If Malcolm Gladwell did motorsport commentary, he’d likely say Formula E was approaching its tipping point. The four-year-old series—in which purpose-built, all-electric race cars scream around diabolically tight courses often carved from a city’s own streets—has many things breaking in its favor. One, it has lured some of the most prestigious car brands on Earth. Two, it has secured a multiyear title sponsor, ABB, a Swiss builder of robotic systems. Three, it continues to cultivate strong driver talent.
Also, man, have you seen the new car?
Indeed, the 2018/19 season could mark the inflection point at which Formula E graduates from the experimental music tent to the main stage—and not just in audience terms. Once the province of electric-vehicle component suppliers and a few intrepid, early-adopter automakers, the series has since on-boarded the likes of Jaguar, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, with more manufacturers being announced every few months. (That’s to make no mention of the star power; celebrity team owners include Leonardo DiCaprio and Richard Branson.)
With global consensus growing around electrification and battery power as a viable replacement for internal combustion, Formula E can already claim to be the most future-forward motorsport series. Given a few more years to mature, however, and it may legitimately threaten Formula 1—its closest analog, and a decidedly carbon-belching one—as the world’s premier plutocratic spectacle on wheels.
Not only is Formula E coming for Formula 1’s excitement, but also for its yacht slips in Abu Dhabi, magnums of Mumm, and impeccable haircuts. The electric series will even race through the streets of Monaco next year. Consider that a bold statement of intent: Monte Carlo is the crown jewel of the Formula 1 schedule, and Formula E is mounting an electron-fueled heist.
A number of confluences, some expected, others not, have led Formula E to this point. The biggest shock has been the addition of Audi and Porsche, both brands having announced their race entries simultaneously with withdrawals from Le Mans prototype racing. With class victories at 10 of the past 11 runnings of the eponymous 24-hour endurance race in the French countryside, the German manufacturers’ sudden pivots have been viewed by some pundits as tactical—and less charitably, cynical—chess moves.
After all, Volkswagen Group, the corporate parent of Audi and Porsche, was caught in 2015 cheating on diesel-engine emissions tests, leading to billions in fines and a cascade of indictments. Even without that stain, skeptics can deride the involvement of Porsche, Audi, and others in Formula E as tantamount to greenwashing: a way to launder profits derived from gas-guzzling SUVs and sports cars in a virtuous spin cycle.
Even a jaundiced eye can’t help but twinkle, though, when the Gen2 car enters into view. Wholly redesigned for the 2018/19 season kicking off in the fall, the second generation of Formula E’s race car debuted at the Geneva Motor Salon. As a so-called “one-make” race series, Formula E dictates that all teams use this chassis, and the response from insiders and social media gawkers alike has been overwhelmingly positive.
“At first glance, the season five Formula E car looked to our design team like an EV-powered supersonic bird in flight,” says Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan’s senior vice president of global design. The Japanese automaker, another new entrant, hasn’t participated in top-tier racing since its calamitous attempt to run a prototype racer for Le Mans. The car was uncompetitive, and its design was heavily criticized. For Nissan, like Porsche and Audi, the foray into Formula E represents something of a fresh start.
To that end, next season got off to an auspicious beginning, as Albaisa’s “Doppler effect” paint scheme for the Nissan car was met with acclaim. Armchair engineers will note the slippery lines of the chassis underneath, an inheritance from endless wind-tunnel work; design pundits will appreciate the clever use of color, emphasizing the body’s various convex and concave surfaces. Fans will just think it looks damn good. Formula E could always claim it was the most future-forward race series. Now it has a strong claim to being the most beautiful, too.
Q+A: Richard Mille
The visionary watchmaker (and Formula E sponsor) talks about Richard Branson, the future of motorsport, and the possibility of a special-edition timepiece inspired by electric racing.
How did you get involved with Formula E? Were you approached by Jean Todt?
Times change, and Formula E is the future of Formula 1. The category of all-electric cars has taken a radical turn since the beginning of the championship. My friend Jean Todt, president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) climbed aboard, excited by the work of Frenchmen Eric Barbaroux and Pierre Gosselin, creators of the first 100 percent electric single-seater race car. I have known Jean-Paul Driot (owner of the Renault e.dams team) for over 10 years, and I wanted to support him from the very beginning of the adventure. Also, the technological approach meshes perfectly with our own avant-garde philosophy. For someone like me, who loves a challenge, being in on Formula E seemed like an obvious choice. And what I liked about Formula E was the noise! It is unbelievable!
Richard Branson, who sponsors a Formula E team, famously said the series would be more popular than Formula 1 by the year 2020. Do you agree?
I feel that 2020 is perhaps a bit too early. Not due to the teams or the cars, but due to the fact that people and fans need to get used to this new field. I do, however, believe that that day of acceptance will come when the time is right. We are seeing commitment to a green economy because this is the reality we face. Technological advances will do a lot to make the sport ever more popular in the coming years.
Over the past two years, several major automakers with strong motorsport traditions—Jaguar, BMW, Porsche, Mercedes—have started Formula E teams. Which automaker would you like to see join the series?
The engineering of electric racing cars is becoming and more advanced. Within the next two years, Formula E cars will only rely on just one battery per race, instead of two. This means one car instead of two. That is what convinced new automakers to join the Formula E Championship, in fact, you quote some of them!
When designing race-themed timepieces, watchmakers usually draw inspiration from mechanical motifs—gears, camshafts, pistons. Electric race cars don’t have those parts. If you made a Formula E watch, what would it look like?
Formula E car construction is not simple at all! Even electric drive cars have steering systems, wheels, axles and thoughtfully designed bodywork—and that’s to say nothing of the fact that a lot of their materials already being used in Formula 1 construction, with new ones continually in development. Formula 1 and Formula E have strong similarities. There is a real interest in transposing everything we have learned in F1 to the electric universe. After all, they both contain everything related to acceleration, G’s, vibrations, lateral and longitudinal shocks. In short, everything it takes to kill a watch!
In the past, you’ve dedicated pieces in your collection to Sébastien Loeb, Felipe Massa, and Alain Prost. Which current Formula E driver deserves his own Richard Mille timepiece? The various celebrities who embody the (Richard Mille) brand aren’t ambassadors, but rather friends. We work with them because they are outstanding in their professions, and because they are good people. We sign long-term contracts together that go beyond any consideration of results or their careers. We don’t commit lightly, and we’ve built a strong relationship with the Renault e.dams team. This includes drivers Nicolas Prost and Sébastien Buemi, and they actually are wearing Richard Mille watches during each Grand Prix. All in good time, all in good time!
And now, for something completely different—but not so you’d notice.
Inside the Hybrid Manufacture’s 42 mm case sits a 33-jewel, self-winding mechanical movement, driving the conventional second, hour, minute, and date functions. The twist? Built into this caliber is a battery-powered digital module, which, via subdial display and iPhone app, brings next-gen functionality, including sleep tracking and fitness coaching. It also logs analytics for the mechanical movement, measuring rate and beat error, and adds a worldtime complication.
Apple’s third-generation digital connectivity wearable has been with us for several months now, and it’s proven itself moderately desirable, moderately useful, and, one imagines, moderately frustrating for the folks in Cupertino. Apple has addressed every issue users brought to their attention—did their best to fix every problem, real and perceived. Yet its utility is being challenged by “hearable” assistants, like Google’s Alexa, and although sales are very respectable, well…
There are some who say the Apple Watch’s most notable accomplishment has been replacing the rudeness of checking your phone while someone’s talking to you with the more traditional rudeness of looking at your watch while someone is talking to you. That’s absolutely unfair, because whatever its cultural niche, this latest version of the device is a technical marvel, and should be acknowledged as such. To be clear: It’s the first mass-market smartwatch that’s so good that it’s possible to top asking whether or not it’s capable and start asking whether or not it’s desirable. And that’s an intriguing question.
Because what the Apple Watch does, it now does very well indeed. The battery-life issue has been addressed, and a full charge will see you clear for a couple days’ worth of normal use, even in the honeymoon stage when you’re texting people from your wrist with the thrill of novelty once felt only by phoning people from the plane. Voice assistant Siri is now more or less seamlessly integrated, meaning that if works for you on your phone it’ll work for you here. And the slow, stuttering interface has been remedied with new, faster processors, so response to input is now instant. On the main screen, as you roll through the array of app icons with a careful finger, the tiny symbols move so smoothly it’s like they’re suspended in oil. It’s a very pleasant GUI-based illusion, and reinforces the feeling of deep quality that carries through the entire experience; even the haptic feedback is well-considered, with the watch responding to your taps and long presses with crisp, sharp little raps of its own, not the wheezing, asthmatic whirr of some competing devices.
Even the added capabilities function well—within the limits of current technologies, at any rate. The 3’s biggest hype point has been its ability to break free of phone tethering, allowing the owner to knock about town without a phone ruining the line of their slacks—more likely, their running togs, if we’re being honest—but also without the terrible social risks of breaking connectivity. All the basic phone functions are present on the Watch 3’s LTE connection, which is surprisingly strong and easy to set up; we experienced no appreciable loss of signal or function whether in Downtown L.A. or a Wisconsin state forest. Generally speaking, we found that if the iPhone shows a couple of bars, your watch will work, allowing you to get texts and make calls right on your wrist, if you wind up liking that kind of thing. (More about that later.)
As it stands, though, the aforementioned limits of current technologies come right to the forefront when you realize how much battery power you’re burning when the Watch 3 is off on its own. You’ll have to toss it back on the charger after a freewheeling outing of any reasonable length of time. Potentially bad news for runners, a group Apple has targeted particularly hard: You’ll most likely want to have a full charge before tackling anything more than 10 miles, assuming you’re tracking progress, getting messages, and listening to music over Bluetooth, which is a safe assumption because why wouldn’t you? And once you’re back from this unusually sybaritic jog, the watch will most likely go right back on the charger.
But of course battery technology will improve, though so far it stubbornly refuses to obey anything like Moore’s Law of huge advances in short periods of time. And the platform is evolving; big news for devotees is that a Spotify app is coming this summer, which will allow users to opt out of at least a part of the Apple ecosystem. In short, the watch just keeps getting better. In fact, it works so well that it’s finally lifted the smartwatch from the status of interesting toy to that of possible tool.
“There’s a social hurdle, one aided and abetted by Apple itself. For many people, the smartphone replaced the wristwatch. Now the company wants us to buy a wristwatch to enhance the smartphone experience.”
That may be somewhat of a problem, or at least a situation. Here’s the thing: It took a while for people to adjust to taking phone calls in public, and some people still can’t do so within the bounds of the etiquette that evolved to fit the new social reality. The same thing happened with Bluetooth calling: Walking down the street talking into your phone was one thing, but walking down the street talking to nothing visible was quite another. Now we have the Dick Tracy option to speak into our wrist, which you will, because although the watch can interpret letters drawn on its screen, using voice-to-text is still the best way to respond to text messages, and we couldn’t find a Bluetooth device that worked anywhere near as well for that as speaking directly into the watch itself. And there’s the looking-at-your-watch thing again.
There’s another social hurdle to overcome, one aided and abetted by Apple itself. For many people, the smartphone replaced the wristwatch; now Apple wants us to buy a wristwatch to enhance the smartphone experience. Okay.
As beautifully and seamlessly as it works, the Apple Watch’s looks have always been somewhat less than beautiful. Because it’s locked into the brand’s minimalist, function-over-form design language, it’s basically a thick rectangular lozenge with a crown on the side. This is without a doubt the best—perhaps the only—choice for a touchscreen-based digital assistant, maximizing tactile real estate without metastasizing into an embarrassing digital lump. It’s a brilliant lozenge, as lozenges go, with the proportions carefully considered, the edges radiused just so, the single knob of the Digital Crown proportioned precisely and set in exactly the right place, the strap disappearing into the body of the watch so cleanly that you won’t notice it unless you make a point of looking. And isn’t there a long tradition of rectangular watches, from the Cartier Tank on down, for Apple to buy into?
Sure. But those are wristwatches. They have mystique. They tick and wind down and mark time whether you’re looking at them or not; to their users, they have a complex inner life, and if you doubt this you’re ignoring the long tradition of windows allowing you to view the movements and complications. People like to see their watches move, to literally see what makes them tick. But when you’re not using it, or receiving a notification, the Apple Watch simply goes blank. This robs the user of some of its best design, the digital watch faces, some of which are well-executed versions of standard dials, some of which are entertainingly weird, and all of which, sadly, disappear after a few seconds of inactivity. It’s a battery issue again, and it’s one the engineers have to get cracking on now, because having the Watch go blank is possibly a bigger problem for the watch as a product than the limited LTE connectivity.
One of the reasons early LED watches haven’t really caught on as classic collectibles, despite marking an interesting chapter in horology, is that unless the button was pressed to display the time, they were inert hunks of expensive billet. When LCD watches hit the market, with their lower power consumption allowing the time to be displayed constantly, designers found that incorporating some sort of motion made their gadgets much more desirable, which is why the colon flashes once a second on your vintage Casio. That it marks the passing seconds is, well, secondary—the fact is, people like the blinking “tick.” It’s the visible complication of the late 20th century.
Apple, on the other hand, from its computers to its phones to this watch, is notorious about concealing any sort of complications from the user. They most certainly do not want you to see what makes their stuff tick. That may work for media players and phones, but it ignores a large part of what the experience of luxury watch ownership is about. Whenever you look at it, or even happen to glance at it, or catch it in your peripheral vision, a traditional watch is dynamic by design; something is moving, a spinning tourbillon or sweeping second hand, or that flashing separator, but something. The Apple Watch is glossy, black, empty. It looks sleek in photos; in person, it suffers from a near-complete lack of presence. It’s one thing for Siri to be silent until you need her. But the Watch, when not actively telling you something, doesn’t do anything at all. It just looks… not dead, exactly, but certainly lifeless.
Those with a use for it, the hyper-connected and the hyper-fit, will like it, because it makes sense as a tool for those who run the world and those who just run. Those who don’t need it, though, will continue to have a hard time wanting it. That’s a shame, because the Apple Watch 3 is an exceptional wearable. And just a tick shy of being a brilliant watch.
Working alongside Steve Jobs, a young watch collector named Tony Fadell helped create the iPhone. Ten years later, he reflects on the fallout—and shares his vision for building a better future.
By Oliver Franklin-Wallis Portrait by Céline Clanet
It’s a crisp January morning in Paris’s 13th Arrondissement, and outside Station F, the former freight terminal that is the epicenter of France’s startup scene, twentysomethings climb out of cars hailed using iPhone apps. They approach the huge, glass-fronted concrete arches, heads bowed over screens, thumbs dancing out social media updates, pristine white earphones poking out from under beanies or from behind shoulder-length hair. The gates are activated by QR code, so they hold out their iPhones to get into work, where they’re probably building iPhone apps themselves, to connect our homes, cars, everything, to the device in our pockets.
This is the world that Tony Fadell helped build. Fadell is known in Silicon Valley as the father of the iPod, which, with its iconic wheel and those classic white earbuds, helped transform Apple’s fortunes from a struggling computer manufacturer to the most valuable public company in history. He played a central role in the creation of the iPhone, helping Steve Jobs and Jony Ive usher in the smartphone age. After leaving Apple, in 2010, Fadell founded the smart-home company Nest, which Google bought in 2014 for $3.2 billion. Few have played bigger roles in shaping today’s technological landscape. No iPod, no iPhone. No iPhone, no Instagram, Snapchat, Uber, or Pokémon Go.
But lately Fadell, like many in Silicon Valley, has been reconsidering the changes he and his colleagues have brought about. In recent months, several former engineers and executives from Google and Facebook—including the inventor of the “like” button—have spoken out publicly about the dangers of smartphones, in particular the design of apps that are intentionally addictive. In June 2017, Fadell told an audience at London’s Design Museum, “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, What did we bring to the world?” This January, after two of the largest investors in Apple called on the company to take action against smartphone addiction in children, Fadell joined in, publicly urging both his former employers to do more.
When I meet him, two weeks later, the subject is still on Fadell’s mind. To be clear: He doesn’t blame Apple—“We can’t say all iPhones are bad”—or even social media companies, although he admits there are “what some people judge as bad actors out there.” Instead, he believes that today’s shocks are a symptom of society reckoning with an unprecedented technological change.
We’re sitting on a bright yellow sofa in Station F, where he has set up his own investment firm, Future Shape. At 48, he is a lean, energetic presence, wearing a teal V-neck, cords, and black zip-up boots. “My first son was born three weeks before the iPhone was released, so my kids have never known a world without them,” Fadell says. He believes that Silicon Valley’s current crisis of conscience can be traced back in part to the architects of the mobile age having children and seeing the impact of their creations. “Your worldview changes dramatically when you have your first kid. You change from ‘me, me, me’ to family and community.” Fadell has three children and, although two of them have smartphones, the family imposes time limits, “screen-free Sundays,” and parental controls.
“When I think about digital well-being, I go back to packaged and mass-produced foods,” he says. “We have created a nomenclature around fats, sugars, proteins. What is obesity? What is bulimia?” Like food, Fadell argues, apps should be subject to their own health classifications. But our smartphones, he says, are just refrigerators. “They’re not going to cause you to be an addict or not. But they always stock themselves, and will give you the ability to buy anything you want.”
When Fadell stepped back from Apple in 2009, the family went traveling. They fell in love with Paris; the city suits Fadell, who has a taste for European culture and design. They later moved back to the Bay Area when Fadell was working on Nest, but when he quit Google in 2016 the Fadells moved to France for good, buying an apartment in the Seventh Arrondissement, and enrolling their children in school.
Station F might be downtown Paris, but it feels very Silicon Valley. It’s midmorning, and young startup workers are playing foosball over cappuccinos. There’s a “Creative Zone” complete with craft supplies; food trucks linger outside. Funded by the French telecommunications billionaire Xavier Niel, it’s vast, with space for a thousand companies. Facebook, Microsoft, and LVMH have already moved in. France’s high taxes and red tape have previously been seen as inimical to startups, but that’s changing: President Macron toured Station F last summer, and the government even has an office here.
Future Shape was still settling in when I visited. The space wasn’t much to look at: a few tasteful chairs and a conference table in a glass-fronted former shipping container. Fadell had ordered a clock—it currently hangs in London’s Ham Yard Hotel—but it hadn’t arrived yet.
Fadell began investing nearly a decade ago (he won’t reveal the extent of his personal wealth, but given Apple stock and Nest’s sale, it’s likely substantial) and has stakes in around 200 companies. They range from OpenROV, a manufacturer of underwater drones, to Grenoble-based Aryballe, which develops biosensors to detect smells and tastes, and Karius, a medical startup that claims to be able to diagnose more than 1,000 infectious diseases from a single blood test. “We get to put ourselves in two hundred different scenarios—in agriculture technology, food technology, financial technology, pharma, and drugs. For me, that kind of stuff is oxygen,” Fadell says.
Living in Paris has also given him time to work on personal projects, such as Ressence, the Brussels-based luxury watch brand, which has won acclaim for its blend of traditional craft and modern technology. Fadell met its founder, Benoît Mintiens, after buying a Ressence Type 3, which has an innovative oil-filled display. (He’d explored similar approaches when developing touchscreens at General Magic in the early 1990s.)
“When I saw it, I was like, ‘This must be a Photoshop.’ Because it was stunning. The dial was just so pristine,” Fadell says. “Then I started reading the description, and I thought: that’s genius! I need to get this watch. I went crazy.”
The week before we met, at the 2018 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie watch fair in Geneva, Ressence unveiled the “E-crown”—a mechanical movement that connects to a smartphone to regulate its own time, meaning it never requires winding. It’s being acclaimed as a breakthrough timepiece. Fadell, a longtime watch collector, whose tastes range from vintage Heuer and Ikepod to contemporary Panerai and Patek Philippe, consulted on the design.
“Two and a half years ago, Benoît sends a text message and says, ‘Hey I got an idea. It’s really secret, but I want to make a next-generation mechanical watch. We have watch winders today that are little robots. So let’s put [one] inside.’ That’s where the two of us started brainstorming,” Fadell says. “He had a whole list of things that he wanted. I had my list of things, both electronically and mechanically, that I wanted. We had to find and strike the right balance … The whole magic was, how do you make a better mechanical watch, not [just] a smartwatch?”
“We look at products in a similar way,” says Mintiens. “Tony is someone who is putting the user in the center. In the end, with watches, it’s about: How efficiently do you express time?”
For Fadell, user experience is everything. “If we look at the major Cambrian explosions of digital technology, it’s always come from a disruptive combination of cutting-edge technology with cutting-edge user experience,” Fadell says. Every detail should be intuitive and create delight from the moment of unboxing; it was this, he says, that drove Jobs to create Apple Stores and ship iPhones with pre-charged batteries. “When you get that experience right, you put that device in somebody’s hand and they go, ‘Wow.’”
The first time Fadell tried to create the iPhone, it was 15 years too early. Born in Detroit, Fadell picked up engineering from his grandfather, a lifelong tinkerer who helped Fadell buy his first computer. Fadell showed a prodigious talent for computing; in college, he even sold a new microprocessor design for the Apple II to Apple itself.
After graduation, Fadell joined General Magic, a now-storied Silicon Valley company (alumni include eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Android creator Andy Rubin) that was working on an early personal communications device. “We had email, we had downloadable games, downloadable apps, we had shopping, we had books,” Fadell recalls—in other words, the key features of today’s smartphones. General Magic built two devices, for Sony and Motorola, but neither took off, and the company folded. “It was too soon,” says Fadell.
Shortly afterwards, Philips appointed Fadell, then just 25, as its chief technology officer. It was at Philips that Fadell started thinking about digital music. “He had a vision for music being liberated from CD players—how music and portability could be reinvented,” recalls the designer Yves Béhar. The pair sketched out ideas for a portable MP3 player.
In 1999, Fadell formed his own company, Fuse Systems, to build it. However, as the dotcom bubble burst, the company struggled to raise money. Then, in 2001, Fadell was approached by Apple to consult on the design of an MP3 player—what would become the iPod. Steve Jobs hired him to run the new division.
Today, it’s easy to forget the iPod’s significance. “When I started, [Apple] had $25 million in the bank and $500 million in debt,” says Fadell. The iPod, with its navigation wheel and crisp white aesthetic, was far superior to anything on the market. But it wasn’t an instant success. “Steve was always saying the iPod’s going to help us sell more Macs, so the iPod can only work on the Mac,” says Fadell. Infuriated, he lead a skunkworks effort to make a PC-compatible version. “[Steve] said, ‘Over my dead body.’” It was only after Jobs relented that the iPod exploded, selling by the hundreds of millions. Mac sales also began to take off. “It was the gateway drug.”
When Jobs decided to build the iPhone, he initially appointed two rival teams to develop it. One, headed by Fadell, worked on integrating phone functions into the iPod’s click wheel design. The other, lead by then head of software Scott Forstall, attempted to slim down the Mac’s operating system to work on a touchscreen. Ultimately, the latter won out, but given Fadell’s experience with the iPod, he was brought in to oversee the hardware development. Inside Apple, Fadell had a reputation for being a troublemaker. He’d argue fiercely with Jobs, and occasionally quit or get himself fired. “His aggressive, combative style is what endeared him to Steve,” says David Bell, a friend who then worked for an Apple semiconductor supplier. “[But] he would sometimes be too argumentative, and that would piss people off.”
When Google bought Nest, in 2014, Fadell’s style caused conflict again, and although the products racked up design awards, the connected home didn’t take off as expected. After Google restructured in 2015, becoming Alphabet, Nest came under financial pressure. “When Google decided they wanted to sell Nest, I said, ‘Fine, I’m not staying,’” Fadell says. (Alphabet reportedly tried to sell Nest in 2016, but failed to find a buyer. This February, Nest was rolled into Google’s hardware team.)
In Paris, we talked about what Fadell has learned about mentorship. “When someone works for me, they say, ‘Tony pushed me harder than I ever was, and it was frustrating, but I did work that I never thought I’d do,’” he says. “That’s what people did for me. They pushed me when I wasn’t thinking properly, when I was being an idiot.”
“It’s difficult. You’re not always loved, and you’re not always liked.”
Recently, he’s started taking meetings in museums. “Steve Jobs and I would go on walks. You’d just walk and talk, and get to know somebody,” he says. In museums, “you get to be inspired, and also get to know the person. How do they think about that art? Can they look at things and think differently?”
He likes the notions of artists having creative periods. I ask if, after Nest, his own entrepreneurial period is over. “Maybe there’s something that pops up that’s like, ‘I have to do it,’” he says. “I’ve been close. But everything takes time.”
Today’s technology landscape is very different than when Fadell started. Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook loom above everything, with near-infinite reach and financial capital, buying every promising startup—as Fadell himself experienced. I ask if it’s possible that the next big breakthrough could come from outside those companies.
“[If we thought] that you can’t unseat giants, we would have never made the iPod,” says Fadell. “When we were doing that first iPod, I said ‘Steve, Sony is the number one in the world. They own every single audio category. How are we going to beat them?’ And he goes, ‘We will beat Sony. Watch me. If you guys build this, we’re going to put every single marketing dollar behind it.’ And where is Sony in audio today? Where is Nokia?”
His focus on “deep tech” companies at Future Shape—the portfolio includes new types of transistors and microscopic LEDs—is intentional, he says. “I’m doing the things that I know can unseat the big guys. If we get [the technology] right, we can build product companies around it.”
One area that particularly excites him is biotechnology. “Computational synthetic biology is a whole new world,” he says. “We can literally write code, like you would write code for a computer, synthesize it in DNA. We are at the cusp of making biological computers.” Future Shape’s investments include Impossible Burger, which makes lab-grown meat substitutes, and Modern Meadow, which has created a lab-grown leather alternative. “He’s been more than an investor,” says the latter’s founder, Andras Forgacs. “Tony really understands where design and technology come together to create great consumer products. That is not common among investors.”
Fadell is skeptical about the current hype around autonomous vehicles. “The self-driving cars world is making lots of progress, but there’s so much more to do. People don’t understand: They don’t work in certain weather, they don’t work in certain times of day, they don’t work in a fog.”
Robotics and artificial intelligence, Fadell thinks, are also further off than most people think. “We are so far away from being able to create real humanoid kinds of robots,” he says. “These robots are so fragile. And we’re not even talking about intelligence. We’re just talking about grasping and picking up and and walking.”
“The one thing I learned, especially from my General Magic experience, is sometimes the technology is not there, and sometimes society is not there yet.”
Fadell is starting to think about the generation that will succeed him. In 2015, Fadell cofounded an electric go-kart company, Actev Motors, with David Bell. “I said: ‘What was the experience that I had that was formative for me?’ And that was being in a workshop with my grandfather, fixing things, building the soapbox derby racer, and learning about different technologies.”
Actev’s go-kart is designed to be taken apart and modified: Parents can set speed and safety limits, while kids learn about electronics and basic coding skills. “It gives kids some opportunity to do ‘do it yourself,’” says Bell. “It’s really a modern version of what he and his grandfather would do.”
I ask Fadell about one of the tech industry’s growing problems, planned obsolescence: the relentless cycle of waste driven by constant product updates. Apple has recently been the subject of global furor and ongoing lawsuits after it was revealed that the company intentionally limits the performance of older phones, supposedly to protect battery performance. “Everyone went really crazy with the iPod because it [had] a sealed battery,” he recalls. Today, he worries about the environmental impacts of devices. “Reuse is really important. We have limited resources on this planet. That was the reason for Nest,” he says, noting that the company’s products are designed to last decades.
Increasingly, Fadell thinks the next generation of technology designers should commit to a kind of Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. He has lobbied Apple and Google to introduce a “digital scale” function, to help us track our smartphone habits. “They’re tracking our physical well-being. Why don’t we have the same thing for our digital life?” At Future Shape, he’s pushing founders to think about impact early. “What is the purpose? How does it affect society?”
Fadell remains optimistic about the future. He often thinks back to his childhood in Detroit, building racers and taking apart radios with his grandfather. “What my grandfather would tell me is, ‘If a human made this—and they did—you can fix it,’” he says, his eyes shining. “‘And you can make it better, too.’”
When the Swedish twosome known as Humans Since 1982 began working on what was to eventually become ClockClock 24, they didn’t set out to make a timepiece at all. It all started with a typography project in 2008 at HDK Göteborg, where Per Emanuelsson and Bastian Bischoff (the aforementioned pair) were still enrolled as postgraduate students.
“Playing with the idea of using clocks to create a moving typeface eventually led to the first sketches for ClockClock,” says Emanuelsson.
The original ClockClock and the ClockClock 24 make for an avant-garde approach to the traditional subject of timekeeping. The way it works in the ClockClock 24 is 24 analog wall clocks are coordinated to depict a digital read-out of the time. This ends up creating a dizzying display of motion that is quite captivating to watch. After developing the first prototype—with the assistance of an electrical engineer—in Emanuelsson’s dorm basement, the original ClockClock was soon picked up by Phillips auction house where it was purchased by a Russian tycoon. Soon thereafter, the pair decided to expand the operation and make their unique approach to telling time available to a global audience on the internet.
In addition to creating a innovative way of depicting the time, the two have advanced the way the age-old science of horology appears. By merging the two vastly different timekeeping displays, Humans Since 1982 ended up combining a methodology that has kept watch enthusiasts up at night ever since the quartz crisis and through today, where the digital era has left the time to be read in a series of numbers rather than as a physical representation of its constant passage. With all this change, it has left many wondering where to draw the line at what we can and cannot call a watch.
Of course, there can be no official answer to that question and it will be up for interpretation as long as we live, but the ClockClock does fulfill the kinetic desire we have when wearing a mechanical timepiece while executing its vision in a modern and approachable way.
“Our focus was always more on the ephemeral beauty of the passing of time than the reporting of time: in ClockClock the clock hands are liberated from their sole practical purpose of reporting the time—the clock hands also become dancers,” says Bischoff.
When they began working on what became the original ClockClock, Emanuelsson and Bischoff did begin to research horological history but they didn’t go digging through the notes of Abraham-Louis Breguet or John Arnold. Instead they sought their inspiration from an underappreciated source: the humble cuckoo clock.