Quickly! Kill the Apple Watch before it lays eggs
I've been a believer in that smartwatch thing right from the start, because... I don't know why. The wrist just seems like a good place for mobile computing to expand to. After all, smart gadgets are slowly but steadily replacing the not-so-smart utilities in our lives, so it's only logical for the traditional timepiece to start giving way to a new, more functional version of itself.
Makes sense, only it hasn't happened. The traditional wrist-watch has turned out to be a resilient accessory that doesn't seem to have the slightest intention of going the way of the dodo anytime soon. The last couple of years have been marked by a hearty offensive by smartphone makers who also saw the wrist as the next frontier, but their efforts have mostly been in vain. With other players failing hard, many were waiting for Apple to enter the game, and thus properly kick-start this new niche, inspire interest in consumers, and get things moving. Geeks and nerds from around the world had been waiting patiently for the Watch to walk the oddly long road from announcement to release, and now that the much-hyped smartwatch from Cupertino has finally seen the light of day, been on the market for about a couple of months, we can safely say that the wait has not been worth it.
Even Apple failed at cracking the code of smartwatch success
And when Apple thinks it's ready to explore and exploit a niche with a product that promises to be superior to current offerings, and fails, then I would personally start feeling somewhat skeptical about that niche, even if I tend to be a believer.
Of course, Apple's failure — or lack of success, if you will — by no means proves that smartwatches have no future, but it does show that if there's indeed a success formula for this niche, discovering it would be very, very tough. And once we finally get there, it might turn out that the journey has been more exciting than the destination itself, which, in this particular case, may not be a good thing.
Living with the Apple Watch
As a believer, I was looking forward to living with the Apple Watch. However, once my journey with the sporty wearable began, it wasn't long before I realized that our relationship isn't meant to be. More than that. It was a catastrophe.
Sure, I may be dramatizing slightly, but for someone who happened to have relatively high expectations from Apple's promising wearable, I have to admit that I was left quite disappointed. Let me explain why...
Even though I was never blown away by the Watch's appearance, I remained level-headed whenever I discussed its physical attributes, prior to having the pleasure of wearing it myself. I was still trying to wrap my head around the reasoning that it's supposed to be a unisex accessory, that it's going to mostly display content such as lists, hence the rectangular screen making more sense than a circle...
Eventually, I ran out of excuses once I actually got to hold and wear the Watch. Reinforcing the negative impression was the fact that I got to use the 38mm dark gray aluminum Watch with a black sport strap, which is arguably the dullest configuration possible. Even so, I've also seen the 42mm variant with more fashionable straps, like the Milanese Loop, and the thing is still not as convincing as a traditional, stylish wrist-watch can be. The chubby, squarish, pebble-like body of the Apple Watch is probably to blame for this. It's neutral, yes, but being neutral probably isn't the best thing a wrist-watch can be, having in mind it's such an important accessory when it comes to expressing one's style.
So, we're talking a $350 (minimum) watch that doesn't even look that attractive. Shelling out more for a stainless steel body and a more premium strap will indeed get you a better looking Watch, but your wallet is also going to be hit much harder. And by harder, I mean something in the domain of $650 - $800. You can buy a legitimately luxurious watch for that kind of money – a watch that will probably adhere to your personal taste much more than the unisex Apple Watch. But the even bigger trouble for the Apple Watch is that you can easily get something that looks better and is made of equally high-quality materials for much, much less.
Wearing the Watch in public
In comparison, my own, $100 non-smart wrist-watch, which arrived a few days after I was done testing the Apple Watch, immediately started turning heads – people noticed it and wanted to take a closer look; pretty much everyone made sure to note that they find my new timepiece quite attractive. Why would I want to switch to something like the Apple Watch then? Oh wait, there's more to smartwatches than how they look. After all, we're talking about computing for the wrist here! Let's see what a minimum of $350 gets you in the way of functionality!
Right, so we already know what the Watch is capable of from reviews and other similar articles that explore the device's functionality. What I'd like to share with you now is how useful I found the Watch's features to be in my everyday life.
To be honest, for the several weeks during which I was using the Watch, I felt that it takes too much effort to get it to do something beside its core, most general functions. And even if we assume that its main features are enough to warrant its 'smart' status, there are still issues with the way those work.
I assume there's some technical explanation why certain emails are fully readable, while others aren't, but I honestly don't care. A quick web search didn't lead me to anything close to a fix, so I have no intention of digging any deeper, especially when even the “full” experience, when emails display in their entirety, doesn't satisfy me. The Watch can show only plain text emails – no graphics, no HTML, no nothing. And I'm not really sure if that's good enough in this day and age. It does let you know if certain parts of the message (like images or other content) have remained hidden to you, with the line “This message contains elements Apple Watch can't display. You can read a text version below,” which is good to know, but in many cases, that may once again cause you to just have a look at it on your iPhone, which defeats the purpose of wearing this watch. Or does it? Let's see what else it can do!
Phone and Messaging... Doing calls through the loudspeaker is something I very, very rarely do, if at all. It may be useful to some people, but those, I think, are quite a small group. Therefore, I never chose to take my call through the Watch. Instead, I picked up and answered through my phone as usual. I don't have much to hide from colleagues or family members, but I do not want them to hear the entirety of my calls. Hearing only me – my part of the conversation – is fine most of the time, but I prefer keeping the rest of it (what my callers say to me) to myself. It's good that the Watch can do speaker-calls, but I'll almost never use this. Thank you. I will also NOT dictate replies to text messages to my watch, as this would mean that 1) people around me will hear this part of my otherwise private, text-based conversation, and 2) I'll still have to double check if it got each and every word of my reply right, by reading it on the watch's display (meaning that replying when occupied, while driving for instance, would still be distracting). If I have to go through this much trouble, I'd rather take my phone, type out the reply, and hit send.
Apps... The moment I paired the Apple Watch with my iPhone, several of my 3rd-party apps immediately attempted to install on the watch. Of those 3-4 apps, only two managed to completely install, the rest were stuck in some form of “pending installation” state, so they ultimately didn't install for some reason. Shazam was among the few that managed to install fully. Sadly, after I tried to use that same app from the Watch a few days later, it didn't work, but prompted me to reinstall/update it from the phone, or something like that. As I was driving at the moment (one of the few states in which I might prefer to use Shazam from the watch, rather than the phone), it was next to impossible for me to perform such an advanced maneuver like going to the Watch settings app from the phone, and looking for a solution to my issue... What I could do, I admit, was to take my phone, launch Shazam, and seamlessly look the song up. I guess that's one of the big problems I have with the Watch: unlike the iPhone, the Apple Watch obviously doesn't just work. You should expect random prompts, issues, hiccups, all of which contribute to a decidedly non-Apple-ish experience.
Without a doubt, there are some neat ideas and features to be found with the Apple Watch. The Activity app, for instance, introduces this really cool concept of the three rings that you have to complete, representing the amount of stand-up, walking, and work-out time you've had during the day. What I don't like is that I have to know, or remember that there's more of the app that I can explore, if I scroll up/down, or use the force-touch gesture. There are such “hidden” screens and options scattered throughout the entire Watch OS, and I have to admit – I almost always forget about those, seeing that there are no visual reminders about their existance.
Force Touch: promising but rushed
Force Touch is a really promising new technology, but I feel that its execution in the Watch isn't really that good. The major problem I see is the complete lack of indication that Force Touch is available in a certain app. This way, the user can simply forget that Force Touch exists altogether. If you do get into the habit of using Force Touch, it's still a bit of a hit-or-miss thing, as the system doesn't notify you that there's more to explore, should you do a harder press anywhere on the screen. Instead, you need to figure it out yourself by doing random force-touches here and there, until you learn where it works and where it doesn't. Once again, the intuitiveness and 'it-just-works' foundations of iOS are nowhere to be found with Watch OS. And since Watch OS isn't Android, which can excuse its complexity with flexibility and openness, it simply ends up being an inferior product.
Force Touch is a technology with potential, but I do hope that should it come to the next iPhone, Apple's going to give it a lot more thought to make integrating it with the normal user experience smoother.
The Digital Crown: a retrograde attempt at UI
Another new interface tool that came with the Watch is the notorious Digital Crown. While mostly critically acclaimed, I'd like to offer my point of view with regards to its execution. While most sources are correct in their opinion that it functions rather well, with minimal amounts of lag, I'd like to add another perspective to the matter: operating the digital crown doesn't feel as good as operating a touch screen. There's something magical about working with a capacitive touchscreen, right? Once we pick our phone up and check our latest notifications, we always do a few additional swipes across the home screen, just to play around with it, before hitting the power key to put it to sleep.
Using a touchscreen is fun and modern, but rotating the digital crown isn't. It can even come across as a weird, retro kind of thing to do. It's an interface idea that no longer gets me excited, now that I've spent time playing around with it. It's indeed comfy in certain situations, but it just doesn't feel like the future. Plus, its positioning and function as a 'back' button aren't ideal for the purpose.
The Apple Watch has a pitiful battery life. If you don't charge it every single night, chances are you'll be finding it dead in the morning. Which means you'll have to start your day with a useless smartwatch on your hand. It's not very slow to charge – it'll be ready to rejoin you in all its glory at around noon. That's what I call bad user experience. The good thing for me is that I didn't really get to rely much on any of its features, so finding out it doesn't have any battery in the morning wasn't such a problem, but I can imagine the irritation of someone who's managed to get into the habit of seriously using it.
It all depends. If you're the type of person who thrives in such an ultra-connected reality, the need to put the Watch on the charger each night may not be so much of a hassle, but to me – a mostly mainstream mobile consumer who even has some interest in computing for the wrist, that's simply too much. The functional advantages are nowhere near what they have to be, in order to convince me to go through so much 'battery management', compared to just wearing a normal 'dumb'-watch, the battery of which can last for years.
A watch without an always-on state is no better watch than my smartphone
And while I'm on the subject of comparing the Apple Watch to a regular watch, allow me to explain why I think it doesn't even do its main job very well. While Apple made sure to talk up the Watch's extremely accurate time keeping, it all goes to waste with the Watch not having an always-on state (in contrast to its Android Wear counterparts). Seriously, a watch without an always-on state is no better watch than my smartphone. It relies on a gesture to detect when it should turn the display on: you have to raise and/or turn your wrist so that the Watch's display faces you. I have to admit: it works very well, like in about 95% of the time. Which makes it almost usable. The result, though, is that it leaves you with a bitter taste, as those 5% when it wouldn't work prove to be catastrophic for that whole gesture-based concept. The thing is that there are certain body positions, or angles, in which it simply won't “read” your wrist-twisting gesture correctly. More than once, I experienced its inability to show me the time as I was ineffectively twisting my wrist back and forth numerous times in 'alternative' positions such as laid-back, semi-upright, or lying-to-the-side. In some of those cases, I not only had to repeat the gesture in a more exaggerated way to get it to work, but also to change my whole body position a bit, so it could detect the move and bring up the clock. Yep, terrible stuff indeed.
So much for generation 1
All the issues that I went through in the above lines are more than enough to push me far, far away from the idea of getting a first-gen Apple Watch. As of right now, the Apple Watch is neither the iPhone of the smartwatch biz, nor is it the iPad of the tablet business.
Hopefully, nothing is lost yet, as Apple can make radical improvements to the second generation, potentially reigniting interest in the category. A number of things can be done. First, Apple needs to introduce larger displays than what the current 38mm and 42mm form-factors offer. That will make viewing any type of content on the screen a much better experience, plus it will make interacting with the touchscreen easier, which will mean less digital crown usage. Next, Apple should really think about doing a round watch-face, as such offerings tend to be seen as more elegant. Finally, in addition to a vastly superior battery life, big improvements should also be seen in the software area, with the introduction of features such as an always-on mode, and making UI navigation, including Force Touch, more accessible and organized.
It's easy to understand why Apple's once again going for the premium segment with the Watch – it's just what it does, but it has probably had too much trust in its fledgling product. As I said, this is neither an iPhone-grade product, nor an iPad-grade product. The Apple Watch is noticeably inferior in a number of areas, from hardware and software design, to user interface and usefulness. Because of that, Apple needs to either drastically shake things up with the second generation of the Watch, or drop the price it's asking for it.
Until then, the smartwatch space will be waiting for its true hero device.