Yesterday, Apple announced two things about its Apple Watch: the day you can buy it, and the money you'll fork over for it. But we also, somewhat unexpectedly, heard a lot about the material science behind the Watch too.
In the past, Apple has taken one of two routes to showing off its new product lines. One is about hardware and product design — think the Mac Pro, or even the iPhone 5C. The other is about software and user interface design — think iOS 7 or even the Apple Watch unveil last year. Today, we saw a third way. One that frames manufacturing and material science as luxury — and one that Apple will bank on to sell you a £8,000 watch or a gold MacBook.
Zirconia, Ingots, and Molecules
What we saw yesterday was essentially a long review of the features we already knew about the Watch (send your wife a weird picture of a flower, got it). But during the pricing and availability bit, we also got a trio of videos narrated by Jony Ive showing off a very beautiful making-of montage for each of Apple Watch's three stages.
First we heard about the special anodised aluminium that Apple says it straight-up invented for the Sport. "Our engineers have custom-designed a new alloy," says Ive, adding that it's 60 per cent stronger than normal alloys, but just as light. "This requires precision alloying." Ive then goes into a long description of the chemical process that goes into making the body of the watch — from adding magnesium and zinc to the jet-cooling and casting process. Proper grain structure! Buffing! Texturing with microscopic zirconia beads!
Then we got a look at a steaming-hot montage of the stainless steel version. But this isn't just any old stainless steel — it's been customised with "alloying and processing steps to make it stronger," says Ive, who adds that in its "molten state" the composition has been "tightly controlled". Apple even used a "specialised" cold-forging process to make it 80 per cent harder. Afterwards it's into a 12-station milling machine, polished, and then a "diamond-like carbon layer" is added to the black version.
And then there's the tertiary form of the Watch—the £8,000 and up Watch Edition.
"It begins at the molecular level," says Ive, clearly kicking it into high gear, "where precise adjustments in the amount of silver, copper, and palladium in the alloy result in very specific hues of yellow and rose gold."
But that's not all: the gold is the result of a proprietary process developed by metallurgists and patented by Apple, which involves adding ceramic powder to the mix and compressed "to a fraction of its original size" it to a point where it is more durable than normal gold.
Here's the real kicker: Ive explains that each gold watch is milled out of a solid Apple Gold ingot (a fancier word for bar), each of which has been inspected for defects using an ultrasonic scanner. As we explained after talking to scientists about Apple Gold, there may even be a kind of Apple Diamond, eventually: a 2014 patent for Apple Gold also describes a process of combining gold with diamond power that would create a new hybrid between the two materials. As my co-workers put it this morning, Apple Gold is about "selling something that symbolises both cutting-edge science and wealth at the same time."
The Factory-to-Table Gadget
So Apple is building a wheelhouse of proprietary chemical and manufacturing processes. It's going beyond selling a hardware or software to selling a kind of chemical-ware, whether because Apple truly believes these materials make its products different, or because it needs a way to differentiate its Watch from the scads of others.
In a New Yorker profile of Ive last month, we learned that Apple's design studio has delved deeper and deeper into creating company-specific manufacturing processes. "The data that Apple now sends to a manufacturer include a tool's tracking path, speed, and appropriate level of lubricant," explained Ian Parker, continuing:
An Apple object is "manufactured in a way that makes it harder to copy," Paola Antonelli said. "That's the genius. It's not only the formal effect." When, in 2007, Robert Brunner first saw a MacBook's "unibody" housing—made, unprecedentedly, out of a milled block of aluminium—it was a "mind-blowing epiphany," he said. Apple "had decided that this was the experience they wanted, so they went out and bought ten thousand C.N.C. milling machines."
In yesterday's unveiling of the overhauled MacBook, we saw exactly how cool a laptop designed with this kind of firepower can be: a re-designed keyboard spring, the company's first fan-less laptop, a lovely tiered battery system that utilises every last drop of space, antennae that have been redesigned to fit entirely inside the milled aluminium body. It's a laptop that, from the inside, looks almost organic.
In his 1995 book Idoru, William Gibson describes a laptop made by the Sandbenders, a beach colony that creates computers using semi-precious gems, resin, wood, and other natural materials. In an odd way, Gibson predicted the shift towards production — from manufacturing to materials — that we're seeing trickle through the tech world today.
Awareness about the outrageous waste incurred by consumer electronics has helped the shift along, too. Another thing that might have inspired this approach? The fact that Apple Watch doesn't do much that other smartwatches can already to, as Mark Wilson pointed out at Fast Company.
Of course, Apple's version of factory-to-table is selective. It's not as though we're hearing about the lithium mines or rare earth metal processing plants where the internal ingredients in the Watch comes from, or the factories where they are assembled. Though the fact that the new MacBook will be manufactured without Beryllium, the carcinogenic chemical that exists inside most of our electronics, is a huge deal. But the products themselves are born in a fiery cauldron or steaming die, as though they were rings being made in the fires of Mordor, free of human meddling.
In a way, molecular chemistry and proprietary manufacturing processes are like Apple's answer to the way other industries are selling "luxury" goods, like knowing where the leather in your bag was made, or where your produce was grown. Apple wants to sell you its new luxury by invoking provenance — even if that provenance ignores what happens between forging and the unboxing.