[By Nic Lindh on Saturday, 11 July 2015]
I’m the kind of person who has worn a watch since I can remember, and have a neurotic need to know the exact time—and to be able to know it by a glance at my wrist. Which is what kept me wearing a watch after I started carrying a device that told the time and was synced to an atomic time server in the sky, in other words a much more accurate time piece than the analog collection of springs on my wrist. But pulling a phone out of my pocket and turning on the screen isn’t exactly glancing.
I have worn a Pebble since you could buy them in stores, and loved it for both providing interesting ways for me to see the time and for putting notifications on my wrist. Granted, the Pebble was not what you’d call a handsome piece of hardware, especially the low-resolution black and white e-ink display, but triaging notifications on the wrist was huge.
Other things the Pebble allowed, like quick timers for the BBQ and the gym, as well as controlling music and podcast playback right there on the wrist were also huge. But the Pebble certainly felt like the first iteration of a product category.
And kudos to them for all the things they got right within their limitations as a start up and first-mover.
But now Apple Watch is the new sheriff in town. (I can’t speak to the Android Wear product line since I don’t have an Android phone and so could never use one. I wanted to, but sadness, could not.)
Apple Watch is confusing people, I think, by being several different things in one, and some of those things more successfully than others.
Let’s take a look at the main roles Apple Watch inhabits.
It sits on your wrist and tells the time, as a watch by definition must, but unfortunately that functionality is the weakest since battery constraints makes the watch go through most of its life with its screen off. Glance down at your wrist and you’ll see the void, unless you jerk your wrist to wake it up.
Which unfortunately is pretty hit and miss. Sometimes it wakes and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, if you’ve been too wrist-active, it wakes up for a fraction of a second, then goes back to sullen darkness.
This means you can’t just glance at it like a traditional watch: You have to jerk your wrist, and when it’s not in the mood to cooperate you end up having to tap the screen. This can make it hard to steal a glance at the time in polite conversation.
Basically you have a slab of metal and glass on your wrist that requires you to either jerk like you’re having a petit mal or tap on it to be able to tell the time. Neither of which you can do in a discreet fashion. Not to be too harsh, when the wrist motion works, it’s great—move wrist, see time, go on with life—but that it so often doesn’t is incredibly frustrating and a huge problem for the primary purpose of a watch.
Really hope the next version will have a way to just show the time continuously. You know, like a watch.
Apple did a spectacular job of turning the watch into a clicker trainer for humans. It lets you know about your movement achievements during the day in a relentlessly positive way and since our human wetware is miswired enough that encouragement from an inanimate object on our wrists actually makes us happy, it does work to make you move around more in daily life.
Though realizing you’re that easy to manipulate may bring some sadness during quiet contemplation.
From a psychological standpoint it’s spectacularly well done. Really, if you’re interested in psychology you should purchase an Apple Watch just to see how well subtle manipulation can be done. Which, since it’s manipulating you to do something that is good for you, I am in favor of.
It also tracks your heartbeat and logs workouts, which functionality is a bit rougher. When you’re going to work out, the watch provides a list of different activities to choose from, like outdoor walk, elliptical, stair stepper, etc. which lets the device understand better how much you’re actually moving, but it doesn’t have modes for many common activities like yoga, weight lifting and Pilates. Which seems to mean the little watch brain has to guess a bit more about how many calories you’re burning and what the heck it is you’re up to.
But it’s early days and I’m sure Apple engineers are working on adding more kinds of workouts. It would be nice if the device became smart enough to figure out what kind of workout you’re doing just by the motions of your wrist, but that may be a bit too close to magic to be reasonable.
The core of exercise monitoring is of course the heart rate monitor. Let it be said that it’s incredibly cool a watch includes a heart rate monitor. This thing tracks your pulse all day just by sitting on your wrist. That’s the kind of thing Mondo 2000 got all kinds of excited about more than 20 years ago.
But the heart rate monitoring is far from perfect and sometimes either stops taking measurements, with the activity app futilely struggling to get a new reading, and sometimes, frustratingly, seems like it’s only measuring half your heart rate.
There I am in the gym, lifting weights, and all of a sudden my heartrate drops from 109 to 54 beats per minute, staying there for a few minutes until whatever wires were crossed managed to uncross themselves. (It was kind of scary the first time—oh Lord, am I dying?)
I’ve seen this during yoga, weightlifting, and walking, so it doesn’t seem to be activity related. And no, I don’t have a wrist tattoo. Sometimes the heart rate monitor just cuts your heart rate in half.
This of course throws off your average heart rate for the workout. Dammit, I want credit for the work I did!
I’m assuming Apple engineers are aware of this and working to fix. Unless my heart and wrist are indeed special.
As mentioned above, the huge thing the Pebble did for me was to be a notification filter. Meaning any notifications I would have seen on my phone I first saw on my wrist without having to take the phone out of my pocket. Which is so, so nice. Seriously, if you haven’t had notifications on your wrist, you’re missing out on the next level of connected society.
The Pebble was always limited in that it couldn’t choose which notifications I wanted to see on my wrist and which on my iPhone—if it was a notification, I saw it in both places. Apple, as the platform owner, doesn’t have those limitations. With an Apple Watch, you can pick which notifications you want on the phone and which you want on the watch and if you’ve dismissed a notification on the watch it’s dismissed on the phone as well.
Which is as expected—it’s good to be the platform owner.
An angry sidebar here: To all the people who wrote articles about how awful it would be to have your wrist disturb you all the time because your phone was set to have every notification possible on and the watch would light up like a Christmas tree and oh, the horror. First: Use a device before you write annoying Luddite horse shit articles about it, OK? Call it a think piece if you want, but all it is is you masturbating into a keyboard for money; and Second: Turn off notifications you don’t care about, you nimrod. If your phone is bothering you all the time about things, you can turn that off. Why do you live with a device that you can do with as you want and decide to let it give you a stroke? Why would you do that?
OK, I feel better now. It’s just, why do you have Luddites writing about technology except you expect your readers to all be Luddites who will agree with your alpha-Luddite and in that case why are you even covering technology except to make your readers feel better about their Luddite tendencies and if that’s the reason, don’t you have something better to cover than to pander to your readers’ insecurities? And yes, I’m looking at you, New York Times and your bird-brain digital dog collar article.
The watch does a great job as a notification triage device, especially since the watch and iPhone talk back and forth and know which notifications have already been dismissed on the other device. It’s very nice and just like TV remotes the kind of thing you scoff at before you have it and then once you have it you wonder how you ever lived without it. Really.
The physical object that is Apple Watch is divided into two pieces: The watch and the strap. Apple has done a magnificent job of creating a way for straps to be easy and quick to swap. The kind of job, incidentally, the watch industry could have done 100 years ago if they had cared. Creating a standard mechanism that makes it easy to swap straps does not require expertise in semiconductors and CPU architectures. But the watch industry didn’t care. Because who wants the kind of animal for a customer who can’t afford to hire a jeweler to change straps? (Or the kind of customer who doesn’t enjoy deep-diving into purchasing exotic tools and learning a skill only useful for his hobby? (And yes, the “his” in the previous sentence is deliberate—only us men get ourselves that deep into the weeds.))
I am a simple man, so I bought an Apple Watch Sport with a rubber strap, and you know what? It’s gorgeous. It’s the cheapest one you can get—although starting at $349 for the lady size it’s certainly not cheap—and it is a beautiful object. It is a bit too thick, really, to pass for a regular watch, but it’s not cartoonish in any way, and the materials are solid and just … nice.
This is a nice object, and with an impending infinity of straps coming, you can bet Apple will make an absolutely stupid amount of money in the holiday season. Plus, you will be able to find one you really like.
Will Apple Watch succeed? Obviously that depends on your definition of success. Will it be a juggernaut like the iPod and iPhone? Doubtful. Living on your wrist makes it by definition more of a niche product since a lot of people simply don’t like to have things on their wrists and will require a really good reason to spend $349 and up on a watch. That reason, at this point, is notifications and fitness. If you’re a naked wrist in 2015 and you’re not interested in either, it’s going to be a tough sell.
Which isn’t to say a killer app can’t appear—it’s early days and there may be some activity Apple Watch is a total gimme to disrupt. What that is I couldn’t say, and if I could say I wouldn’t because I’d be mortgaging the house and betting every dollar on it.
Adding to the problem is that few people will see a clear reason why this thing makes your life appreciably better. After the initial hype dies down I think it will be a hard sell for people not used to wearing watches, especially naked wrist types who aren’t into fitness or health.
But for people who wear watches and fitness enthusiasts it will make a lot of people happy. Especially after Apple figures out how to make the thing tell time all the time.
I predict Apple Watch to be a moderate success in that it will find die-hard fans but will not move anywhere near the volume of units of the iPod or iPhone. Though it might be remembered fondly by historians a few hundred years from now as the first wearable to find mass market appeal and then ushered in the age of embedded devices.