frenzied buyers around city blocks, waiting for the Apple Store’s doors to open? In an age when most consumers have a choice between buying and using a tablet and a smartphone for everyday computing and communication, is there still room for a desktop or even laptop with an old-fashioned keyboard?

Apple thinks so. Interviewing Apple’s new bosses recently, Macworld editor Jason Snell reported: “What’s clear when you talk to Apple’s executives is that the company believes that people don’t have to choose between a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone. Instead, Apple believes that every one of its products has particular strengths for particular tasks, and that people should be able to switch among them with ease. This is why the Mac is still relevant, 30 years on—because sometimes a device with a keyboard and a trackpad is the best tool for the job.”

(Okay, here, before anything else, let’s get our terms right: “Apple” is the company; “Macintosh” or “Mac” is the computer that Apple makes, in desktop and laptop versions; “iPhone” is the smartphone, “iPad” is the tablet, “iPod” is the music player; and no, there’s no such creature as the “iTouch”; it’s the “iPod Touch.” “MacOS” is the operating system that runs the Mac; “iOS” is the operating system that runs the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. The MacOS has increasingly begun to look and feel like the iOS, and people have begun talking of an ultimate point of convergence when the two might become one.)

I can certainly testify to the fact that, yes, you can have all of these devices at your disposal (resistance is futile—sooner or later, you’ll have them all, even if you have to beg, steal, or borrow), and yes, you will pick out the best one for the specific job: I use an iMac for surfing, a MacBook Air for all my writing, an iPad for lectures, books, and schoolwork, and an iPhone for calls, messages, and nearly all of the above. (I’ve trained myself to write on an iPhone in a pinch, although I miss the BlackBerry’s tactile keypad.)

This, of course, is nothing short of digital indulgence and downright excess, something our fathers and mothers never experienced (although my non-emailing mother has become a gaming freak on her iPhone, and uses it regularly to speak to her brood here and abroad via FaceTime). Ours is the generation caught between the analog past and the digital future; and while that future will surely be more technologically dazzling and perplexing than we can imagine, we want and will get as much of it as we can now, because we can’t afford to wait. The computer is the baby boomer’s ultimate toy, and I’ve often explained my obsession with new digital gadgets (the flipside of my analog obsession with old fountain pens) as my way of cheating time.

Macs and I go a long way back. Thirty years is exactly half my life, and for most of that half-life—since 1986, when I met, touched, and used my first Mac as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where they had a laser-printing Mac available 24/7 for every 10 of their 40,000 students—I’ve been an unabashed Apple fanboy. There were also some PCs on campus—and I’d eventually buy one, my first computer running on DOS 3.0 with a humongous 10-megabyte hard disk, because it was the only thing I could afford. But it was really the Mac I lusted after, for all the reasons Steve Jobs predicted people would flock to it—it was intuitive (I had brought my Olympia portable with me to the States, and had to be persuaded to give the Mac a chance), it was fun, and it was beautiful.

It wasn’t until I came home, in the early ‘90s, that I got my first Mac—a PowerBook 520c, beloved of Scully and Mulder in The X-Files—which was a gift from a benefactor, who at that moment might as well have been The Almighty. I haven’t looked back since, amassing a virtual museum of Macs, especially portables, from the PowerBook 100 to the MBA. I was glad to learn that, as few as we were like the early Christians, we were not alone. To be an Apple user then was to be a stubborn, persnickety, secretly happy but sometimes publicly sullen member of a distinct minority, derided by the Windows 95 herd (“Windows 95? Why, that’s just Apple 87,” we riposted.)

In the mid-1990s, I joined and later chaired the Philippine Macintosh Users Group or PhilMUG, a handful of Mac addicts—themselves descended from the Macky Mouse Club, an even earlier organization of Apple enthusiasts—who met for monthly get-togethers at Angelino’s on Pasay Road and then Nanbantei near Jupiter Street in Makati. I was part of the focus group Apple assembled for the local rollout of the original iMac, and seeing it in its full glory for the first time was like meeting the Ark of the Covenant. (And to push this semi-blasphemous analogy along, what could have been more mindblowing than meeting the Mac’s messiah himself, Steve Jobs, at MacWorld in San Francisco in 2006, albeit from about 20 feet away? That trip to MacWorld and to Apple headquarters was my visit to the digital Vatican and Holy Land combined.)

Cupertino

Today, PhilMUG has become one of the world’s most active and longest-running Apple User Groups and forums (www.philmug.ph), and I’ve become something of a village elder there, helping chairman Johannes Sia and the other moderators advise newbies on everything from upgrading their machines to choosing the best travel, fitness, and entertainment apps. Everyone, it seems, has an Apple device of one kind or other, or wants to have one. Apple is in commercial heaven, but we—its angels and avatars—aren’t necessarily OK and happy with everything Apple does. Apple’s staunchest supporters can also be its stiffest critics—and we should be, knowing the machines and having invested in them more than anybody else.

But as loudly as I might complain about the iPad’s inability to natively play Flash presentations, among other gripes, I’m resigned to the fact that when the next big Apple product comes around—maybe the iWatch (the precursor of which is the Pebble watch I got for myself and Beng for our 40th anniversary, along the corny theme of “more time together”)—I’ll be there in the front of the queue, asserting my senior citizen’s priority.

As for the Mac itself, I’m also fairly certain that no mobile device, however nifty, will replace a real keyboard and a big screen. At the end of this writer’s working day, a computer is still a glorified typewriter, and it just so happens that as digital Underwoods and Smith-Coronas go, there’s nothing better than a Macintosh.