Apple hasn’t solved the smart watch dilemma
There’s a decent rule of thumb, when it comes to anything Apple: When it introduces something brand new, don’t buy version 1.o. Wait until the second or third version instead, you’ll be much better off.
Does anybody remember OS 10.0? It was a disaster, and even people who installed it spent 90% of their time in OS 9 instead. The very first MacBook Air? An underpowered exercise in frustration. The original iPad? Heavy and clunky. The original iPod? Was not only heavy and clunky and expensive, it was also tied to the Macintosh, and didn’t work either alone or with a PC.
The best-case scenario for the Apple Watch is that the product we saw announced today will eventually iterate into something really great. Because anybody who’s ever worn a watch will tell you: this thing has serious problems.
For one thing, Apple has been worryingly silent on the subject of battery life, but there’s no indication that this thing will last even 24 hours. A watch’s battery should last for months; even watches which don’t have batteries will last for a couple of days, if you have to wind them manually, or indefinitely, if they’re automatic and all you have to do is wear them.
Watches might be complicated on the inside, but they’re simple on the outside, and they should never come with a charging cable. (To make matters worse, even though the Apple Watch only works if you have an iPhone, the iPhone charging cable will not charge the Apple Watch; you need a different charging cable entirely.)
Of course, the Apple Watch is more than just a watch. But it’s also less than just a watch, which is a problem. It probably isn’t waterproof, for instance — don’t take it swimming, or use it during any other watersport. Its battery life means that you can’t take it camping, and that you’re going to have to remember yet another charging cable any time you leave the house for more than about 18 hours. (And yes, if you end up unexpectedly spending the night somewhere, your watch will be a brick in the morning.)
Behind all the shiny options (sport! gold! different straps!) the watch itself is always pretty much the same: thick, clunky, a computer strapped to your wrist. Which is great, I suppose, if you’re the kind of person who likes to strap a computer to your wrist.
Here’s my main beef with the Apple Watch: Apple has always been the company which makes products for real people, rather than gadgets for geeks. It’s the Less Is More company, yet the Apple Watch is overloaded with features. It pays for things! It measures your heartbeat! It controls your TV! It stores your airline boarding pass! It can show you a picture of where you are on the planet, in glorious high-def Retina resolution! Etc, etc.
Any one of these sounds quite clever: I like the idea, for instance, of being able to take a photo from my phone remotely. Useful for group selfies. But we’ve had watches which do lots of things for decades, and I can tell you that almost nobody actually uses those functions. By allowing thousands of different apps on its watch, Apple is buying into the More Is More mindset: make sure that the watch offers something for everybody. And in order to get there, it has had to create a whole system of twiddles and taps and swipes which you’re going to have to learn before you can really start using the watch. Put it this way: no one who only has one wrist is going to be wearing an Apple Watch.
Apple’s website is now full of language saying things like “to pay with Apple Watch, just double-click the button under the Digital Crown and hold your wrist up to the contactless reader,” or “Swipe up from the watch face for Glances that quickly show you information you care about, such as your current location, stocks or your next meeting.” This isn’t easy: if you need to swipe with your opposite hand, what you’re doing is much more than a Glance. Indeed, we need to take it on trust that you’ll be able to simply tell the time just by looking at your watch. To save battery life, Apple has engineered the watch so that it’s off by default, and only turns on when you turn your wrist a certain way.
In other words, Apple hasn’t solved the basic smartwatch dilemma, which is that smart watches use up far more energy than dumb watches, and that there’s nowhere to store that much energy in something the size of a watch. Indeed, Apple has made the problem worse, by combining a powerful computer with a very bright, ultra-high-resolution, full-color display. Either of those things would require a lot of energy; both together require a very thick watch and a limited battery life.
It’s possible that in an iteration or two, Apple will have solved this problem. It’s possible — but, I’m not holding my breath. The problem has been around a very long time, and no one seems to have come close to solving it yet. So my best hope is for some kind of NanoWatch: a thinner, less fully-featured version of the Apple Watch, with a much less versatile display.
If Apple manages to come up with a thin, waterproof watch which I can wear comfortably under a shirt cuff, one where I can tell the time just by looking at it, without having to recharge it twice a day, then I’ll be interested. I’d want it to measure my activity like the Apple Watch does, but I’d be happy with the visual feedback to come from my iPhone. Similarly, if my watch vibrates to alert me of something, I’d be OK with checking my phone to see what exactly it was. But what I don’t want is to start having to deal with as many watch charging cables as I have iPhone charging cables. Because that would drive me bonkers.
Felix Salmon is a senior editor at Fusion