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If Apple Watch adopts Apple Card’s poor titanium coating, look out

On Tuesday, weeks after the Apple Card began its first and second rounds of prerelease testing, Apple officially began offering its credit card to all U.S. customers — and quietly disclosed a flaw that some people have characterized as ridiculous. “If your titanium Apple Card comes into contact with hard surfaces or materials,” Apple says, “it’s possible that the coating can be damaged.” So keep it away from fabrics “like leather and denim,” because they “might cause permanent discoloration that will not wash off.”

I’ve struggled this week with the newsworthiness of this disclosure for a few reasons, not the least of which is that physical credit cards get damaged all the time in wallets, and no company other than Apple would even take the time to provide care instructions for a card. A quick look through my wallet reveals a scuffed MasterCard, a scratched American Express, and a chipped-edge Visa card that I barely even noticed were weathered. Over the years, elevated numbers and signature plates have worn down over time. Seriously, who cares?

In theory, these trivial issues should matter even less for Apple Card. Apple didn’t release this particular product so much to play in the physical credit card space as it did to cement its position in the growing market for online transactions. If you’re an iPhone user, you’re already accustomed to buying things on your device, and using Apple Pay — quite possibly using your device’s NFC rather than a card in a physical store. Getting an Apple Card is about reducing the reliance upon physical cards in your wallet, not adding more.

That said, the “fail” factor in releasing and repeatedly promoting a “titanium Apple Card” that can’t survive entirely predictable — and unmistakably common — daily use is indeed peak Apple hubris. “A white finish is achieved through a multi-layer coating process that’s added to the titanium base material,” Apple explains. Technically, it’s the coating rather than the titanium that can be damaged, but as Apple has marketed its design team as erudite masters of metals and materials, this is a problem that clearly should have been solved before release. Maybe add another layer, or use a more resilient layer, so this pretty little card doesn’t discolor when placed in the one place people will actually be carrying it?

But I’m not as concerned about the titanium Apple Card as the reported and seemingly inevitable titanium Apple Watch. The physical Apple Card costs nothing and could be tossed into a drawer without losing the benefits of its always pristine, color-shifting digital version. But a watch is something you pay for — $399 minimum for Apple’s Series 4 model — and expect to bring into contact with clothing and the occasional object or surface through accidental bumps or falls. What happens then?

Precedent with one past Apple product — its famously breakthrough Titanium PowerBook G4 — would suggest a coated titanium enclosure will, over time, see the coating scratch, chip, and possibly even bubble off, depending on exposure to the elements and personal usage. On the one hand, I’d like to believe Apple’s designers have developed better coatings since they abandoned titanium back in 2003. On the other hand, well, just look at the Apple Card.

Long-time Apple customers know the company isn’t above using fragile materials as an opportunity to deny warranty repairs and encourage either AppleCare+ sales or the purchase of full-unit replacements. Up until now, Apple Watch customers have had several pretty good (but not cheap) alternatives: a semi-resilient aluminum chassis with a slightly scratchable glass screen, a stronger steel chassis with a less scratchable screen and optional black anti-scratch coating, and sometimes, a super-hard ceramic version.

Files in watchOS 6 suggest that this year’s Apple Watches will come in ceramic and titanium variations. As I noted earlier this week, this could lead to higher Watch prices at a time when most purchases in the smartwatch market are shifting toward sub-$400 MSRPs. An alternative — and one that could be problematic — would be that Apple moves its entry-level aluminum watches to the same sort of poorly coated titanium found in the Apple Card. Instead of a well-kept aluminum watch still looking pretty much new two or three years later, a coated titanium one might give off obvious external signs that it should be replaced.

I know from personal experience that an old Apple Watch can be a great hand-me-down. My Series 1 became my dad’s first Apple Watch, and my wife’s Series 1 is now worn by my daughter. Each was used normally for a year or two and never required repair — their casings still look almost new.

By comparison, Titanium PowerBook G4 owners reported paint wear in places touched by sweaty hands, with scratches and chips in areas that made contact with other surfaces, such as desks and carrying cases. The problems were pervasive enough that a third-party company, TiPaint, popped up to offer $20 paint touch-up kits to restore the machine’s original colors.

Let’s hope Apple has learned something since then. But based on what we’ve seen this week, I wouldn’t be shocked if it hasn’t.

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