Apple Watch – give it time


I have an almost unhealthy obsession with Apple. But it hasn't always been this way. In 2001, during my first week at university, I declared – at full volume across the library – my distaste for Apple’s Mac operating system, remarking that it could do with being more like Microsoft’s Windows [insert embarrassed emoji]. Within two months, I had seen the light and purchased my first Apple product – a graphite CRT iMac. Three iPods, a PowerBook G4, a MacBook Pro, an iPad, four iPhones and a PowerBook 520 rescued from a skip later, I find myself wearing a 42mm stainless steel Apple Watch with a black classic buckle.

GIF of Apple Watch unboxing.

I should point out that I was lucky enough to receive the watch as a generous gift for a decade’s service to The Frameworks – clearly a present befitting a self-proclaimed Apple “fanboy”.

I was also fortunate enough to receive my watch on launch day, which means I’ve had a few weeks to play with the newest member of the Apple family. The watch marks Apple’s boldest attempt to date to become a “life companion” brand; to be present in (and often a key component of) almost every aspect of our lives. But right now it ultimately fails to do this. Let me explain why.

My Apple Watch has just tapped me on the wrist, which seems a good place to start. It’s a notification to tell me 50 minutes have passed since I was last active enough to satisfy my daily “stand goal” (to stand and be active for at least one minute every hour for 12 hours) and that I need to get up and move around a bit. This sounds like an easy task, but when you feel the “tap-tap” in the middle of a two-hour meeting or when sat on a train (as I am writing this), it’s not so simple. It’s also not easy to ignore, especially when you’ve hit your goal consistently in the preceding days. It’s a niggling feeling I’ve not experienced before with a device and is probably what Apple means when it labels the timepiece its “most personal device yet” (which otherwise seems pretty obvious for a device that’s almost permanently strapped to your skin).

An image of the Apple Watch displaying a daily standing goal.

It’s indicative of the way Apple is positioning its products and services as core components of our lives. It’s not enough for its products to be fixed to our desks and laps, or carried in our bags and pockets; Apple wants to be front and centre of every part of our day.

Growing on me

Over the past three weeks I’ve taken two different approaches to letting the watch into my life. The first week was spent seeing how it fit into my normal schedule with minimal usage, as I was intrigued to see if my behaviour would change. When I got the iPhone 6 I didn’t put it down for a week, but this device is different. The iPhone was an upgrade; Apple Watch is a brand new device category. Did it change my behaviour? Not initially. I was reluctant to hit any of the activity goals, finding them more annoying than useful. I mostly used it to tell the time [insert joke here], finding the most useful features to be the “complications” – little extras on the watch face that give you immediate information, whether it’s your next meeting, outside temperature or activity level, and “glances” – more detailed information provided by compatible apps and their notifications. At this point, the watch was acting as an offshoot of my phone, though the experience was more immediate and accessible. Its features were useful but not mind-blowing.

During weeks two and three I decided to embrace the watch more – and as I did I could sense my attitude beginning to shift. I started making an effort to hit all the daily activity goals, feeling special as the watch praised my efforts. I took my first genuine phone call “Dick Tracy" style because my iPhone was out of reach. I found a great app that counts down live train times – perfect for my daily commute – and I finally set the notifications up correctly so I got alerted to the most important information (and meetings) at the flick of a wrist (without feeling like I had a needy Tamagotchi strapped to it). Suddenly I found myself picking up my beloved iPhone less and interacting with my watch more.

A GIF of Apple Watch complications and glances.

Stranglehold

I like Apple Watch, a lot, but I don't love it. I don't love it anywhere near as much as I did my first iPhone (3G). I can see what Apple is trying to do, but it’s not there yet.

With the iPhone (and to a lesser extent, the iPad), Apple created a product that can sit in the pockets of millions of consumers around the globe. Every time they pick up the high-end device, they think of the brand, while its closed operating system, iOS, ensures Apple has full control over the experience it – and its sprawling network of third-party developers – offers consumers. From integrated services like iTunes and iCloud to its stringent App Store regulations, Apple ensures that consumers experience only the best sides of its brand. Contrast that with Google’s Android OS, which has 798 million phones globally running six versions of its software on devices made by hundreds of manufactures, and you can see why control is so important to Apple. Android-based device owners get an extremely fragmented user experience because of the all the different elements in play. And this fragmentation is set to continue with Android Wear.

But Apple's desire for complete control is hampering the company with Apple Watch.

The API released to developers, Watchkit, is severely restricted. As a result, Apple Watch has limitations that are hard to ignore. The main issue is speed. The watch can be painfully slow. You see, it turns out third-party apps aren't stored locally on Apple Watch. Instead, it hosts an app extension, which then loads data in real time over the Bluetooth connection from the main app on your iPhone. This means it can take up to 30 seconds for third-party apps to load and, in my experience, they often fail altogether. As a result, I've mastered the art of force-quitting temperamental apps like I had to in the days of Mac OS 9.

A GIF of the Apple Watch loading.

Developers have bemoaned the lack of locally stored apps and the restrictions within WatchKit. From only enabling them to programme simple gestures like swipes to only allowing full-screen animations, Apple is keeping an iron grip on the development process. But this “handbrake on” approach stops Apple Watch from reaching its full potential – and creates a barrier to mass adoption.

For example, innovative applications are not forthcoming. It's ridiculous to expect a full QWERTY setup on a 38/42mm display, but the absence of any keyboard interface is a big blow. Notifications are one of the watch’s best features, but without a keyboard they remain just that – you have to switch back to your iPhone to reply. You can, for native apps, send an animated emoji, a pre-written canned response or dictate a reply, but none of those are appropriate for me (who wants to be the guy bellowing at his watch on a crowded train?). A QWERTY keyboard may be inconvenient, but it would be nice to be able to tap out at least a few words. A clever solution awaits for the developer community – if and when they’re empowered to create it.

There are many parallels between the limitations of Apple Watch and the first generation iPhone (even the aesthetics), but I skipped the first iPhone precisely for these reasons. I have to keep reminding myself that smartwatches – and wearable tech more broadly – is a brand new product category. Even the Pebble smartwatch and a handful of Android Wear devices have only been around a very short time. So app developers are still finding their feet.

Not quite ready

Could I live without Apple Watch? Yes. Would I want to? No. There are plenty of highlights: it's beautiful. Really beautiful. And the screen is gorgeous. It's comfortable too, much more than other watches I've worn. But as far as it being the conduit that brings Apple even closer to consumers, it currently falls short.

Tech commentators speculate that Apple is deliberately playing down the watch’s capabilities while developers get to grips with the new genre and so they don’t over-bloat their apps to the detriment of the new experience. After all, the last thing Apple wants is a “watchgate” PR disaster. Even if this is the case, right now it still results in a product that’s not quite ready for everyone. Unless you’re a lover of new technology, the everyday value is not obvious enough. My advice is: unless you’re an early adopter or an Apple fan, wait for Apple Watch 2, when the speed and hardware specs will hopefully be improved.

But this is Apple and the brand’s products are like Sirens. Stray too close to one in an Apple Store and its beauty alone may just lure you into a purchase. Apple Watch might not be ready to be your life companion just yet, but Apple has one major thing on its side: time.

Categories

  • Apple
  • Wearable technology
  • Branding
  • Apple Watch