I’ve owned a 42mm Space Grey Apple Watch Sport for about 2.5 weeks and it is time to put some thoughts down into writing.
I’m not really going to write a review; there are plenty already that explain what it does but that’s not my focus here. I guess what interests me is not the what but the how and the why. Then I’m also going to touch on a few other aspects that I find interesting. Warning, this is quite long.
A solution enhancing an existing fix, rather than solving a new problem
In fact, the why is easy. A lot of people are saying that the Apple Watch is a solution looking for a problem, and in the traditional sense they are right. There is no immediate problem that needs solving with the Apple Watch. But that explanation falls short of assessing the bigger picture. As I’ve found through using it, it turns out that instead of solving a problem as-yet unsolved, what the Apple Watch excels at is allowing us to solve existing problems better. The unsung power of the watch is not in what it does when considered as a standalone device, but how it unites with the phone to create a singular, complimented experience that is superior to using just a phone on its own.
I really can’t stress this enough. When you own an Apple Watch, you are not owning two separate devices that both do different things; you are creating a more robust and seamless digital experience. Ok so it sounds cheesy, but it is true – the value of the watch is in how it integrates, evolves and interacts with your existing digital experience, rather than just creating a new one.
It is hard to explain how significant this is, but I have really started to notice and appreciate it. Also, individual examples just sound boring (remember I don’t want to focus on the what), but when put together and experienced daily, it starts to sink in. What is hard to describe in writing is how it feels. When your watch stops alerting you because it knows you’re using your phone, and when your phone stops alerting you because it knows you’re wearing your watch. When notifications you dismiss on your watch disappear instantly from your phone. When you can place a caller on hold from your wrist while you look for your phone. When you literally don’t take your phone out of your pocket once in a day because you saw and actioned all the little notifications in a fraction of the time from your wrist. When I scribble “SOS” on the screen to my wife while on baby duties and she comes upstairs to help. When I read and respond to text messages entirely with my voice while my hands are busy cooking. It all just sort of adds up into a coherent digital experience that simply makes sense, and you start to realise – this is better.
The Apple Watch is like a bicycle when you also own a car. They both perform a similar function and get you from A to B, but they do it differently, and each are better suited to different types of journey. Why go through the hassle of finding your car keys, getting to the car, and driving 2 minutes down the road and finding a parking space, when you can cycle there and back in the same time? This is what the watch does – it excels at making certain digital workflows faster and easier.
Many people I speak to about the Apple Watch quickly question how revolutionary the device is, and whether or not you really need it, and it has highlighted to me a weird expectation that people have of Apple. I don’t recall anyone assessing the revolutionary properties of, say, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear 2, and being disappointed when they couldn’t find any, but by virtue of the Apple Watch being made by Apple people appear to expect nothing less than a technological revolution overnight. I guess that’s testament to Apple’s success to date, but this sort of thinking is lazy.
Think of it like this – the Apple Watch is a watch. The clue is in the title. When was the last time you judged a wristwatch for not being ‘needed’ or ‘revolutionary’? Ignoring Apple’s marketing for a second, I don’t believe the Apple Watch is a brand new category of revolutionary products, at least not going by the iPhone/iPod definition. What it is is simply the modern, digital re-imagining of the wristwatch, designed to seamlessly integrate with your existing digital (Apple) ecosystem and my god when thought of that way, it completely blows expectations out of the water. For a watch, what it has achieved is nothing less than incredible.
Oh, and people who say “isn’t it just a smaller iPhone on your wrist” are admitting to have done literally zero research or spent zero effort contemplating the device. It is the motto for the dummy who wants to be spoon-fed catchy headlines. Ignore these people, and please, don’t be one of them.
Another complaint I’ve heard is that having an Apple Watch will result in ‘notification overload’ – i.e. the barrage of notifications you already receive on your phone will now be bugging you on your wrist.
The reality is very different. The first thing to note is that there is no increase in the number of notifications you get. If you receive one on your watch, you don’t get alerted on your phone, and vice versa. If you dismiss it on your watch, it is dismissed on your phone. Secondly, you can (and should) customise which notifications get sent to your watch vs being delivered only on your phone. The watch should be for notifications of sufficient importance to warrant a more personal alert. Thirdly, notifications received on the watch are far easier to consume and dismiss than on your phone. A brief glance and a swipe and its gone, taking only seconds to complete.
Before owning the watch I had to go through endless redundant notifications sitting in Notification Centre on a regular basis, clearing them all out. This is due to the ill thought-out way the iPhone handles them – if you open an app directly on the phone without clicking on the specific notification, the notification is not removed from Notification Centre – there is no reverse update from the app back to the Notification Centre. The Apple Watch resolves this problem by making it far easier to see outstanding notifications and clear them. Since owning it, my Notification Centre has been clear and up to date the whole time.
Receiving notifications on your wrist, like many other benefits of the watch, is a subtle experience that really needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Suffice to say that as simple a feature as it sounds, the ability to take more control over your notifications and reduce time spent dealing with them while still getting the same amount of information, is very significant.
Fashion and ‘need’
I’ve touched on this already, but it bears repeating. Unlike iPhones which are a commodity item these days and widely regarded as a necessity, a watch is an optional accessory that people choose to wear because of either function (rarely) or fashion (mostly). No-one needs to wear a watch, and for now, no-one needs to own a smartwatch. And that’s ok – to judge the Apple Watch on its ‘needability’ is to miss the point. How many times have you criticised people for spending money on wristwatches because they didn’t need them? Never.
Each individual will place a certain level of value on these two qualities (functionality and fashion), and if a product reaches that person’s minimum combined value threshold, that user may buy one. While normal wristwatches deliver, say, a 10%/90% ratio of functionality vs fashion (telling the time is hardly a differentiating feature of watches), a smartwatch can increase the portion of value delivered via functionality. This means that a smartwatch can still meet a user’s minimum combined value threshold with an increase in functionality even if that comes at the cost of reduced style or visual appeal.
“Traditionally” (if such a word can be applied to a category only a few years old), smartwatches have not been known for also excelling in the fashion stakes, but Apple has cleverly acknowledged that in order for the Apple Watch to succeed, it must not just deliver value through increased functionality but also appeal to people who value the physical appearance and fashion statement that comes with wearing a watch. In this regard, the Apple Watch should be expensive, as for many, watches are a status symbol – unashamed declarations of wealth and personal style. For the Apple Watch to succeed, it must be desirable enough for people to feel able to demonstrate these qualities with it.
Motorola appear to have acknowledged this by allowing customers to customise their Moto 360, although this does appear to be a bit of a bolt-on of options rather than a fundamental change in approach. I think we will start to see a dramatic shift in the other watch offerings as they too wake up and smell the coffee.
Now, the other question is whether the Apple Watch, and other smartwatches, can displace existing mechanical watches owned by watch lovers. I don’t know really, I’m certain the market for real watches will always exist as digital watches will never (at least not for a long time) deliver the levels of longevity that gives so much value to traditional watches, but conversely there must be so many people who would buy a smartwatch if it met a certain level of quality, which I think Apple have shown is entirely achievable. Those who want a good quality and good-looking watch but also are interested in smartwatches now have something to buy, and I think this trend is only going to go one way. More people will buy smartwatches and fewer people will buy traditional watches, I think that is an inevitability, but there will always be room for both.
Another big complaint. “You have to charge it every day”. Yes, you do. BUT, this is, for many, a total non-issue. I used to take my ‘normal’ watch off every night and put it on my bedside table. I do exactly the same with my Apple Watch, but I place it on the magnetic charger. That’s it – no change to my routine at all. The battery life lasts about 24 hours (far better than the 18 hours Apple commits to), so as long as I charge it at night, it really doesn’t matter what time I get up or go to bed – it will last until I eventually take it off to charge. In contrast, my iPhone usually needs a top-up in the afternoon – I rarely trust it to last ’til bedtime.
Since I realised this on about day 3, I genuinely haven’t checked the battery life once. At some point in the future, battery technology will improve enough to allow for watches to be worn at night, but even then I’m not sure I’d want to but clearly many do (sleep tracking remains this strange requirement everyone has, despite no-one actually doing it). As with all other Apple devices, Apple sets a benchmark of what they consider to be ‘good enough’ battery life and then they evolve features and functionality while maintaining that level of battery performance. We have not really seen them focus on improving battery life as a key selling-point yet in any of their product refreshes, and I think the watch will be the same until a new technology arrives that significantly improves battery performance.
Ah the straps. The horrifically expensive straps. There is a sound strategy being employed by Apple here I think, but the moral of the story is the only official Apple strap you own should be the one that came bundled with your watch, the only exception being additional Sports bands, at a stretch.
Here’s the thing. Apple cleverly acknowledged the personal nature of watches and how much of their desire and selection comes down to appearance and fashion. A single gadgety-looking device simply was not going to sell to enough people – people want to choose their watch and feel like it compliments how they want to be seen and look. So, Apple had to offer choice from day 1, hence the selection of bands available for pre-order. However, the speed at which Apple announced the ‘endorsed’ 3rd-party strap program, less than 2 weeks from launch, makes it crystal clear to me that Apple fully expects (and has been planning for) a thriving 3rd party strap market to form the bulk of the strap purchases, just like 3rd party phone cases. Apple will continue to offer their own premium straps for those with cash to blow, but they are there to fulfil a role in setting the benchmark for 3rd parties and offering enough choice in-store to make the watch sufficiently appealing to a minimum number of demographics to ensure an initial critical mass of sales.
3rd party apps
It has to be said – generally, these suck. There appear to be two reasons: 1) technical limitations and 2) lack of purpose.
3rd party apps do not have the same level of access to watch core components and APIs as built-in apps, so they are somewhat limited in what they can do. This will change over time. Also, watch apps are slow. The essence of using the watch is speed, and 3rd party apps fail to deliver on this, meaning it becomes easier to just get your phone out to carry out a task than wait for a watch app to load. Again, this will improve in time as developers get their hands on the watch and the software and hardware evolve.
More interestingly though is purpose. So many of the apps available currently simply port existing functionality to the watch without really thinking about the hard questions of what sort of interactions and use-cases are best suited to the new form-factor. 90% of the apps I’ve downloaded I’ve deleted as they provide no benefit by being available on my wrist. The developers simply haven’t thought it through and have prioritised having presence on the platform early over offering genuinely useful features to the end-user that take advantage of how people use the watch.
To illustrate this challenge, consider the nice assessment I read somewhere that describes how much time a user should be expected to spend using products: ‘hours’ for computers, ‘minutes’ for phones, and ‘seconds’ for smartwatches. If your watch app takes minutes to use, it will be simpler to use your phone.
So, great watch apps need to be fast, and have a clear purpose that can be achieved in seconds. Reading news and scrolling through Twitter feeds are not good use of wrist-time, although I appreciate plenty of people probably do want to be able to do this (but I’m not sure why).
A few good examples of apps getting right are below:
Swarm, Do Button, and the stock Weather app. These have a single clear purpose. Swarm present a single button pre-populated with the most likely location so you can check in with a single tap. Do Button here is being used to change my Nest’s thermostat with a single click, and the weather app, while a bit more information-heavy, delivers it without any user involvement.
In contrast, and these aren’t terrible examples but I still question their suitability on the watch:
Evernote and Feedly. Lots of functionality or information, but why do this on a watch?
I don’t really want to tread into review territory, but here are a few other aspects of my experience with the watch I feel like mentioning:
- Bugs – yes, the Apple Watch software is buggy. Sometimes calendars don’t sync, messages get delivered to my phone instead of my watch, apps don’t load etc. I’m confident Apple will address most of these fairly quickly with software updates so it is not a big concern.
- There is a steep learning curve. You have to learn to take the time to customise the watch to your own use, including getting notifications right. If you don’t do this, I imagine it could become a frustrating experience. There are few new interface paradigms to understand, such as glances, but after a week I was completely familiar.
- The app layout screen isn’t particularly enjoyable to use. A bunch of apps in no discerning order is not a natural way of navigating. While you can fully customise the layout, there is no assistance offered and it is up to your own creativity to decide what works – this isn’t fun. I’d rather just have a layout that makes sense, perhaps with some options to refine it, rather than a blank canvas I have to constantly experiment with.
- Digital Touch started off as a novelty but quickly turned into a fun and useful way to communicate with my wife on a daily basis. This includes brief S.O.S. messages when I need help looking after our baby, or just little taps to say hi to each other when I’m at work. It is a really nice addition, but in its infancy and I probably wouldn’t use it if my wife didn’t also have a watch.
- The watch face lights up automatically when you raise your wrist, but only if your wrist is sufficiently horizontal. If your wrist is at an angle and you rotate it to see the time, you’re out of luck. I hope Apple improve this.
- There is so much more Apple can do with Handoff and Continuity – the interaction between the watch and the iPhone. I hope they focus on this.
As I continue to use the watch, I have been increasingly impressed with it. It doesn’t deliver the ‘wow’ factor that one may initially expect, but that is not a failing. The watch is there in the background, subtly offering up information and alerts when needed, and then disappearing again. It is a digital compliment to your phone rather than an alternative or addition, and it is starting to define a new way of living your daily digital life.
Don’t expect fireworks. Do expect to be patient and rewarded with a vision (and experience) of an easier, more fluid and more exciting digital existence. The Apple Watch is very mature for a first-generation product, and of course there is so much room for it to grow. I can’t wait to see how it evolves.