On Technology: Apple Used to Know Exactly What People Wanted — Then It Made a Watch

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Over the years, iPhones have become more aware of the world around them, laden with new sensors and microphones and cameras. The Apple Watch is becoming, with each generation, better at sensing what’s going on with, and inside, its wearers’ bodies. Apple boasts that its latest model introduces a functioning electrocardiogram, or EKG, widening the scope of the device’s body monitoring well beyond elective physical activities or passive quantification and into active diagnosis. (The function won’t be available until later this year.) The Apple Watch can warn when a wearer’s heart rate has dipped too low, or jumped too high; the Series 4 can ask, when it senses an abrupt movement, if you might have fallen, offering to call an ambulance.

For now, this impressive facility for collecting and organizing information about you is just that — it’s a great deal of data with not many places to go. This is sensitive information, of course, and Apple’s relative commitment to privacy — at least compared with advertising-centric companies like Google and Facebook — might be enough to get new users strapped in and recording.

As Apple continues its institutional struggle to conceive of what the Apple Watch is, or could be, in the imaginations of its customers, it’s worth remembering that Apple’s stated commitment to privacy is, in practice, narrow. The competitors that Cook likes to prod about their data-exploitative business models have a necessary and complicit partner in his company, having found many of their customers though Apple’s devices and software.

This is especially relevant as Apple casts about for ideas elsewhere. Apple has already met with the insurance giant Aetna about ways in which the company might use Apple Watches to encourage healthier — and cheaper — behavior in its tens of millions of customers. John Hancock, one of the largest life insurers in America, said after Apple’s latest announcement that it would offer all its customers the option of an interactive policy, in which customers would get discounts for healthy habits, as evidenced by data from wearable devices. Here we see the vague outlines of how the Apple Watch could become vital, or at least ubiquitous, as the handmaiden to another data-hungry industry.

There may be many other ways, still, that the Apple Watch can fulfill its presumed destiny as the next device that we suddenly can’t remember a world without. It would be out of character for Apple to admit that the iPhone, its biggest success, was in reality a triumph of mass-market research, and to announce its intentions to do it all again, letting others figure out the real value of its device — or, more specifically, the value of the user data it could provide. Apple is left still guessing, with more persistence than confidence, what customers might not yet know they want. Meanwhile, the market is watching, and coming up with its own answers.

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