The Apple Watch: It’s More — and Less — Than I Thought

(crossposted from the LIFT: The SeriesC Blog)

Like Tim Cook, I’ve always felt that the wrist was “interesting.” I’ve worn a watch since I can remember, starting with a Texas Instruments LED watch when I was in grade school. It was a 1970's-era brown watch with a gold accent that required a holding a side button down to display time in glowing red. It was futuristic for a kid that was baffled by TV schedules looking for Space:1999 reruns on the local PBS station.

My First “Smart” Watch

After a couple of digital watches, I moved to analog quartz watches when I entered the workforce. While I went through a period of appreciating high-end watches like expensive cars, I never owned any of them. Watches have been pretty functional for me. Until recently, the most expensive watch I ever owned was a mid-90s Seiko Kinetic. I liked it enough to use it until it stopped working, but I developed a wrist shaking habit that took me over a year to overcome.

When the first “smart” watches appeared, I started following the category. I was even interested enough to buy the Tik Tok strap for my 6th gen iPod Nano (wore it for a day). And when the Kickstarter for the first Pebble appeared, I jumped in. When I started using it, it was… ok. I paired it with my iPhone and I tried the new watchfaces and a few apps. I could never get the apps to work reliably — the Bluetooth integration with the iPhone kept dropping, and I could never get the marquee apps like Yelp to work.

And, really, it wasn’t the most attractive thing on my wrist. But I soldiered on for a good year and a half before I gave up and sold it on eBay. I went back to my combination stainless steel watch for everyday and my Casio G-Shock for fitness.

Why am I giving you all this personal history? It gives you context to how I’m thinking about the Apple Watch that’s been strapped to my wrist right now for the last four weeks. I gave some early thoughts to PR Week after the Apple Watch was announced, but I now realize after wearing one how much more — and less — it is from what I was originally thinking.

Five Years of Progress

It’s an Accessory

Rather than being a standalone platform — which was the impression we all had when we found out that there would be apps out the gate — it really is an accessory for your iPhone. Part of it stems from the fact that most of the apps for the Apple Watch aren’t any good. In fact, I’ve uninstalled most of the Watch Apps, and am constantly annoyed with the new appearance of apps, even though I have it set to not automatically download (need to file that Radar).

But what an accessory it is! What sets the Apple Watch apart is really the tight integration with the iPhone not only through Bluetooth but also Wi-fi (surprise!). On my Pebble, with its unreliable connection to the iPhone, I didn’t even want to try apps that updated scores or told me the weather, because the stuck temperature would taunt me every time I looked at my wrist.

With the Apple Watch? Bring them on. Load up those watchfaces with complications galore. Weather? Yes please. And while you’re at it, put my calendar right there too.

What’s interesting though, is how potentially ephemeral this advantage is for Apple. I’m expecting, as are others, that the Watch will eventually become a standalone device with its own cellular radio so it doesn’t need to tether itself to your phone. Perhaps there will be an opportunity for a company — maybe Pebble if it can hold on — to design appealing alternatives when the technology gets mature enough. But right now, from a strategic standpoint, Apple has a pretty strong moat around its iPhone-Apple Watch ecosystem.

Fitness and Health

Not much more ink needs to be spilled on the fitness features of this watch. Is it compelling me to walk more? Yes. Am I standing up randomly in meetings? That too. I never owned a Fitbit or any sort of device like that, because I needed a better reason to worry about another piece of technology. I came close to getting a Nike Fuelband with a clock, but the whole NikeFuel thing was too odd, not that I think the calories measurement on my Apple Watch is any more accurate.

This watch experience is telling me that fitness and health features are just that — features for a watch. Is it as good as other, more specialized devices used by more serious exercisers and athletes? No. But it’s good enough for the mass market. That being said, there will always be room for specialized (i.e. niche) devices for specific use cases, but for the rest of us, I think we’re good.

Surprises (for me)

I’ve been surprised by some of the features I originally dismissed when I heard of them. No, I’m not using the camera app and I have no desire to view photos on my wrist (though it makes a great demo). However, there are a couple of features that I’m using more than I expected.

I’m really surprised at how much I’m using the turn-by-turn directions (and taps) on my wrist, even while driving cars with built-in navigation. I don’t feel that I need to have a map in front of me telling me where I am — the directions on the wrist is enough. Better yet, I don’t have to have to deal with a brutal touchscreen UI or infernal iDrive menu navigation to enter the address I already have on my phone when I’m idling. Just touch the address on my calendar or email, and go.

Neneh Cherry doing an Apple Watch call

Another feature I’ve been using, of all things, is the Phone app. I thought It was a Dick Tracy gimmick, but having it gives me the freedom to walk away from my iPhone at home or in the office. As long as I’m not annoying people around me, I can adopt a buffalo stance and talk without searching for my headset. It’s a speakerphone that follows you.

And, as someone who has had mixed results with using Siri on my iPhone, my experience with it on the watch has been wonderful. Its accuracy for texting has been nothing short of amazing.

Looking to the Future

Too. Many. Cards.

What I’m looking forward to the most on this watch is what will happen with the RFID capabilities of the Apple Watch. Right now, what we have is Apple Pay (yay, for someone still rocking a 5S) and SPG (which I’m dying to try out). I think what Apple has is a killer real-world physical identity platform that can help me get rid of all these access cards. I’m waiting for Disney to put out an Apple Watch app that complements or replaces their Magic Bands.

I also can’t wait for native applications, which would help put even more distance between the iPhone and the Watch. Even with the health and fitness functionality operating independently, I still have to jog (slowly) with my iPhone. I can’t wait for the time when Marco Arment can get Overcast to sync podcasts over to the watch.

And finally, I’m sure that Apple is working on improving how “smart” the notifications are on my wrist. Right now, I see hints of it where it appears that notifications appear — or not — depending on whether I’m using my iPhone at that time. Of course, that may be a bug, but I’m hopeful that there’s work being done.

It’s the Only Option for Apple Customers

If you are firmly in the Apple ecosystem, there’s really no other real option out there right now. The OS-level integration is something that no other vendor can do right now — it really is what sets this experience apart. I can’t speak to Android Wear and its integration with Android phones, but I Apple has set the bar pretty high with what it has today between iOS 8 and the Apple Watch.

Ironically, the more I wear it, the less I “use” it. What I mean is that my Apple Watch has settled into being what I hoped it to be — a damn fine watch experience. It proactively notifies me in the way that I want and information is quickly available when I glance at my watch. It’s great.

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