Just nice enough
Saturday, May 23, 2015
The Apple Watch is very nice.
It’s nice to use. It feels nice on your arm. It looks nice, too, and is quite nicely built. It’s surprisingly nice to make phone calls from, and it’s a nice way to get notifications on the go.
The haptic feedback buzz feels nice when a new push alert pops in. The alert sounds are nice, and the digital crown has a nice smooth, precision feel when rotated. The inductive charger that effortlessly drops into place is very nice compared with the fiddly plug on a cell phone.
Even the packaging is nice. All in all you can call the Apple Watch a very, very nice product.
But is nice good enough?
It took me a while to figure out what bothers me most about my Apple Watch.
I’ve been wearing mine for a couple weeks now, which is long enough to get a good feel for it as both a device and as fashion. I liked it, but had a nagging doubt about it. I’ve now seen a couple watches out in the wild. There was just something about them …
The other night as I was walking home from the store, it hit me. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it.
The model I settled on and bought – a 42mm stainless steel with link bracelet – falls into the bourgeoisie fool-parted-from-money range of the product lineup. I figured that if I was going to buy a watch, I’d buy a fine-jewelry watch.
Early reviews by watch experts said it had the feel and build quality of a Rolex or TAG Heuer. I would be getting something comparable to those gold-star brands, it seemed.
And it is, physically. It is quite literally the most nicely made thing that I own. The band and case have the same weighty, polished, detailed quality as my friend’s Rolex. The watchband closes with a lovely, precise snap. Links pop on and off the bracelet easily for size adjustment.
It’s impeccable as style and fashion go. Except … when I look at it, I see this:
A plain black square. The watch face is just out and out missing from the Apple Watch most of the time. And a watch face is what makes a timepiece such a beautiful object.
Recently a friend showed me his 1939 solid white gold pocket watch with a Cadillac crest engraved on the back. The watch case was lovely, but the gorgeous art deco watch face made me weak in the knees.
By comparison, the Apple Watch offers a dead-eyed stare.
To be fair, a smart watch with a permanently lit-up screen is impossible right now.
Apple looked at the available technologies such as miniaturized processors, sensors, batteries and such and made a watch as soon as it was possible. Limitations mean the Watch must be off far more than it is on.
And, unlike a Motorola 360 – which is so huge it looks like the person wearing it took a train station clock off of the wall and strapped it to their arm, or the Pebble smart watch, which is as ugly as a Soviet tractor – Apple’s aesthetic and sizing demands ensured that the Watch is a compromised device.
Some might associate the word “compromised” with failure.
But design is about choices – what you leave in and what you leave out – and Apple seems to have made wise choices given what was possible. Putting brackets around the Watch and defining it by its compromises seems a place to start.
The past couple decades have seen the computer migrate from what was mainly a desktop box to laptop, then into our pockets as phones and to our sofas as tablets and finally onto our wrist. The Watch is the end result of a chain of multiple compromises.
Laptops lack desktop speed, input options, storage and ports. Tablets have even more limited input, barely usable keyboards, limited processing power and few or no ports. Phones have even worse keyboards, smaller screens and more awkward form factors.
A Watch has no physical text input, limited app functions, no web browser, tiny screen space and extreme battery, storage and processing limitations. It has no GPS, Wi-Fi or cellular of its own. It needs an iPhone to work at all.
A phone compared with a desktop computer falls short all over the place. But mobile is taking over the world nonetheless. The best computer is the one that you have with you.
Is the Watch in its present state “good enough” in the way that a phone is? Apple has certainly labored hard to make it so.
As a communication device, it’s passable, occasionally quite good. It leans heavily on precomposed messages and Siri. Sometimes it takes a couple tries to get a Siri-dictated message correct, but on the whole it seems to be pretty accurate, nailing all of these phrases on the first try.
- Dijon mustard
- La Dolche Vita
- She sells sea shells by the sea shore in the Seychelles.
- X-Men Days of Future Past
- Oscar Wilde
- They’re coming over there to do their thing.
- We had a nice trip with my niece to Nice.
Then I decided to really test its mettle by dictating the second verse of the Gilligan’s Island theme song (inaccurately, alas, from memory) as rapid fire as possible. The results:
Oh this is the Taylor at castaways they’re here for a long long time they have to make the best of it it’s an uphill climb the phone no bites the motorcars not a single lechery like Robinson Caruso is primitive as can be so John is here each week my friend you’re sure to get a smile from the tailor seven castaways here on Gilligans isle
Considering the degree of difficulty, it did OK, but I’m not sure I’d want to send the results to Tina Louise. Or Daniel Defoe, either, considering it called his most famous character a lecher.
It is much better at making phone calls than I expected. I was thinking I’d have to hold it up Dick Tracy style and shout into it, but it’s just a regular old speaker phone. Although the limited speaker volume and awkwardness of others hearing both sides of a conversation makes it of limited use in public.
But it doesn’t do many things that I actually use my phone for. It doesn’t have a web browser. I can read and post to Twitter, but I can’t read linked stories. Slack is limited to @ mentions and direct messages, although both are nice on the go.
Maps and navigation are, quite simply, terrific. Somehow glancing at my wrist seems less silly and touristy than pulling out a phone every few minutes to check my progress. And the Maps app accurately counted my path down by yards then feet until I got to the front door.
But many apps – Pandora, Overcast, Camera – are just wrist-mounted controls for the phone. It’s nice to load and listen to a podcast from one’s wrist, but it’s not a replacement for a true podcast management app.
If I had to pick one killer feature, it would be Apple Pay. Waving my arm at the scanner at the supermarket is objectively better than credit card swipes and PIN numbers and makes even taking my phone out to pay seem complicated.
So, as an iPhone replacement, it’s a decidedly mixed bag. But then again it would be as the Phone has had several generations to evolve into the remarkable devices we have today. And we have also grown used to its limitations.
If the Watch isn’t a phone replacement, then what is it?
Put simply, the Apple Watch is a very nice digital watch. Probably the nicest one ever made. Certainly much nicer than the calculator watch I had as a teen.
But digital watches are not a big market, and the world hasn’t exactly been clamoring for them. Geeks love to cite the $20 million raised by the recent Pebble Kickstarter, but 78,000 backers isn’t that many buyers.
For Apple, $20 million is a rounding error. They probably spend more than that every year on bagels for their employees. This is a market that Apple is trying to make out of the whole cloth, and they need to make a large market.
The iPhone was an easy sell, by comparison.
I was on the fence about buying the original iPhone until I opened the web browser and loaded my site. It was perfectly rendered in every detail on a tiny phone. I turned to the sales rep.
“I’ll take one.”
I got it home, activated it, and took it outside, off my Wi-Fi network and sat on a curb near my house in the middle of the night and surfed the web. It was mindblowing.
Everything about the first iPhone felt like Kubrickian technology-as-magic. Moving that same experience to the wrist isn’t and can’t be magical in the same way.
It’s worth remembering though that Steve Jobs famously introduced the iPhone as three things:
- A widescreen iPod with touch controls
- A phone
- A breakthrough internet communications device.
Of those three, only the third item grew into something with world-changing implications. In less than a decade, more smartphones have been sold than desktops and laptops ever. A cell phone is the first computing device that literally every person on earth will eventually buy.
A really good digital watch has no world-changing implications. It’s not hard to imagine a watch that could be.
Just as it took a few iterations and an app store and creative third parties to figure out what an iPhone really was, the Watch feels like an undecided-but-open-to-ideas device. Some future device, however, will be.
Apple needs to get started now if it hopes to someday build that mythical future ür Watch. That’s what this is.
But does that make us first-gen buyers Apple’s beta testers? Probably.
I wanted to love my Apple Watch as much as that first iPhone. I wanted it to be as magical. Instead it’s, as I said earlier, a very nice digital watch.
That, in a way, sounds like damning with faint praise, as if the Watch somehow falls short.
Measured monetarily vs. utility, perhaps. My Apple Watch cost roughly the same as my off-contract iPhone, and that iPhone is a far more useful device. I could never advise anyone to spend what I did for my watch, unless of course they were of such means to consider it a paltry sum.
But even as it does many of the same things as my iPhone, I find myself liking the way it does them better. I like meeting alerts and emails on my wrist. I like remote controls for my iPhone. I like to lock and unlock my computer from my wrist.
I love Apple Pay on the Watch. I love having movie tickets and boarding passes on it.
I like the way it makes life just a little bit more convenient. After two weeks of Apple Watch use, I wouldn’t buy one at the price I paid. But I wouldn’t I want to go without it now either. It’s just too nice to not have. I’m willing to settle for nice.