Why I’m Concerned About watchOS 2.0 for the Apple Watch

This started out to be a different post than it ended up becoming. Life does that to you sometimes, especially in today’s fast-paced (too fast?) tech world. This was going to be one of those three month Apple Watch check-ins that the web is littered with, and though it might have been just a bit more debris along the Internet highway, it was going to be a pretty positive post.

Apple released iOS 8.4.1 last week. The results of that update changed my perspective on my experiences with the Apple Watch and, in a larger context, with mobile technology in general.

At the very least Apple has succeeded in creating a controversy with the Apple Watch. There are those that love the Apple Watch and those that have condemned it to flop status. Some of both have been knowledgeable and respectful, and as you would expect, some of both have been full of crap.

You could argue the Apple Watch has forever changed the shaky definition of a “version one” product to one that now means what “beta” used to. (That definition was headed there already.) Either way, both definitions have been deprecated beyond repair. About the only thing more humorously controversial this summer has been watching the Republican party try to figure out how to deal with Donald Trump. They haven’t and those interested in the Apple Watch haven’t quite figured it out either.

For the record, prior to the release of iOS 8.4.1 I would have lined up with those who like the Apple Watch. And I was just about to change my tune and start saying it might be worth you considering as a purchase. That’s where this post was headed. Through both ups, decided downs, and inconsistent behavior I have found it beneficial to my life and work style. I was skeptical early, felt better about a month or so ago, but I’m back on the skeptical fence again after recent changes.

Here’s the story.

When I first got the Apple Watch back on April 24 it was easy to recognize both the potential utility and futility in owning one. Three features kept me strapping the watch on my wrist each morning: Notifications, Health and Fitness, and using the device as a remote. But this version one device also came equipped (at no extra cost mind you) with several problems that could easily turn off someone looking for a quality experience top to bottom.

The biggest of these trouble spots for me was connectivity. Things worked well in the early going with the watch talking back and forth with the iPhone the way it was designed to. That changed inexplicably, and like any relationship that finds communication strained things got rocky. Even after the 1.01 update to the software it seemed like the watch and the iPhone were not meant for the forced marriage Apple created. The companion app on the iPhone seemed to crash more often than any other app experience I’ve had on any iPhone.

Delays in communicating with the iPhone became more frequent. Reboots and re-pairing would fix things, but only for a short time. I was ready to toss the Apple Watch in a drawer or try to sell it to some unsuspecting victim on a street corner; chalking the entire experience up to another gadget beta gone bad.

But things changed for the better when Apple released iOS 8.4. Hidden somewhere in those bits was some magical mojo that improved connectivity between the watch and the iPhone to a point where the device was consistently usable in the way it was designed. Notifications were timely, the few third party Apps I tried actually succeeded in loading. Glances, while not quite what I would call a glance, could at least flirt with being an accurately labeled concept.

But, all good things come to an end. Apple released iOS 8.4.1 last week and some of the old problems returned and some new problems emerged.

Here’s a short list:

Messages would appear on my iPhone again, not the Apple Watch. This happened with Apple Messages and sometimes regular SMS messages. Sometimes SMS messages would appear first on the Apple Watch. The default behavior had been for all messages to show up on the Apple Watch when the iPhone was not in use.
Notifications would sometimes follow a similar pattern. Some would wake the iPhone and not the Apple Watch. Some would do just the opposite. (Desired behavior.)
I needed to delete and then restore my Friends. Some disappeared after the update. Some had their info mixed up with others. It was a mess that only a redo could seem to fix.
How the Apple Watch measured my physical activity and workouts changed.

Restarts. Reboots. I tried unpairing and re-pairing the Apple Watch from the iPhone and that didn’t seem to solve the problem. Before going further let me say this:

Unpairing Your Apple Watch Should Not Be Viewed As An Acceptable Solution To A Problem.

And yet there’s more.

The 8.4.1 update was released on August 13th. I installed it that night and the issues listed above began occurring immediately. But guess what? At some point during the day on August 15th, the first two issues seemingly went away. Notifications and messages began arriving as expected. I can’t vouch for the third as I had already reinstalled my Friends. (That sounds painful.) Notably, there still seems to be some differences in how the watch is logging my activity and excercise.

Time may debatedly be both a relative thing and a constant, but I’m here to tell you that a watch, any watch smart or dumb, needs to be one thing: consistent. There needs to be consistency when one looks to one’s wrist, whether it is to glance at the time, a notification, or any other info.

And that’s my difficulty. I guess in my view that makes Apple’s challenge to create a consistent set of expectations that deliver consistent results. If the expectations or behavior are going to change, then consistently communicate how so. If you can’t or won’t do either, then quit pretending.

But wait, you say. This sort of things happen all the time. Updates can go wrong. There are so many variables that it is impossible not to have some problems with some percentage of users somewhere along the line. True, we’ve become accustomed to that reality so much so, that as users we enable it to continue.

But let’s address those consistency and expectation issues.

As mentioned earlier the concept of a watch relies on consistency. A quick glance and you have the time, the date, etc… Smart watches add more to that mix and the wizards of Cupertino have even adopted some classic watch lingo with the use of the term “complication” for some of the data points you can theoretically glean quick information from.

Extend and slightly amend that “expectation” forward. As I mentioned in an earlier piece about the Apple Watch, it largely became a “fire and forget” sort of device, working well between the two most recent iOS updates. I strapped it on, notifications came and went, physical activity was monitored, and the Apple Watch became a great piece of tech that augmented other tech I owned.

Now, let’s break the physical activity monitoring part down a bit.

The Dalrymple Effect

One of the tent pole features of the Apple Watch is health and fitness monitoring. Reams of words have been written about this. Most notable (at least to me) have been the words written by Jim Dalrymple, Josh Smith, and Peter Cohen about their efforts to lose weight and the health improvements that come with. Note that their stories began before the Apple Watch launched. They began with the Apple Health app’s ability to record and monitor steps using the iPhone. The point: if you’re looking for a gadget to help you monitor fitness and health, you don’t need an Apple Watch.

Like the gentlemen mentioned above, my activity monitoring began with the iPhone. Since I began monitoring my step count daily I’ve lost about 40 pounds. That monitoring began casually as a curious desire but escalated to a necessity after a heart health scare that turned out, luckily enough, to not be a threatening issue. It did, however, make enough of an impression to force a change in lifestyle that now includes a daily workout regime (mostly walking) among other actions. I had lost about 30 of those pounds before I first strapped an Apple Watch on my wrist. The remaining 10 or so have disappeared since. I’ve got another 15 to go to hit my goal.

The Apple Watch had become a nice tool to help me on my way. On my walks I listen to podcasts, music, or, as of late, audiobooks that contain info on the subjects of the next two plays I’m directing: Sherlock Holmes and P.T. Barnum. I can use the Apple Watch to keep track of newsworthy notifications via Nuzzel or the AP, respond to a text message if necessary, change what I’m listening to, and record a workout without even touching my iPhone. It makes for a very pleasant, efficient, and reliable experience. I daresay, it was almost elegant. Until this latest iOS update.

Set aside the notification and messaging issues and focus on the activity monitoring. I’m not sure about others and obviously I’m only speaking for myself here, but when I’m monitoring my activity I rely on certain markers to help me manage not only my exercise and the results, but my time.

Typically my morning routine is to walk about a mile and quarter to a local park.

This park has a quarter mile (400 meter) track. I’ll start the Exercise app when I arrive and begin a 30 minute very brisk walk that usually extends to 2 miles or about 33 minutes. Then I’ll walk home taking a different route each day as a cool down. That’s typically close to another mile or so.

Since the iOS 8.4.1 update the distance measurements (the Exercise app will tell you when you’ve reached one mile, two miles, etc…) have been different by anywhere from 1/4 to 3/4's laps on the track. Or perhaps I should say the notifications indicating I’ve hit that mark have been off.

On completing the workout portion of the routine, what used to result in a full green circle in the Exercise app yields less than one.

This is with essentially the same statistics being reported(distance, avg heart rate, calories burned, etc…). So, it begs the question of what’s going on? I’m not changing what I do, so something must be changing with how the watch and iOS are accounting for my activity.

I won’t begin to discuss whether or not the Apple Watch is in and of itself an accurate monitoring device for physical or health activity. There has been some debate with strong pros and cons about that and I’m no expert. What I do observe and consequently know is that for the period of time between the release of iOS 8.4 and iOS 8.4.1 I was able to rely on a consistent data return from the Apple Watch and iOS based on my physical activity. Whether that consistent reporting was accurate in absolute terms or not is not relevant, but to me it was a constant and relative measurement that I could rely on daily.

Apple Watch users will recall that after the release of the 1.0.1 version of the Apple Watch software (it wasn’t called watchOS then) that how the watch measured a user’s heart rate changed. That caused some concern, confusion, and consternation at the time. It took Apple some time to communicate officially that things had indeed changed. That alleviated some of the confusion but left a good deal of the concern intact.

I’ve not seen reports similar to the one chronicled here following the release of iOS 8.4.1, but I will say that my concern is heightened again. In the short span of time that I’ve incorporated an exercise regime into my life I’ve come to rely on things being routine and predictable and I want to count on the Apple Watch to be a part of that routine and predictability. In fact, I would be saddened to lose it because of this type of inconsistency.

When things change unexpectedly it throws things off in much the same disconcerting way that changing the walking shoes you wear can. I’m become more concerned about the adjustments than I am about the task at hand (or foot). I get that Apple may still be fine tuning things under the hood and perhaps that work is necessary. Great. Communicate this to your users who have, in a relatively short time frame, chosen to incorporate your new gadget into their exercise and fitness routines.

Now, if you’re Apple and you are unaware that an update to iOS that may not include an update to the Apple Watch software is going to cause problems that’s a larger issue, and one that also needs to be addressed. Perhaps marrying the two together so closely is a part of the problem and a separation or divorce is in order.

Or, could it be that some of these problems are caused by improvements that are happening on the back end (in the Cloud) that should be transparent to users? It’s one thing when issues of that sort arise with services like social networks, it’s another when they occur with a company touting a device and service that focuses on helping to monitor and improve one’s health.

In this fast moving world of mobile technology we may be accustomed to, and enablers of, a permanent beta existence with the gadgets, services, and software we use. But we shouldn’t have to be. Apple isn’t the only tech company guility here. Look at the issues surrounding recent updates for Windows 10. Look at the issues surrounding the security updates to prevent the Stagefright exploit on Android.

Apple in a few weeks is about to release watchOS 2.0, giving both the operating system a name and new features. There’s lots of excitement about what that update will bring. Some see it as the real launch of the Apple Watch. Bluntly, my experiences so far leave me with more anxiety and apprehension than excitement.

If you asked me to make a bet today I’d say that the release of watchOS 2.0 will come with enough bugs and lack of communication that we’ll be looking for an update to the update sooner rather than later. That may be reality, but I don’t think it’s healthy, in the same way that the air pollution in parts of China may be an unhealthy reality.

Apple may have solid corporate and business reasons for keeping Apple Watch sales data obscured in the clouds. But I’m guessing that Apple’s long standing record of Cloud woes may be playing an unwelcome role in whether or not there is a healthy future for the Apple Watch.

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