On Apple Watch and the Future of Wearables

Apple Watch

Back in January I borrowed the company’s test Apple Watch for a weekend to see what it is like to use. Before I had time to sum up my thoughts on the watch in writing, Walt Mossberg published Smartwatches Need to Get Smarter on the following Wednesday. His thoughts lined up pretty much with mine.

I liked the notifications on my wrist, but it was unessential and unreliable. I disliked how slow the device was. I very quickly abandoned using most of the watch apps (even the faster watchOS 2.0 apps) and went back to taking my phone out of my pocket as I found this to be faster then waiting for the watch apps to launch, load or do just about anything. I liked the fitness tracking, more than I thought I would, but I could not track swimming which is one of my favoured workouts. I disliked the overall lack of polish of the software and the downright disorienting hodgepodge navigation. John Gruber, an Apple pundit, responding to critics of the navigation said in On the Apple Watch Interaction Model and the Digital Crown:

That looks more complicated than it is. […]

That looks exactly as complicated as it is.

Less would definitely have been more. The lack of copy and paste with the original iPhone was admittedly very frustrating, but bringing it in later meant that it was so much more polished when it arrived. Smartphones that pre-dated the iPhone had had copy-paste, which made its omission on the iPhone that much more aggravating, however the elegance of copy-paste on the iPhone when it finally arrived more then made up for its momentary absence, in hindsight, and solidified the iPhone UX lead over any other smartphones until Android “Jelly Bean”.

For instance I never figured out the rules which determined when the crown could be used for what and when only touch or indeed “force touch”1 was needed. I feel like navigation should have been designed to work exclusively using digital crown and button, enabling watch use on a cold day when wearing gloves. The multitouch display could be used for enhanced non-essential interactions.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but I was struck while using the watch that it requires more hands than the phone to operate, namely two. In particular I thought I would use passbook on the watch while travelling but ultimately I used my phone as I only had one hand, the other being occupied carrying my bag.

A final and the most egregious example of lack of polish is time travel. Stolen straight from the Pebble Time which had a far superior execution of the feature, I found time travel on the Apple Watch to be utterly unusable and useless.

Ultimately my thoughts were neatly summarised in Walt’s above mentioned article thusly:

The smartwatch isn’t smart enough to be essential, to feel like a natural part of daily life.

What Next?

I must preface this section by boldly stating that wearables will not reach smartphones’ unprecedented ubiquity:

Over the next few years almost all of the people who don’t yet have a phone will get one, and almost all of the phones on earth will become smartphones. A decade ago some of that was subject to debate - today it isn’t. What all those people pay for data, and how they charge their phones, may be a challenge, but the smartphone itself is close to a universal product for humanity - the first the tech industry has ever had. – Benedict Evans

It is becoming increasingly clear that not only traditional PCs but also tablets are obsolete and that smartphones are the one and only computing device that a vast majority of people of earth will ever have or need:

Further proof (as if it was needed) of the power of smart phones: I shot, edited and published https://youtu.be/HmYOpP-06dA using only my iPhone. – Yours truly

Wearables are doomed from the onset to be used only by a select few, the richest people on earth, who can afford one and desire an additional marginally useful personal electronic device.

I am one of those richest people. Despite all the vitriol I have poured on the watch with these lines, I am still tempted to buy one for its fitness tracking alone.

Fitness is fun, but a first world issue. Only the richest people on earth, who have and eat too much, need another expense device to gamify fitness, to help them be healthier.

There is another opportunity I can see for wearables in a first world niche. Just as there are plenty of circumstances where I now happily leave my laptop behind and rely on my smartphone. There are still circumstances where, were it convenient, I would take my Nokia 3310 with me instead of my smartphone. This is the opportunity I foresee for wearables.

The Nokia 3310 was my first mobile and established itself as a rock solid device (although it wasn’t waterproof). Imagine a waterproof wearable with the ability to make and receive calls (using handsfree) and crude short messaging (using dictation). This is exactly the device I want with me when I go to the beach! I don’t want to put my $800 smartphone at risk of getting scratched or wet or stolen from my bag. I am at the beach so I also have no intention of doing any emailing or browsing. All I want is the ability to receive messages or make calls in case of an emergency.

I will leave you with this thought:

I’m a big fan of ‘toys’ you can’t use for ‘real work’ - they’re generally the future. – Ben Evans

From my first smartphone, I knew I could get real work done on it, and ignored the naysayers taunts of it being a ‘toy’. I don’t see it for wearables, but maybe I’m wrong.

  1. I’m surprised they haven’t changed this to “3D touch” already.