Steve Jobs famously said that people don’t know what they want until they see it. To which I’d add that sometimes we don’t know what we want until we’ve used it for a while.
I’m old enough to have been around when the first Macintosh was launched. In that case, I knew I wanted one the moment I saw it. This was how computers were supposed to work. The total cost of the Macintosh plus second floppy drive plus ImageWriter printer was a frightening amount at the time, but I didn’t care – I had to have one.
The iPad was a different story. I originally bought one intending it to be nothing more than the movie equivalent of the Kindle, yet within a very short time it became my primary mobile computing device.
The Apple Watch was different again. As someone who started out as a total smartwatch skeptic and has now been fully assimilated, I thought it might be interesting to briefly look back on that journey and also think a little about what the future might hold for the device …
Prior to owning one, smartwatches had always struck me as a solution in search of a problem. They didn’t do anything the iPhone couldn’t do (ok, bar automatic heart-rate measurement), and I couldn’t see any good reason why I’d want to spend additional money on an extra device merely to repeat some of its functionality.
But I wasn’t totally dismissive of the Apple Watch. It was clear that Apple had made a better job of it than existing models, and while I couldn’t see a compelling reason to want one, I could see potential applications for it. I also knew that sometimes I have to use a device to find out how useful it will be. Plus, of course, it was a gadget – and since when did I need a good reason to try a gadget?
On day one, I was starting to see the benefits of notifications on my wrist, but wasn’t really sold on the look, and didn’t think I was going to keep it.
By day four, the look had grown on me quite a lot – and more so when I later swapped the white band for the black one I wanted in the first place. The user-interface had become familiar. Notifications were definitely convenient, though less so in winter, with multiple layers of long sleeves. The Activity rings sucked me in. Some of the apps were proving their value.
By day seven, I was still of the view that nobody needs an Apple Watch, but it was undeniably useful – and it was, I had to confess, a cool gadget. A month in, it no longer felt like a cool new gadget, it had simply become part of my life. Something that added just a tiny amount of convenience a dozen or more times a day.
The arrival of Apple Pay in the UK then sealed the deal. On its own, not quite a killer app, but a very, very appealing one. Added to the conveniences of wrist notifications and it was enough to make me realize that this was a device that was slowly transforming itself into a ‘first world essential.’
So what more does the Watch need to do to complete that transformation? I chatted with my colleagues, and we came up with a few thoughts.
The first very obvious thing is performance. There are definitely times when you open an app – or even a Glance – and you find yourself staring at the progress wheel. If you’re opening an app you haven’t used for a while, the delay can even amount to four or five seconds. This would be unacceptable at any time, but even more so in a device which is all about quick glances.
Whether through hardware or software improvements or both, Apple needs to make the performance snappy enough that everything feels instant.
Another obvious one is some combination of battery-life and fast-charging capability. For my personal use, the Watch makes it comfortably though a typical day. The only times it’s failed to do so are when travelling, when switching time-zones has meant a very long day. But others are not so fortunate – either because their days start rather earlier than mine, or because their usage patterns are more demanding.
And even when the Watch makes it through a day just fine, there’s still a good reason to demand more from the battery: sleep-tracking. It’s not that the device can’t do it – there are a whole bunch of apps out there for it, and they don’t actually use too much power. But most people need to charge the Watch overnight to make it through the next day, so this is rather a theoretical capability.
Even if you don’t want to track your sleep, you may still want to wear your Watch at night: some apps allow you to set an alarm not for an exact time, but for an approximate time. The Watch then waits until you’re in a light phase of sleep before waking you, which has you wake feeling less groggy.
Apple could address the battery issue in a couple of ways. The hard way is to significantly boost the battery-life. But that’s really tough. If we’re wearing the Watch both during the day and in bed at night, when do we charge it? This is not an e-ink display that will ever make it through a whole week.
So the more practical approach is fast-charging capability. Seth notes that his Moto 360 can be charged from around 35% to 95% in about 40 minutes. That makes it practical to use the watch all day, use it for sleep-tracking at night and then just charge it while showering and breakfasting in the morning.
The main reason I started out as an Apple Watch skeptic is that it’s just a companion device. It can’t do very much without the phone. Adding a few more chips to the device would be handy.
The Watch is never going to become a fully-fledged iPhone substitute. That’s not realistic, and even if it were, Apple is never going to do anything which reduces sales of the product that generates the vast majority of its revenue. But it could make the device more useful when used on its own for a time.
For example, you can’t really use the Watch for activity tracking without the phone because it doesn’t have its own GPS – it gets location data from the phone. Admittedly the Watch does its best in that situation using its own motion trackers, but you need the GPS for the most accurate data, so you can’t leave the phone at home when you go for a run. Giving the Watch its own GPS chip would make a big difference to some.
Even with a GPS chip, though, people may still be reluctant to leave their phone behind when jogging because they’d be cut off from communication. Including GSM and LTE capabilities into the Watch would mean that it could be used for emergency communication, at least, and you’d also continue to receive notifications without the phone in your pocket or strapped to your arm.
There are a couple more hardware improvements we’d like to see. First, while the Apple Watch is impressively water-resistant, many people would feel more comfortable if it were properly waterproof. Sure, some people have showed the Watch surviving when used underwater, but that’s not a use Apple recommends, and not one many would want to risk on a regular basis. Being able to wear the watch while swimming or snorkeling without having to worry about it would be welcome.
Apple also needs to make the sapphire screen more readable in sunlight. Ironically, the cheapest model – the Sport – effectively has the best display when used outdoors. Sapphire may protect the steel and Edition models from scratches, but it makes the display harder to read in sunlight.
When the Apple Watch was but a rumor (the ‘iWatch’ label feels so long ago now!), there were suggestions that it would be packed with health-oriented sensors. That turned out not to be the case, and we now know why: Apple didn’t want to get tied-up in FDA approvals. Instead, it intends to release separate sensor devices that can communicate with the Watch. That’s less convenient, but better than having to wait much longer for new models.
But things like pulse ox would be welcomed by many fitness folks, and blood sugar monitoring would be a real boon for diabetics. If those devices could sit under the Watch without obscuring the heart-rate monitor, they would be far more convenient than existing products.
Finally, while the Watch UI is generally extremely well thought-through, there’s one aspect of it that is a total mess: the main apps screen! The icons are just too small to be distinctive, and having to scroll around randomly enlarging sections of them in an effort to figure out which is which is not what we expect from Apple. The more Watch apps that become available, the messier it gets.
Personally, I use Siri to open apps, but there are those who get on less well with Siri than I do, so this is an area Apple urgently needs to address.
What are the things you really want to see in future Apple Watch updates, either hardware or software? As ever, please let us know in the comments.