Apple Watch with endlessly spinning load cursor

Apple Watch, revisited

Six-minute read

I work many mornings from a coffee shop near my apartment before heading into the office.

When people come in for coffee, being Americans, they politely form a rigidly hierarchical queue. And being Americans in 2016, they almost immediately pull out their phone and start fiddling with it.

We’re less than a decade into the smartphone era, and the device has become so ingrained in our lives that spending a few minutes with our own thoughts is less compelling than what’s on our magic internet-connected pocket computer.

I mention this not to judge my fellow humans (for a crime for which I am also guilty) but to observe that a mobile phone is an inherently, deeply compelling personal device, addicting even, perhaps like no other before. Confronted with one we’re like the lab rats that keep hitting the bar for the pellet. Except we’re reloading Twitter and/or Facebook waiting for the latest nugget to drop.

I also mention this because it illustrates what the Apple Watch is not: A compelling device.

That sounds like a “whoa, Nelly!” bombshell, as if to pronounce the Watch anything other than brilliant is to pronounce it terrible. Not so.

I have had my Apple Watch for a little over six months. I reviewed it when it first came out, but I’ve felt the need to revisit my thoughts. Like so many tech reviews, much of my first take was based on testing and first impressions all while wrapped in a gossamer cloud of new-buyer excitement. But what is the device like when, as the voiceover on The Real World used to say, things stop being polite and start getting real.

While the watch is not “compelling” in the way that an iPhone is, it’s still something else notable: Useful. Damning with faint praise, perhaps, but to put it in more automotive terms, a Toyota Camry is useful; a BWM M3 is compelling. And Toyota does quite a nice business in Camrys. 1

This lack of iPhone-like “have to use it” compulsion is perhaps behind the answer people give when I ask them what they think of their Apple Watch. There’s a pause followed by a response that can only be described as having a certain whiff of disappointment. They don’t dislike it, they just expected … something. Something they can feel but can’t quite articulate. They love it, but they aren’t in love with it.

It took me a couple months of Watch use to figure out how this gap arose. The Apple Watch is quite literally a watch, both tautologically and in spirit. And watches are passive. There’s no use case for fiddling with your watch in the coffee line except to maybe see how much time has elapsed.

When an Apple Watch is true to its essential nature of giving a tiny bit of info quickly, it is excellent and without peer. Alerts of any kind on it are excellent. As is mapping and walking directions – although it did get me thoroughly lost in New York City once. Apple Pay via Watch is also near-perfect. It’s a surprisingly good speakerphone, too.

I was once able to grab an important phone call on my Watch when I left my phone in another office on a desk. And no, you don’t have to shout into it Dick Tracy style.

These user experience aspects alone – the Watch’s seamless and effortless transmission of information or quick-hit interactions – would make for a nicely rounded, throughly useful 1.0 product.

But the Watch is a far more ambitious product than that. That’s where it runs into problems. Any excitement I had about the Watch as an app platform has been throughly doused. Implementation of apps – the app runs on the phone and sends an interface to the Watch via Bluetooth – is dreadful. Borderline useless, really. More often than not an app launch results in a spinning cursor.

To quantify the problem, I decided to time how long it took common Watch apps to launch. I started a stopwatch and launched Slack on my Apple Watch. The timer flew past 1 minute and kept going as the app launch cursor was still spinning, spinning, spinning, spinning. I finally hit stop on the stopwatch with no app interface in sight.

And it was the same for the JetBlue 2 and Twitter 3 and Harvest apps. When they do launch, it’s mixed results. I’ve never been able to successfully summon an Uber via my Watch.

How many times does a person have to launch an app and see it fail before they just stop and give up ever trying apps again? Three? Five? Ten?

Maybe it’s the fault of the app developers. Or Apple. It doesn’t really matter because the Watch was launched as an app platform and it isn’t one. That hurts Apple more than it hurts app makers.

Averaging out the good and the bad of the Apple Watch might seem like owning one long term is a shrug or a meh. But the math doesn’t quite work out that way. If I am in a rush and forget to wear it, I miss it for all the things it does well.

Additionally, the emotions that surround Apple as a company seem to make it difficult to praise or criticize them. You’re either a fanboy in the tank or fanboy turned traitor.

One could point to the about 9 million Apple Watches sold so far and declare it all a roaring success. Looking forward, Apple will get the app situation sorted out, and more features are coming in the next iterations.4 Future Watches might move beyond their essential nature as a passive information source.

So, what if we think of those all those Apple Watch 1 buyers as potential customers for Apple Watch 2 or Apple Watch 3 or beyond?

Someone who expected something as compelling as a mobile phone that can be whipped out at the slightest pause in a conversation might not be a repeat customer for all those improved Watches. That air of disappointment – that notion that they wanted A but instead got B – might be a problem.

  1. Although I doubt Apple wants the Watch to be thought of as the Toyota Camry of smartwatches. Except for maybe in sales numbers.
  2. When the JetBlue app finally does launch, it is excellent and a great example of how good and useful Watch app user experience can be.
  3. Twitter on the Watch is well done, but generally useless.
  4. Apple is an iterative company. It does it so well it’s hard to even notice sometimes. The Apple Watch 2 might not be significantly better than the Apple Watch 1, but you can be sure the Apple Watch 5 will be way, way better than that Apple Watch 1.