On May 12th of this year, I will have been using Apple Watch for a full year. Since many others are already at their one-year assessments , I figured it was time to write a bit about the device and how it fits into my life as well. My outlook on this device is probably a bit different from what you’ve been reading lately, so I thought I’d put it down here, in case you were looking for another perspective.
This piece ended up getting quite long, as I have quite a bit to say about the Watch. So I’m breaking out a few sections and putting them into separate pieces, for the sake of respecting your attention. This piece will focus mainly on what others have seen as flaws with the Watch. In another piece, I’ll talk about my personal stats and use of the Watch, the bands I like, etc. And in yet another, I’ll get into what I’d like to see in future iterations of the software and hardware.
I’ve heard a lot of negativity surrounding apps on Apple Watch. How they are launched, how poorly they perform. How too many apps try to do too much. Whether or not they should even exist. And on and on. Most of these complaints, however, don’t strike me as problems that can’t be easily solved over time.
Pressing the Digital Crown (home button) and tapping on an icon on the resulting screen to launch an app is not unintuitive. Especially not to someone who owns an iPhone. And, as luck would have it, everyone who owns an Apple Watch by definition owns an iPhone. Honestly, I have yet to hear anyone come up with anything easier for people to understand as an alternative.
Argue that the icons could be larger to make them easier to tap. Argue that arranging the icons on the Watch itself is clunky. Of course, argue that the apps could launch a hell of a lot faster. But saying that there’s anything “wrong” with the way apps are launched on the Apple Watch strikes me as bizarre.
Yes, your Watch is not your phone, and some things about the interface are obviously not directly portable from the phone to the Watch, just as they weren’t from the desktop to the phone. But launching apps from a screen of icons—that’s not an problem that needs solving. That’s familiar and convenient. Nothing to reinvent here.
Forget whatever advice you’ve heard about putting your most used apps on the far edges of the honeycomb. Arrange your most-used apps around the watch app, so you never have to scroll the home screen at all. Without scrolling, you will have room for 16 apps (plus the watch in the center) that can be easily tapped. The targets are small, but I find them rather forgiving. On the 38-mm this is a bit trickier, of course, but on the 42, I have zero issues getting the right app on the first try every time. I can even usually hit the teeny icons around the perimeter with great accuracy, which gives me another 8–10 apps that I can get to without scrolling. Since I’ve rearranged my home screen this way, I haven’t had to scroll it more than a few times in the past several months.
Getting back to the watch face is as simple as a double click on the crown, or, if the Watch wasn’t the last app you’ve used, a click to home, then another click after waiting a half second. Why do people find this difficult? Seems like a nitpick to me.
For all the complaining I’ve heard about the design of the app launching interface on the Watch, I don’t see much room for improvement, beyond maybe having an option for larger icons, which would be easier to tap for those who have trouble. Of course, this would mean fewer apps available without scrolling, but I don’t think most customers are going to need more than eight or nine apps, anyway.
I’ve heard some say that Glances are far more useful and easy to launch than apps, and that Apple should have made apps work the way Glances do. Again, I find this argument strange.
Glances are arranged in single screens, and you switch between them with a swipe left or right. Unless you have a perfect picture in your head of where each Glance lies in the line, you have no easy way of knowing whether or not the Glance you want is to the left or the right of where you currently are. The Watch helpfully remembers the last Glance you accessed, but getting to a different Glance is usually a guessing game.
Swipe left, left, left. Oh wait, that one is over on the right. Swipe right, right, right. No thanks.
This line of Glances concept is demonstrably worse than having a grid of icons.
Install any more than five or six Glances, and the system breaks down even further. Whereas on the home screen of apps, I can easily access at least 16 apps with ease in one view with one click and a tap, with Glances, I’m swiping several times to get where I want to go. Often with more swipes than I actually needed.
Combine that with slow updating speed (a problem everywhere on the Watch), and Glances quickly became one of the the least used features of the Watch for me. I’ve had much better luck using just complications and the home screen of apps.
For me, Glances are great for checking my battery life (which I almost never do) forcing the Watch to check my current heart rate, controlling playback of a podcast or song, or putting the device into Airplane Mode. The types of things I do in Control center on my iPhone, basically. Anything beyond that is usually a waste of time, as an app or complication will get the job done better and faster.
Many have said that complications are what apps should have been, and that developers should concentrate on making great complications, rather than worrying about making the app itself the focus.
Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: You have, at most, five slots on a Watch face for a complication. Some faces only offer 4 (plus the date in the center which is locked to Apple’s calendar and thus not available to third-party apps). Still other faces (the majority of them, in fact) offer fewer or no complications at all.
So if you build your app thinking that it will mainly be used as a complication, you are betting that you will be at least more useful than all but four other apps on the customer’s Watch. Or that people will be willing to give up those cool jellyfish animations just to use your app. Good luck with that.
The fact of the matter is, I only want certain kinds of information on my Watch face. The weather, my current activity, and the date (Fantastical’s date, of course, so I can use it to link directly to the app). I usually don’t use the other slots even when I have them, because I find having too much information on my Watch face distracting. Most of the time I really just want to know what time it is.
So if I’m your customer, you basically have to make me want to know what’s happening in your app more than I care about the weather. What are the chances you’re going to pull that off?
As far as I’m concerned, if your app’s complication doesn’t display information that is being updated at least hourly, make a complication, by all means, but don’t expect me to use it. If it doesn’t display information at all, and it’s just a link to your app, you doubly shouldn’t expect me to use it. I don’t need an icon that conveys nothing on my Watch face. Your app icon is only one click of the crown away.
Few people complain about notifications on Apple Watch. This is one area that Apple seems to have universally nailed. Can it be improved? I’m sure. But it’s pretty good already.
For some, getting a vibration on their phone is close enough that the extra taps on the wrist don’t add any value to them. That’s fair. For me, it’s been a game changer. Not that I’m more informed now because I always respond to those taps, by the way. But rather, because a quick glance allows me to skip over a less important notification much faster. Or, even better, since I have paired down which applications are allowed to tap me vs. vibrate on the phone, I can tell much more easily when a notification is actually likely to be important.
Add to that the ability to apply actions to notifications, and you end up with some apps that I never need to launch on my phone or on the Watch anymore. Just respond to the notification and get on with your day.
The Dreaded Waiting
Okay, time to finally agree with most people. The Watch is painfully slow at times. Almost everything that frustrates me about the Watch comes down to speed, in fact. Waiting for information to update, waiting for apps to launch, having the screen turn off before anything useful happens. My arm getting tired of holding up my wrist, so I just pull out my phone. This is where the Watch experience absolutely does not live up to its potential.
The way I see it, this is not as much a design problem as it is a physics problem. There are a number of different ways the speed could be improved, and all of them are guaranteed to happen—eventually.
The first, of course, is the hardware.
As much of a marvel as Apple’s little S1 chip is, it’s definitely too slow for the kinds of things that the Watch is trying to do. I’m not a hardware expert, but I’ve got to believe that the processor gets better with version 2 of the Watch, version 3, and so on. This is a problem that only time can fix. But it will get fixed.
Another issue is Bluetooth communication. It takes too long for your Watch to ask the phone to wake up an app, get some updated info from your pocket, send it back to the Watch, and then update the Watch display. I don’t know to what extent this can be further optimized in software, but I have to think eventually, as the Watch can process more and more on its own, or even communicate with WiFi and cellular networks in future versions without going to the phone, that will also improve. Background updating is bound to be coming, as well.
Further, it needs to be said that some of the reason for all the slowness lies with the developers of third party apps. Note, I said reason, not fault, because I do think that optimizing for this new platform is not easy. But it can be done. How do I know this? Dark Sky.
Anyone who tried the original version of the Dark Sky Apple Watch app and gave up on it probably doesn’t know this, but Dark Sky is actually really great now on Apple Watch. The fist versions were anything but.
I remember launching the app on my Watch, then waiting. And waiting. Then tapping on the screen because it had gone to sleep. Then waiting some more. Then giving up. It was monumentally frustrating. Often, the weather would never get updated.
I even gave up on Dark Sky for a while, which is a shame, because it had the best design of all the weather apps by far. When it did work, it displayed the information exactly how I wanted it to. But an app that doesn’t work 90% of the time is still a useless app, no matter how nice it displays information. So I opted to try Carrot Weather for a while.
Carrot Weather is clever. It’s a good design as well. The humor isn’t my cup of tea, and the information it displays is not exactly how I’d prefer it. But here’s the most important thing: it works. I tap on the complication, and it launches the app and updates it fairly quickly. I couldn’t deny that it was doing the job better than Dark Sky was, at least at that time.
But I kept Dark Sky on my phone, because I obviously still preferred it there. And low and behold, a few weeks later, a new update was released, claiming “improved Apple Watch performance”. Okay. Time to give it another try. And presto. Like magic, the app was now working a million times better on my Watch. And it’s been great ever since.
Sure, it still occasionally takes more than a few seconds to load updated data, but it handles errors better, and it works far more consistently than it did before.
What does this mean? It means that at least part of the reason why apps aren’t great at performance is that developers haven’t mastered optimizing their apps yet. And who could blame them? We’re only a year into the Watch at this point. The first months of which we couldn’t even run code on the Watch itself. Few people can call themselves experts at Apple Watch development. Only some will want to become experts at this level of resource pinching.
Combine faster processors with more experienced developers, and it’s easy to see that app speed and reliability won’t be a problem forever on Apple Watch. This is another case of time sorting these issues out.
Where Are the Killer Third-Party Apps?
Finding good apps that I actually use often is a mixed bag. How is this Apple’s fault? It isn’t. It’s going to take time, but more and more useful apps will come along, and new sensors and tech built into future versions of the Watch will give you more reasons to look for great apps. In the meantime, there are some apps already that I find very useful on my Watch. Even without most of these, I’d still be fine, but I consider these early examples of the Watch’s potential.
Apps I currently use quite a bit: Dark Sky, OmniFocus, Fantastical, Hours, Sleep++. Some others I use less frequently but I think are done well: Activity++, Tally, Deliveries, Transit, Vigil, and MacID. Of course the built-in Stopwatch and Activities app come in handy as well.
Things I don’t bother trying to do on my Watch, beyond getting notifications: Slack, email, games, music, pictures. I do occasionally respond to messages via dictation, which works remarkably well, but for the most part, all of these activities are just better suited to the iPhone.
And that’s okay. Just getting a tap on my wrist that I have a new email and telling me who it’s from is enough of a benefit compared to always checking my phone. I don’t mind using my phone to actually respond.
In general, the Watch shines when it doesn’t try to do more than it should. That’s a fine line to walk, which is why it’s been a struggle for third parties to develop truly great products for the Watch. Again, give developers time. They’re smart people.
Restricting developers in the short term would not have saved developers from having to learn these lessons. The first crop of Watch apps were not going to be ideal, regardless.
I think too many people are comparing the current crop of Watch apps to the amazing apps we have on iPhone and iPad. People have been developing for iPhone since 2008. The Watch is still a new beast, and it’s far more constrained.
So Why Didn’t Apple Wait?
Many other arguments against Apple Watch have boiled down to some form or another of Apple launching this device before it was ready for prime time. Easy to say from your living room chair, right?
How quickly we forget how “doomed” Apple was for not having released any new product lines since Steve Jobs had died. How quickly we forget how many people thought Tim Cook was a lousy CEO because there was no Watch from Apple.
Should Apple have not given in to that pressure? Maybe. But here’s the thing: Apple obviously thought that sending little hand-drawn pictures was a big enough feature to warrant a dedicated hardware button. Perhaps now, armed with a year of data, they can reassess that decision in the next update to the OS. If you never put a product into the hands of real people, you can’t learn anything about how people will use it and what they’ll want from it. If you don’t give it to third-party developers quickly, you miss the innovations that those developers will create in those critical early years.
I think a valid argument could be made that third-party apps should have been held off until at least watchOS 2 was released, thus skipping over the whole extensions situation. But that doesn’t mean Apple Watch wouldn’t have had built-in apps. And it doesn’t mean that third-party apps would necessarily be better at this point.
And it’s not like the competition has been standing still. Apple is a different company, facing different challenges, than it was back when it was meticulously slaving over the original iPhone.
The Watch is flawed, no doubt. Just like the original iPad, the iPhone, the iPod, and the Mac were before it. But there’s no question in my mind, one year into wearing this thing every day, that it’s a device that has a bright future. The vast majority of Apple customers will never witness these growing pains. They will buy version four or five. Don’t let your early adopter frustrations cloud your perspective on how most people view these products in the long run.
The Watch is a tool that is great at a few very specific things. It is not a replacement for your phone. There will be more great uses for the Watch as time goes on and the world gets more connected with various wireless devices. I think it’s already well on its way.
That does mean that to many, for now, the Watch seems like an optional device, rather than essential one. It all depends on your needs and wants as a user. For me, the Watch already has all it needs to justify being on my wrist all day and night. For others, it may take some new features that come along a year or more down the road. For people who love their old analog Watches, it will probably take even longer, as their wrists are already occupied. This is the way of things. It was no different with phones, or tablets, or music players, or Macs. I think if we take a step back and see the bigger picture, we can see that the Watch is here to stay, and that it is bound to appeal to more and more people over time.
Maybe it will never get as big as the iPhone. Okay. Neither did the iPad. Neither will the car. As I’ve told friends many times before, we’re way past the stage where Apple makes a product and every Apple customer automatically needs or wants it. They are a mass market company now, and they need to make products that appeal to different sorts of people.
Saying Apple Watch has some flaws and that it can be improved upon is obvious. Saying it’s somehow a bad or failed product, or that Apple is “slipping” with it strikes me as a little excessive.
Me? I’m hooked. I’m all in on wearable tech. I’m already looking for another device to put on my other wrist.