Is That an Apple Watch?
The whole thing was a gamble. We1 had both mentioned our curiosity and disdain for the Apple Watch when it was first given its overly glamorous introduction last fall. We both have iPhones and Macs and iPads and, more or less, are Apple enthusiasts, but here the company goes, introducing yet another new product line that begs daily attention. Another product to charge every night at your bedside with a wholly different cable. Another device that seemingly does what your other device does, but not quite (it isn’t nearly as redundant as the iPad’s existence), and with signficantly less power. Since neither of us had the ability to demo it before ordering it, we didn’t know what to expect from the new device and its technologies — which seemed crucial for an accessory that was to be worn on your wrist as an extension of your phone and as a fashion piece aligning to the wearer’s taste. It also had new hardware features that the industry had never seen in a product before -- the Taptic engine and the ForceTouch screen.
But we ordered two of them anyway. They arrived a few days apart, and it wasn't until we had both of them, using them every day, that the device’s role became apparent. The Apple Watch works as advertised. It’s really well designed. It looks and functions great. What else do you want to know? This isn’t the next big thing — but it certainly could be the precursor to the next big things. If you want an everyday watch that has the capability for a lot of personality and flexibility, this is it. It’s more functional than those trendy Michael Kors watches, and it’s way more powerful than that Casio watch you’ve had since elementary school. It’s a sign of things to come: the useful accessorization of technology, starting with the revolution of a fundamental, practical need: telling the time.
You’re wary of Apple always hyping up their next thing. Or their latest thing. Or their updated thing.
Yes, this is their latest thing. It’s mostly a souped up watch, and this is how it works: You strap it to one of your wrists, you pair it with your iPhone, you unlock it for the day, and it connects to the Internet by staying in sync via Bluetooth until you take it off. If you get a notification via your iPhone, your watch will lightly tap you on the wrist instead of your phone bleeping obnoxiously or vibrating in your pocket. You want to check the time? You raise or twist your wrist and the watchface activates to tell you the time. You want to check the weather? If set accordingly, you can check it the same way. You want to know what’s next on your calendar? Same thing. You want to know much you’ve moved around all day? Same. Essentially, the watch is like a dashboard for your everyday, need-to-know functions. It respects the watch heritage by being a glanceable device you wear for function and style, but adds a roster of modern conveniences. It begins to fall short when it tries to do anything beyond at-a-glance information (such as hosting an ecosystem of apps that are not as intuitive as their iPhone counterparts). But most importantly, the Apple Watch also hints at at a future state that exceeds mere software interfaces — it gravitates towards this just as the iPhone attempted to do a short 6 months before it, but in a way that the watch may prove being better at: interacting with a connected world via hardware (and without an interface at all).
So it tells the time and lets you know about a few other easily viewable stats about the environment you live in — what else? Why spend $350+ on this? How about we break this down into three different areas, and you decide for yourself:
Everything the watch does falls into one of these disciplinary areas. Apple is hedging its bets that the watch does all three mostly better than the iPhone, but more importantly, easier than any other device. There are intrinsic benefits for simply having a watch in lieu of a phone for many of these areas, too — it’s far easier to check a watch for the time than pull out your phone and press a button to check it. Same goes for tracking fitness - the latest iPhones track steps and trajectories, but what if you leave it at your desk and walk to grab a coffee?
To execute well on these disciplines, the watch tries to excel in convenience, personality, and flexibilty. These concepts run thick through each of its core disciplines, and will contribute heavily in justifying its existence over the next several years.
If we know anything about fashion, it tends to be about preference. Watches tend to fall into this area — they are, and have traditionally functioned as, an accessory. They tell time. But when you’ve bought a watch in the past, you’ve had to decide on a very specific configuration — digital/analog, colors, chronograph, placement, things called “complications” (that the rest of us only know because Apple pushed that term into the mainstream), strap types, and a few other things we’re probably missing. Customization is important. Apple gets that, which is why their watch is unlike any device they’ve made thus far — it’s heavily focused on transforming based on the user.
There are a few ways the Apple Watch is customizable, and they all make the device more fun to use in a way that previous Apple products failed to do — it conforms to the user’s personal style. You get to choose how the watch tells time — there are a myriad of watch faces that can be selected and heavily customized with additional info panels (called complications) by Force Touch presses on the watchface (literally pushing harder on the screen initiates Apple’s latest technology). This feature was by far the most used in the first few weeks we owned them — every day, we’d tweak our complications, reposition data, change the color, change the face. We both eventually settled on a variant of Modular, which is the digital-heavy watch face with the most flexibility in complications.
Customization carries through on the hardware side as well. Apple engineered the watch itself to interface with a variety of straps, designed both by Apple and by third parties. They designed a simple system for swapping out straps: you press in a button on both ends of the watch’s underside and slide the strap through its track, simply sliding another one in its place to change the arrangement. While we don’t own the link bracelet, apparently they also made adjusting this popular but notoriously annoying style an easy affair — no jeweler required.
With these two options, Apple has made its watch design hugely configurable, allowing for personalization that you can only do via cases for their other products. The neutrality of the core Apple Watch device lends well to this philosophy — it’s so well designed in its minimalism that any customization transforms it entirely.
Early on, we found that the Apple Watch shines as a communicator. It may not be apparent in the ads or walkthrough videos, but the ‘side button’ does more than allow for gimmicks -- it permits a wholly new way of earning someone’s attention: lightly tapping them from a distance, and sending brief thoughts or messages directly to them, is a new kind of communication method. If you are using the Apple Watch solo, you're missing out. Or at least for a while. After the first month, we’ve seen a decrease in sketch and tap usage, but it is delightful on occasion.
Communication is one of the primary purposes of the watch, or so we gather from Apple’s blatant use of the communication function by its positioning of one of only two buttons for such a usage. The ‘side button’ launches you into a radial presentation of your favorite contacts, any one of which you can tap and send a finger-drawn sketch, emoji, tap, or text/audio message to. The watch makes it somewhat easy to do this, though the radial interface is finicky, and demands precise use of the Digital Crown (Apple’s modern riff on the traditional crown mechanism of watches before it).
But the watch communicates in more ways than just through the ‘side button’. It is, as we mentioned, a direct recipient of all notifications that funnel through your iPhone. Being able to glance at texts to see if you need to respond is an example of the fluidity in its design to provide a reasonable solution to first world problems like having your phone inconveniently in your pocket. But it really is useful in practice. And so is Siri — possibly the most important component of the watch’s communication ecosystem. Apple has made Siri faster and less obtrusive (e.g., no sound feedback), seamlessly integrating its functionality into a long-press of the Digital Crown to navigate all digital instructions with your voice. We haven’t arrived at the movie Her’s possibly inevitable future, but we’re getting closer. Apple is realizing that future interface design isn’t always going to be about interacting with software — it’ll be about talking to AI. And this is where the Apple Watch begins to show its cards.
You can use Siri on the watch in all the ways that you can via iPhone, but there is something slightly more intuitive about using it on your wrist than on your phone — you can, for instance, raise your wrist and say “Hey Siri” to prompt a dialogue of instructions, which works exceptionally well. It also doesn’t chatter back to you, like on the iPhone, so this is slightly less conspicuous than when you start a similar track with Siri on the iPhone and that voice banters back to you at speaker-volume (never really understood that functionality choice).
The Watch also has NFC and Bluetooth, which provides it with interesting flexibility. The watch has Apple Pay functionality built in (which doesn’t require an iPhone present), which means that you can go out for a run and pay for a water on the way back without having to carry your wallet with you. WHile it may sound trivial, that’s a game changer. That’s actually badass. You can pay for whatever you want without your wallet. Think about it. And that’s only the beginning — the watch having NFC and Bluetooth opens up its functionality beyond just paying for things — Starwood hotels is one of the first hospitality companies to integrate the Apple Watch into its ecosystem for opening hotel room doors, and Tesla allows you to remote start and open its cars for use. Now apply that to HomeKit (Apple’s software development kit for the home) and multiply the functionality even further — watch into a room and have the house set the mood with lighting, or adjust the temperature, or start the oven, or whatever the hell you want. The watch is about to become your key to the digital environment. And in that respect, Apple Watch exists a few too many years soon — but eventually, the environent will catch up, and we’ll all be living in the future we thought we would be back in the 90s.
Fitness: Slave to the Watch
The most impactful part of the Apple Watch has, surprisingly, been its fitness tracking. The watch’s sensors are able to track a number of activities, including movement, heartbeat, standing, and skin connectivity (for locking the device). It compiles the critical components into its Activity app, which tracks three primary data via colored concentric circles — Move, Exercise, and Stand. Little did we know, activity on the watch would become the bane of our foreseeable existence — getting those circle metrics to complete everyday is a kind of gamification of daily life we never thought we’d care much about, but its design and rewarding implementation is addicting.
The fitness aspect of the Apple Watch has already made us better functioning humans — as frivolous as it sounds, we’ve been taking extra walks, reducing the number of shortcuts, and avoiding stagnation in the apartment. We’ve even cut it close on some nights, embarassing ourselves and others around us by flailing our hands in wild attempts to raise our heartbeats in the hopes of closing the Move and Exercise goals. It works.
Calculating activity performance is beyond our expertise, but we’ve noticed that by having your iPhone with you, and frequently using the Exercise app (to specify a session of Walking Outdoors, Running, etc.), the watch learns your activity and improves its calculations. For instance, it smartly guesses how much we’re moving and exercising without having to run its heartbeat monitor constantly when we pick up pace via its pedometer tracking. This is a huge win for accuracy and battery life, things that could have severely limited the watch if Apple hadn’t taken the right kind of precautions and planning to guarantee adaptability for improvements.
For now, the watch is configured in a way that calculates daily activity well enough without resorting to some kind of futuristic body implant. And by understanding your daily activity, we become more conscious of living and operating under our everyday conditions. Do I walk enough to the bus and office every day to justify that heavy breakfast? Do I move enough while at work to burn off those drinks? The role of supportive fitness apps comes into play only as a means to manually track caloric intake and weigh against the data the watch tracks — again, the system hasn’t been as accurate as it is now with the watch balancing data against whatever you are able to input into a consumption system. But even if you aren’t doing that, it’s rewarding to know that you’ve completed your goals to feel good about your activity by the time you hit the sack.
A Reference for Living Life
If there’s one thing that the Apple Watch does better than traditional watches, it’s providing an advanced window into your awareness of reality. Beyond just telling the time, the Apple Watch can successfully present upcoming events, outside temperature, your current daily activity, inbound notifications, and human outreach. It’s symbolic of the evolution of everyday equipment we use to accessorize and refine daily existence. The Apple Watch isn’t a half-assed iPhone you wear on your wrist — it’s modern timepiece that goes beyond simply telling the “time” — it’s a device that gauges your daily trudge through life.