This week I was having coffee with a friend when I received a message. Pulling out my phone would warrant an “I’m sorry.” Instead, I glanced at my watch. The conversation continued, uninterrupted.
I’m writing this from a coffee shop in a busy part of the city. Every few moments, someone passes by on the sidewalk with their head in their phone, an accident waiting to happen. I think I’ve gone a week without checking my phone on the sidewalk.
The first reaction to a smart watch is, “Great. Another distraction.” I’ve experienced the opposite. Smart phones forced companies to strip bloat to fit on smaller screens with limited bandwidth. The best watch apps strip things further to focus on urgency.
Don’t be tricked by the home screen. I barely launch apps. I spend most time in notifications and glances. I may jump to full apps from there, but often I’ll just pull out my phone. Browsing your inbox on your watch looks cool, but if people enjoyed reading on a 1.5 inch screen, novels would be printed on postage stamps.
A smart watch will never be as necessary as a smart phone, but neither are your car’s power windows. The improvements to my life are well worth what I paid, but a few times this week people asked whether they should get one, and I told them to wait until next year.
The Apple MVP
Google Glass was an overhyped beta that didn’t approach the hype of its concept videos. Apple Watch is an Apple beta.
Remember the first iPad? It felt revolutionary, but the iPad 2 showed us the seminal tablet. It made the old one look thick, heavy, and underpowered. With the iPhone and iPad, Apple waited until the potential game changers outweighed the compromises like Edge networking or form factor.
Today’s third-party watch apps run on the phone and talk to the watch via Bluetooth. Many apps can mask the latency, but it prevents certain types of apps from ever being viable. Without real native apps, it’s impossible to build experiences like digital touch.
Power is the barrier. These first few years, the watch needs to earn a reputation for great battery life, but whenever Apple releases a new API, third party developers find a way to abuse it.
Hardware will obviate power issues, just as later iPhones allowed multitasking, but that’s years away. In the mean time, I expect latency and bandwidth improvements.
Then there’s the bugs. I just opened the Uber app to check something about their UI, and it said that I was still on a trip that ended 15 minutes ago. I’m not surprised, given the SDK. WatchKit apps are based on app extensions, a feature introduced to iOS less than a year ago. Because of the multi-process design, we’ll see a lot of syncing mistakes from first-time WatchKit developers.
Finally, the coolest feature of the watch, digital touch, is useless until your friends are on it. In the mean time, the contacts button is a glorified speed-dial.
Given the Apple Watch will be used in short bursts, it should feel effortless. Yet it feels more complex than my pocket computer.
The two most important features, notifications and glances, are only accessible via swipes. There is no indication on the watch that you can swipe up or down. Without a visual affordance, users require training and memorization. Apple banks on these gestures being so common they’ll become second nature, like pinch-to-zoom. The top swipe is analogous to notification center on the iPhone, so at least it’s familiar. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
The side buttons require more memorization. I long pressed the side button when I should have double clicked. I found myself saying “Hey siri” because I forgot you long press the digital crown. Maybe in a month these shortcuts will become second nature; if not, I’ll take dedicated buttons at the cost of aesthetics.
Then there’s Force Touch, a great execution of a terrible concept. It’s the new long press. It is this generation’s Mystery Meat Navigation. There is no indication of when a screen accepts a force touch. When I’m trying to figure out a task that it isn’t completely obvious, I find myself force touching every screen, hoping to discover the hidden option. I feel like I’m playing an old LucasArts adventure game.
Apple isn’t flawless. Remember how they kept iterating on the camera shortcut on the lock screen? The UI revisions through iOS 7 betas? Maybe my grievances will be addressed as they try to reach an audience beyond early adopters.
The first generation iPad received two years worth of updates. While first party apps will always work, I’m curious of how third party apps will handle backward compatibility, given the tight coupling with constantly-updating iPhone host apps.
Your first generation iPad can run the last version of Facebook that supported it; what happens when the latest version of Facebook uses a WatchKit extension that no longer works on your watch?
Should You Get One?
If you’re the type of person to read this far, you’re going to get one. The question is when. Are you excited running beta software? Do you have the disposable income to buy the final version next year? Go for it.