Most revolutionary new technologies follow a similar evolutionary path from utility to fashion.
When the automobile was first mass produced in the early 1900s, it was practically impossible to use and literally impossible for most people to purchase. It was horribly underpowered by any comparative standard except the horse. For the first thirty years or so, the car slowly improved in style, power, and comfort. Each new model was principally defined by its technological improvement–slightly better performance, more comfortable interior, or lower cost. By 1935, the car was more or less feature-complete. By then, the entire Oldsmobile line had electric starters, comfortable transmissions, and a well-sealed passenger cabin.
It was in the mid 1940s that something remarkable happened: buyers of cars transitioned from focusing on features–like horsepower and suspension design–to exterior styling that reflected their personality. The car buying experience became more about the external expression of the buyer than the practicality of the car as a device for transportation. The car became a fashion accessory.
I think the same thing is happening right now in the computer and mobile devices industry. Computers and phones have historically been sold based on performance, screen size, and battery life. The slow march of technological progress through the 1990s and 2000s was obvious to anyone who knows the word “megahertz”. But in the past couple of years, I think we have finally reached the 1945 equivalent in automobiles: all devices sold today can do everything any reasonable customer would want. The computer is now feature-complete. Almost all model segmentation is now based on the personality of the customer.
While phones have begun to pave the way, the first device to truly embrace fashion is the Apple Watch. Every Apple watch is the same–the software is the same, the hardware specifications are the same, and the basic functionality is identical for every model. The only pricing segmentation is based on style and material (and screen size, presumably based on body type). Colors, bands, precious metals–the Apple Watch is sold as a fashion accessory rather than a piece of technology. It’s something far more personal and intimate than any other piece of technology that has come before it–maybe since original mechanical watches themselves. Buyers of Apple Watch will have no choice but to use their personality to differentiate between models.
From a technological perspective, the car had transformed human society well before 1930. But it didn’t truly feel human until the 1940s, when the raw technology was infused with cultural significance in the form of fashion. Computer technology is on the same path–we’re at the inflection point where our devices transition from being objects that are very utilitarian and mechanical into things that we want to integrate into our bodies. I think watches are just the beginning.