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How Apple and Motorola made me freeze my smartwatch purchase plans

How Apple and Motorola made me freeze my smartwatch purchase plans
The wearable era has begun in earnest, which means it is now time for us (and you) to take a look at what we know about the devices on the market now, what's on the way, and where the potential lies with these devices. The big news this week has been the release of the long-awaited Moto 360 and the announcement of the long-rumored Apple Watch. Unfortunately, the two have come together to convince me that now is not the time to buy a smartwatch.

As I've mentioned before, I'm an Android user, and as I talked about recently, Android Wear has grabbed my attention despite the fact that I haven't worn a watch on a daily basis for 15 years. I have been looking forward to the Moto 360, but what I've seen so far has soured me a bit on the device. And, while I have no intention of buying an iPhone 6 or an iWatch Apple Watch, Tim Cook's announcement had its intended effect on me and has made me put my plans to buy a smartwatch on hold for now. 

Motorola's slip-up


My issues with the Moto 360 have been covered by many outlets, and it all stems from the fact that Motorola made the terrible decision to use the TI OMAP 3 chip in its smartwatch. While we didn't know exactly which model of OMAP 3 it was at first, the iFixit teardown has shown that it is the same chip that was used in the MOTOACTV, which was released almost 3 years ago. As John mentioned in our review of the Moto 360, the processor choice has had a slight impact on performance, and the 360 isn't as "buttery smooth" as the Android Wear devices from LG and Samsung which use the Snapdragon 400 SoC. 

The performance difference alone is slight enough that it hasn't had a huge impact on my decision, though. The real trouble caused by the processor choice is with battery life. As many outlets have mentioned, the OMAP 3 used a 45-nanometer production method, which was great back in 2010, but doesn't stack up to today's standards. The Snapdragon 400 uses a 28-nanometer production process, meaning transistors are more tightly packed and more energy efficient. 


Ron Amadeo over at Ars Technica ran some benchmarks on the three current Android Wear devices. He found that the Moto 360 was competitive on most of the performance benchmarks, but lagged well behind in battery life (seen above). And, that is exactly what comes through in usage, both because of the processor and the fact that the 360 has a physically smaller battery than the competition. The Moto 360 still looks beautiful, and is a marvel of industrial design. Unfortunately for Motorola, Google has taken control of Android Wear and doesn't allow for any customization, so these watches have to live and die by the hardware. 

The Moto 360 looks beautiful, but the software is the same as every other Android smartwatch; and, I find it hard to justify $249 for a great-looking device with a small battery and a 4 year-old processor. Maybe when the price drops, I'll give in. But, by that time, there may be something much better on the market. 

Apple freezes the market


The other big trouble that I ran into was Apple's announcement on Tuesday. As I mentioned, I'm not going to be buying an Apple device, but I don't think that Tim Cook was really targeting Apple customers with his Watch announcement this week. I believe that Tim Cook had three major aims with announcing the Apple Watch:

  1. Quiet the rumors - we all knew the Apple Watch was coming, and Apple's stock would have taken a hit if it had left the rumors to fester until next year. 
  2. Prep the ecosystem - this is the same reason why the Android Wear SDK was released in March, but devices came in late June. Android Wear doesn't really allow for full apps in the same way that Apple seems to be planning its for its Watch, so Apple wants to get developers working as soon as possible. The Apple Watch SDK isn't out yet, but should be coming soon. 
  3. Freeze the market

The last one is, in my opinion, the biggest one. Apple knew that it couldn't get its smartwatch to customers until next year, but it also couldn't leave Android Wear to take over the market. Announcing the Apple Watch now, and showing everything that it can (theoretically) do, will help to freeze the market a bit. The Apple faithful would have waited anyway, but Apple has more concerns beyond those customers. Part of keeping Android Wear from growing is keeping users from switching from iOS to Android, and that is a key of the iWatch. (I'm sorry, I can't keep writing Apple Watch every time; it's too awkward. You'll all keep up if I just use iWatch here and there, right?)

The iWatch is locked to the iPhone, so if anyone was considering an Android switch, this announcement might have pulled them back a bit. But, beyond that, there were those, like myself, who were on the fence about buying an Android Wear device, but are now going to hold off because Apple has shown flashes of capabilities that wearables could have, but don't yet. The Apple Watch is not a perfect device, far from it actually; but, it has a couple of truly special ideas. 

Apple's feature creep


I'll get to the truly special ideas in a minute, but first I want to dive into the odd troubles in what Apple announced with its smartwatch. As mentioned there were a couple of features that Apple announced that were good enough to make me put my smartwatch purchase plans on hold, but there were also quite a few things in the announcement that seemed completely off-base for an Apple device. It is clear that Tim Cook is taking the Apple Watch on as his baby. This is the turning point where he takes over and leaves Steve Jobs in the past. Gone is the "i" naming. As awkward as it is to say Apple Watch all the time, it serves as a constant reminder, for good and bad, that this is Tim Cook's Apple now, and this is his flagship device. 

Unfortunately, as far as can be said with the information at hand, the Apple Watch has some items to polish before releasing the device. The aim of the device was obviously to make it feel familiar to traditional watch users, and that comes through specifically with the "digital crown". The idea makes sense on the surface - keep a traditional hardware feature, but repurpose it for a new age. The trouble is that in practice it seems to just add complexity, which is something Apple has always tried to avoid. Sure, the crown will make it easier to scroll lists, and Apple was right to point out how silly pinch-to-zoom is on a smartwatch; but, double-tap-to-zoom would work fine, and the crown makes no sense with the main interface Apple has created. 

The iconic image of the Apple Watch is already the app swarm home screen. The thing is that the app swarm is a multi-directional collection of icons, and the digital crown can only move in two directions. For most usage of the Apple Watch, it seems like the best options are going to be to either ignore the crown, or to have to awkwardly switch between the crown and the touchscreen. Either way, Apple has added a feature to its Watch that has limited use, and complicates the user experience. 

But, the biggest trouble with the Apple Watch is the software design. Let's imagine for a second that you don't know anything about wearable software, but you knew about the past design temperaments of Apple and Google, and I showed you these side-by-side comparisons:


I'm willing to bet that just seeing those screens, most people would assume that the simple and clean UI design on the right was made by Apple, and the overly dense and complicated UI design on the left was made by Google. I can understand Tim Cook wanting to make the Apple Watch his baby, but it seems like he has lost his grip on the Apple ethos. The Apple Watch UI is customizable, which even Google thought was trouble, and that's something of a red flag. 

We'll have to see how more full-fledged apps work on the iWatch, but in general, I've come to think that Google has the right idea with Android Wear with the focus on quick, glanceable information. Long interactions with a smartwatch don't work well, but Apple seems to want to allow longer interactions. The Apple Watch also has an odd look of feature creep to it. For those who don't keep up on developer jargon, feature creep is when you keep adding more and more functionality well after the core software is done; it is the tipping point between adding value and adding unnecessary complexity to your software. The best example of feature creep is Samsung, but we tend to assume Apple will have more restraint than that. 

Instead, the Apple Watch appears to be trying to do more than is necessary for some reason. The addition of Apple Pay to the iWatch is an example of feature creep where it doesn't feel like Apple thought it out completely. Sure, using your watch to make a payment leads to nice marketing imagery, and it would likely work easily in real life, but it could easily end up posing security risks. Remember, there is no TouchID scanner on the Apple Watch, but you will still need to authenticate any payment that is done with the watch. You might think this means that after you tap your Apple Watch for an NFC payment, you'll need to pull out your iPhone and authenticate that payment with your fingerprint. But, in actuality, there is no authentication for an Apple Watch payment. All you do is double tap the button next to the crown on the Watch and that's it. That seems quite easy, and it is unlikely that a thief would get both your iPhone and Watch, but it still feels too insecure.

The various methods of communication through the Apple Watch also seem a bit overdone. The walkie-talkie feature and the custom emoji could be nice, if they work well. But, the drawings seem like more of a gimmick, as does the sharing of heartbeats. Having options that work in loud environments is nice, but to an extent, it feels as if Apple doesn't trust Siri or the hardware to handle dictation well enough, and needs to have multiple backup options. However, as odd as the heartbeat sharing might be, it does lead into the truly special ideas that Apple has brought to the table.

The Apple Watch's killer functionality and feature


Taptic Engine


As strange and potentially unnecessary as the heartbeat sharing feature might be, it is directly tied to the one and only killer piece of functionality that Apple showed off with its Watch - the Taptic Engine. In simple terms, the Taptic Engine is an advanced haptic feedback device that can generate "a tactile sensation that’s recognizably different for each kind of interaction." In practice, this means that you won't feel different vibration patterns on your wrist, but different "tapping" sensations. 

This is the one and only feature of the Apple Watch that made me, as an Android user, stop and say, "Damn. I wish Android Wear had that." The automatic parsing of messages to give preset responses was cool, but the Taptic Engine is what I really want to see make its way to all wearables. Of course, Apple is likely very confident in the patents it holds on this technology, since it has announced it about 4 to 6 months before the Apple Watch makes it to consumers.  

How Apple and Motorola made me freeze my smartwatch purchase plans

As you can tell by the basic description I gave, the Taptic Engine isn't really a new idea, rather it is an old idea that has been upgraded and finally placed in the perfect scenario. Custom vibration patterns have been around since before we had proper smartphones, but they never quite worked to their fullest potential. Many people keep phones in bags, and even if it is in your pocket, you may not feel the subtleties of the vibration if you are standing or walking. However, the idea finds its perfect home in wearables, because there is suddenly a guarantee that you'll feel what you need to feel. 

And, the potential uses of this feature are amazing, because it finally allows for ways to notify the user without requiring the user to look at the screen of the device. Vibration patterns and sounds can help you know what type of notification is coming through, but now there are ways to convey meaning and content without visual cues. The two major examples Apple gave were in sending custom tap patterns to friends, which could be as simple as "tap once for yes or twice for no", or it could be a more complex and private message that only you understand. The other use case Apple gave was navigation, where you would be able to tell by feel if you need to turn right or left without needing to look at a device. That could have far-reaching effects. 

Watch bands everywhere


The other feature that Apple got completely right was the easily swappable watch bands. This is one of those few things that any company could do, but it makes perfect sense that Apple would be the one to do it right. It is also most likely the reason why Jony Ive said that traditional watch makers should be scared by what will be coming with the Apple Watch. 

Let's face it, the Apple Watch is an okay-looking device, but it isn't as traditionally beautiful as you might have expected from Apple. It is bulbous, the digital crown doesn't quite make sense, and after having seen what round smartwatches can look like with the Moto 360 and the LG G Watch R, a square watch from Apple is a bit of a disappointment. 

All that said, Apple knows its market and it knows that it had to offer an easy way to customize and personalize the hardware, which is where the swappable bands comes in. The basic idea is to recreate the phenomenon of iPhone cases with the iWatch. iPhone cases are by far the most varied of any smartphone around, because makers know that whatever they create won't be a one-and-done proposition. The iPhone only substantially changes design every other year, which has helped to create a vibrant case market. And, people obviously want to make their iPhones look different from others, which helps push that same market. 

How Apple and Motorola made me freeze my smartwatch purchase plans

The Apple Watch can't have a case, but it can have watch bands; so, Apple did the best thing it could and created a proprietary (and very simple) way to change the watch band. As The Verge's Nilay Patel said during the Apple Watch announcement, "The new strap attachment mechanism thing is like, you had HUNDREDS OF YEARS TO FIGURE IT OUT BEFORE APPLE SHOWED UP, WATCH INDUSTRY." But, in some special occasions, that's what Apple does - it finds those one or two things that others could have and should have been fixed before, does it, and leaves us all to wonder how it hadn't been done already. 

Apple has learned over the years that consistency is key, and this standardized watch band clasp will likely be part of any Apple Watch design for the foreseeable future. That kind of consistency builds a large third-part accessory market; and, a large accessory market like that has an odd way of legitimizing a product in the eyes of a consumer. If you saw a Moto 360 sitting next to an Apple Watch on a store shelf, you may prefer the 360, but seeing dozens of watch band options for the Apple Watch can suddenly shift your perspective. 

Conclusion


Even if you're an Apple fan, it's hard to recommend buying the Apple Watch when it finally arrives next year, because it is hard to recommend first generation hardware. Unfortunately, if you're an Android fan, the announcement of the Apple Watch also serves to highlight that Android Wear is still very much a first generation platform. There is a lot of room for Android Wear to grow, just as there will be a lot of room for the Apple Watch to find its path. 

I am a habitual early adopter, but the only Android Wear hardware that really impressed me has been soured by ancient internals. The Apple Watch didn't really impress me overall, but it is clear that Apple has some good ideas, and some that I would have expected from Google. It still amazes me that it was Apple who first announced the idea to parse incoming messages to offer relevant quick reply options. That seems like such a Googley feature. 

Either way, Apple has certainly done its job on me, and made me question whether it is worth investing in Android Wear just yet. Apple hasn't succeeded in taking away a sale from an Android maker, just delaying the action for a while. But, if enough users feel the same way that I do, it could easily cut into the head start that Android Wear has in the wearable market. Maybe that alone will be enough, but we'll have to wait and see. 


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