In any regular year Apple introducing a large-screen thinnest-ever iPhone in two sizes would have been big news, but this year was clearly shaping up to be different. As I wrote on Tuesday, rumours had started circulating that Apple was ready to announce something else, and the bigger venue and fashionista-press guest list started to point to a new product, one with mass-market potential and at least a nod to individual style. What we got as “One More Thing” turned out to be both much smaller than the iPhone 6 and much bigger than the next iteration of an existing product line.

The Apple Watch (not the long speculated ‘iWatch’ after all) might just turn out to be the technology giant’s most remarkable product yet. Engineered to within a nanometer of its life, it propels Apple manufacturing into the realm of stylish jewellery products, whilst embedding just about the smallest computer system you’ve ever seen. Unlike the “smartwatches” we’ve seen so far (and Apple never used that term in the introduction) this one appears to be designed to fit regular wrists—it’s notable that the very first photo we saw of it in use was on a woman—and recognises that a watch is a very personal expression of individual style. With 12 different variants for the watch itself, and (by my count) at least 22 different straps there’s more customisation here than we’ve seen before in an Apple product—itself a sign of Apple’s steady reinvention as a consumer technology and retail giant.

What also signals the scope of Apple’s ambition in this new area is how Tim Cook emphasised the invention of a new control system for this most personal of devices, one that provides a design cue that signals a traditional watch, whilst reclaiming the iPod’s now-extinct physical scroll wheel—an interface that remains well-suited to precise scrolling of content on tiny screens. The explicit acknowledgement of the Watch’s difference from the ever-larger touch screens of portable (rather than wearable) devices marks the Apple Watch out as the first of its kind: A new breed, rather than the evolution of an existing pattern.

This is a bold and typically-Apple play, and it’s already being met with responses which—while generally praising the design—question Apple’s ability to sell what’s really a premium accessory to people who aren’t even convinced they need a $200 Android watch on their wrist, let alone a $350+ Apple one.

This, of course, is missing the point. Just cast your mind back to the very first iPhone launch in early 2007, months before the device would reach customers. Back then few people knew why they’d want a $600 computer in their pockets, let alone one that ostensibly competed with $100 feature phones and $150 iPods. Back then most of us thought that the Web was for desktop PCs and mobile phones were for voice and text-messaging.

Apple may not have invented the wearable computer, but it didn’t invent the smartphone either. It’s just possible that with the Apple Watch, currently pitched as a fashionable bangle for the smartphone set, we’re seeing the first version of a device that will eventually prise the ubiquitous smartphone from our clammy, thumb-typing grips.

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Robert Sharl
Lecturer in Visual Communication at Birmingham City University