The Apple Watch was just announced and the keynote left me a little confused. The biggest issue was they didn’t tell me “why?”. Why do I need a wrist wearable? The best case they made was fitness tracking but this is not solely a fitness device. Everyone assumed that Apple would figure out the answer to ‘why?’ but they didn’t, at least not for me. It’s not good enough to be the “best” if the category itself is useless. (I am not convinced it’s the best either.) Portable music sucked before the iPod but the idea was there. Everyone wanted their music on the go. Smartphones sucked before the iPhone but the idea was there. Tablets sucked before the iPad but the larger screen made using them nicer than the iPhone for some things. What about wrist based wearable computing? Why do I need this? I am all for tech geekery but without answering this question I feel like the product is under baked.
Note: I am not a ‘day one Apple hater.’ Meaning I usually like Apple product releases. Many people rip them to shreds online for “not having a keyboard,” or “not having a USB port” but I always find their new products interesting and intriguing. Maybe I won’t buy the first generation but the idea seems there. That is not my experience here.
I am all about constructive criticism not hate but I have some real concerns watching the announcement of the Apple Watch. Sure I have never seen one in person but I have never seen a Moto 360 or Android Wear in real life and think they look a hell of a lot better. I am not one of those “Steve Jobs would have never done that” people but I say that now because the Apple Watch appears to be unfocused and half-baked. It looks like they needed someone to tell them no, to refine, and most importantly to say the technology just isn’t ready yet. Here is why I think that:
- Why? - What problem does the watch solve? It’s kind of worrying Apple didn’t answer this in the keynote. Fitness monitoring seems to be the best answer but the battery life is too poor to monitor your sleep. A big downside for me. What about everything else? If the biggest advantage is “not having to pull out your phone” that is an issue.
- Battery - Current battery tech only allows for (maybe) a days use. The watch itself also looks thick. I’m not surprised that it needed to be that big to hold the battery it required, I am surprised that Apple released a product that I didn’t find svelte looking. Battery technology is the main reason many of our current technologies are being held back but I would have hoped Apple would have said “It’s just not there yet.” Instead of “We will make sacrifices to get this out.”
- Fashion > Technology - A watch is obviously a fashionable item. I would bet today more people wear watches to show their status and wealth than to tell the time. (At least in North America) The multiple faces and bands are a smart way to allow people to customize the Watch to their taste but it goes back to why. If the answer is ‘looking cool’ there is a problem there.
- Unfocused - Along with not answering why we need a smart watch they seemed very scattershot with the features. Notifications, navigation and health tracking all seem pretty useful but not innovative. Photos? Are you kidding me. This is the first time in recent memory that Apple has released something and said OK you guys figure out why you need this.
- Hardware Design - Everyones taste is different but I have always liked Apples hardware design and I did not like this at all. The big button, the fat Digital Crown, it looks both rounded and bloated, worst of all is it’s square. I realize there are square watches but the design seems uninspired. I am very surprised they didn’t see the announcement of the Moto 360 and go “Holy shit, we have to go back to the drawing board.”
- Software Design - I actually like the home screen. Having never tried it, it looks like the icons are too small but visually I like it. The rest of the design made me wonder what year it was. Animated butterflies and flowers, black backgrounds with coloured text and lines, and worst of all the emojis. I think the idea of the emoji manipulating was smart but it looks like butt. If the black/dark design is to save battery life, like if the screen is AMOLED, it goes back to my point about the battery. Another possible reason is to make it more readable in the sun, but whatever the reason I am not a fan.
- Me Too Product - Possibly worst of all this feels very me too. There are only a handful of smart watches out there and Apple has been working on this for years and yet it feels very “me too”. It doesn’t come into a market and redefine it or set a new standard. The Digital Crown is smart and so are the interchangeable watchbands but it doesn’t really do anything that defines the category. It seems like the obvious answer for ‘How would you make a computer for your wrist?’.
- It Looks Like Tech - A wrist is fashionable and utilitarian. Why are watches round? It’s a natural shape for a dial. That has become the norm for wrist based technology/fashion. Yes square watches exist but this looks like a piece of technology strapped to your wrist rather than a svelte timepiece.
If you want to stop here that’s cool. I am going to go into why I dislike certain things, why I like certain things, and some ideas for what I would have done differently.
General impressions from the keynote
- This is personal taste. Take it as opinion.
It does not look good. The watch face looks very original iPhone. Rounded metal and kind of bloated looking. (I was much less of an Apple and design aficionado when it launched but I was never a fan of the industrial design of it.)
The square shape surprised me. I honestly thought they would do something circular. When I saw the Moto 360 I thought ‘Well shit, if Apple was working on something square they have to go back to the drawing board.’ I realize there are many square watches but I think the vast majority of people prefer round.
The data crown seems very interesting. It really seemed like out of the box thinking to use something that has been on watches forever. (That wasn’t sarcasm.) It also looks too big and is kinda ugly for me. When I think Apple design I think sleek, this is not. The other button looks way too big as well.
The bands look interesting. I think it was extremely smart to make them easily interchangeable to allow the Apple Watch to work in any situation.
The stethoscope charger looks interesting but I would have rather seen something like a Lightning cable built into the band, with the actual plug acting as part of the clasp. I completely understand why this isn’t the case but it would have eliminated the need to carry a separate cable.
The size seemed a bit of an enigma. It looked good on on peoples wrists but fat and clunky when it showed the watch alone.
It does not look good. With the exception of the home screen with the circular icons I was not impressed with any of the software design-wise.
Every watch face I saw looked very pre-iOS 7. With the exception of the simple analogue face, the butterflies, the Earth, the data filled, the dancing Mickey Mouse, all looked tacky and outdated. They look like watch faces from the previous generation of design. Not a fan. More importantly I don’t think most people care that much about the time. I understand attention to detail but when the detail is going to only be used once, it may be time to rethink. (The solar system and moon phases part of the demo.)
The dichotomy between circular icons and the square face seemed odd. I think square icons would have looked worse but it still looks odd to me. Especially because the circle is prevalent elsewhere in the design.
I was impressed with some ideas like shaping emojis rather than selecting them from a big list but holy shit did they look like butt.
Selecting apps seems weird in the current iteration. Don’t they have rules against tapping tiny icons in their iPhone and iPad design guidelines? Maybe they will use a live magnified scrubber where the icon you are currently touching grows bigger but I didn’t see it.
The colour scheme and app design seemed even weirder. It was very dark and looked almost early Android to me. It was kind of skeuomorphic and kind of like what movies portrayed as futuristic design in the 2000’s. The dark colour scheme may have been to make it more viewable in daylight or because they used an AMOLED screen that only powers the pixels it needs to show but whatever the reason I was not a fan. The app design also seemed very weird from trying to do too much (like browsing your Twitter feed) to having tiny touch elements (the home screen and the colour switcher for Apples watch messaging app).
The software seemed very unfocused from both a design and a usability focus. There was way to much scrolling the vertical page for my tastes as well. The argument between should a wrist wearable be tied to your phone or should it be separate first with some connectivity to add functionality. I don’t have a problem with a tethered experience, with some exceptions, but the way Apple did it in this case seems really weird. In my opinion the wearable should do some things very well without a phone needed. Nothing super complicated for the user just fitness, health, sleep tracking, mobile payments, and simple toggles for the Internet of Things connected devices. Mostly passive or things you’re unlikely to do that often, like turn up the heat or start your coffee maker when you put the watch on in the morning. The added functionality from the phone empowers it to do more amazing things but is still limited compared to a phone. In the demo I saw that I could access my Twitter feed and look at trending topics. Really? Some people might like sitting at desk and flipping through Twitter but it seems ridiculous to me. To me the added functionality from a phone includes notifications, quick replies, Siri input, directions sent from the phone, simple interactions with apps like actionable smart notifications, bus/train/plain tickets, etc. It should enhance the experience and make pulling your phone out for that one thing you need non-existent. If I am pulling out my phone just to show the boarding agent my ticket that could be replaced by using the watch. Pulling out my phone to reply to a bunch of texts seems worth it compared to dealing with Siri on my wrist. (Their smart replies do seem ingenious and I have been wanting something like this for years on iOS. Not so much for a reply but to parse your message and add things like links to the menu for the restaurant you’re talking about automatically.)
The vertical scroll remains a big part of the user interface which seems very odd to me. If you can’t distill information down to the point where it fits on one, or two screens max, it doesn’t feel right to put it on the tiny screen of a watch. Their press and hold seems like a good idea but confusing among the vertical scrolling, the horizontal card scrolling, the Digital Crown and your voice.
- The other button brought up a list of your friends in the demo. You can press on a friend to access the watch messaging. Why? Quick communication shortcuts are nice but I think a dedicated Siri or action button might have been better served. Need to input anything into your watch? You press the button.
There were some potentially useful things announced as well. The idea that you can use the Apple Watch as a remote for your Apple TV was one of them. Using it as a viewfinder for your camera was another one. Paying with your watch seems cool but odd since it doesn’t have Touch ID. Handing off things to your phone is a good idea.
The Potential To Create New Languages
The haptic feedback along with the visual messaging features shown make me think that we may see short hand languages form between small groups or even 2 people. The obvious heart for ‘I love you.’ But it will grow as people use it. 3 dots for come get me. A bullseye for ‘I got home OK’ etc. This seemed like both the most interesting and the most “out-there” feature.
The Moto 360
The Moto 360 blew everyone away with its circular design. The biggest difference between seeing the Moto 360 and the Apple Watch for the first time was how much I wanted the former and how disinterested I was in the latter. The Moto 360 excited me, Android Wear looked cool and I really want to try them both out. The thing is Motorola created a round watch for a square OS. It’s not their fault and I am sure Google will optimize it for round screens if they sell well. The thing is Motorola created a beautiful, if thick, smart watch and worked with the fact the OS wasn’t really designed with a round display in mind. It may support round screens but we have used square/rectangular screens for a long time and the design reflects that somewhat. Besides it was designed for both round and square displays. Apple had the luxury of controlling everything. Apple Watch runs Watch OS which they designed themselves. They could have said we are going to create a round display and create a completely new way to design our UI to work with the round screen. It wouldn’t have been easy and maybe it wouldn’t have been any better but would have been a more innovative design.
The cheapest version will be $349 American so probably $20 bucks more expensive in Canada. Cheap for a nice watch, expensive for a wearable. This is especially true because you can wear the same watch for decades with no reason to upgrade unless it breaks or your style changes. With a computer that isn’t the case. They get slow, new tech is added, they get thinner and sleeker, new features are only available on new models, etc. $400+ bucks every couple of years seems a hard pill to swallow. Some will be content but if it follows the same trajectory as the iPhone and iPad the first couple iterations will be significantly better.
This Has To Be A Smash Hit
This is the first non-Jobs new product. I am not one of the “Steve would never have done that” crowd but many pundits/analysts are. In the coming days we will see a barrage of industry people denouncing the Apple Watch as any flavour of bad, it happens with any new Apple launch. What usually happens next is the product sells a mind boggling large number and the analysts back off until the next launch. The thing is I am sure the first version will sell well, Apple fanboys alone will buy a few million, but I am not sure we will see continued growth next year. Having never touched an Apple Watch I am completely underwhelmed for all the wrong reasons. Usually Apple plays it safe and we see the absolute distillation of a product. The iPhone launched without 3rd party support, the Apple TV had a paltry few channels, and the original iPod needed a Mac do do anything but listen to music. I am used to hoping for the moon and getting a really nice pebble that will grow each year. This time it feels like the opposite is true. We will see how this plays out but unfortunately Apple can’t fail at this because they are a public company with final investors. If this fails pundits mock Apple and say “See I told you they were doomed without Steve.” Investors see that and dump stock and then Apple has to deal with that. It will sell well this year but I think next year is the better test.
What I Think A Smart Watch Should Be (Right Now)
My answer to the big question why do I need this? To enhance your life. So how do you do that? I am not sold on the screen yet. A tiny screen on your wrist isn’t going to do anything your phone can’t and the battery technology just isn’t there to have multi-day use so why have a screen at all? To add minor convenience of not having to pull out your phone? That isn’t worth $400, at least to me. So what can a wrist wearable do that your phone can’t? It has advantage of being strapped to your body. Why is that useful?
- It gives your digital devices a pretty good idea of where you are at all times.
- It can monitor your health and sleep.
- It can be packed with sensors to give your digital brain more data.
You don’t need to interact with it, but it gives you a solid advantage over not using it with things like smart homes, fitness tracking, etc. It’s the data collector for your digital life. The battery life is insane and you wear it everywhere.
That is the smart wearable of the next couple years in my opinion. When the battery tech is there to make a wearable with a screen go for a week without recharging I’d revisit the issue.
What about notifications? That seems like the big reason everyone wants a smart watch, right? They might be useful but do you really need to spend multiple hundreds of dollars to avoid pulling your phone out of your pocket?
I may be an armchair designer spouting off with what a company should have done. It’s easy to sit at a desk and complain or theorize it’s very hard to make something like the Apple Watch but I think many of my worries are legitimate. Apple never answered ‘Why?’ and that is a problem. I will wait and see what it’s actually like but wanted to get out my first thoughts. The Apple Watch seems very unfocused which is very disappointing. Apple failing to answer 'why we need this' is even worse.