I was one of the lucky few that received their Apple Watch order on April 24th, the day the Watch was released to the public. Here’s the story of my first 10 days to try to give you some idea about the technology (and aesthetics) behind the newest Apple product.
First up, what I ordered. My order was time stamped at 12:02am Pacific Time on April 10, the day that the Watch went on sale to the public, so I literally ordered mine within the first 120 seconds of availability. From the time the Watch was announced, I had been coveting the Stainless Steel with Milanese loop band. It was, to my eye, a wonderful throwback mid-century modern look that I love. When it came time to order, I decided that since it’s likely I’m wearing this thing every single day for the next 2+ years, I should just get the one I really liked rather than “settling” for the less expensive Sport version in aluminum.
That decision-making process illustrates one of the huge differences in this particular product. Every other Apple product that I’ve purchased (and I’ve purchased plenty at this point, a decade plus into my obsession with the company and its products) was purchased on the strength of the abilities of the technology. Apple isn’t a stranger to using design as a differentiator among their products…the classic iMac is the textbook example of style selling a technology. But over the last few years they have primarily used their design sense and engineering skills to differentiate themselves from other manufacturers, and not within a line of their own products.
The stainless steel Apple Watch functions literally identically to the less expensive aluminum Apple Watch Sport (and, of course, also identically to the much, much more expensive Apple Watch Edition). So the fact that they convinced me to pay for a purely aesthetic choice shows just how different this particular market is from Apple’s normal business. But they did convince me, and thus at just after midnight on April 10th, I placed my order.
On April 24th, my Watch arrived. The package that was delivered was surprisingly heavy, almost shockingly so, and that is entirely due to the incredible packaging for the Watch. It is not hyperbole to say that I believe that Apple spent more time in R&D on the box for the Watch than some companies do on devices themselves. The retail box is a heavy, thick white plastic that feels as if it could be used for home construction…it’s that solid. On the inside the Watch was cradled in suede covered custom cutouts, isolated in the middle of a box that was at least 3 times larger than it needed to be purely to protect the device inside. Again, this is Apple’s aesthetics impinging upon a technology experience. “This is not a gadget”, is what this packages says “this is a piece of jewelry.”
My first impressions are of the Watch as Object: This is a gorgeous piece of design. Some have criticized the look of the Watch for its rounded rectangleness, or for being “bulbous.” I will say that on my wrist it is a great size, not heavy at all, and feels entirely like an analog watch would feel. Slimmer and lighter even than some men’s watches, which are enormous at times. I think it’s beautiful work, and shows Apple’s unparalleled heights of manufacturing. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that no other company on the planet could make something this nice at this scale.
Beyond the aesthetics, however, there are definitely issues. The primary function of the watch is clearly to tell the time, and Apple provides about 10 different faces to choose from, each with some level of customizability. Through the selection of detail, color, and complications, it’s possible to really focus the main interface of the watch on the information that you want at a glance: the time, your calendar, the date, the weather, and more. I find myself wishing that third-party apps had access to these complication areas, instead of being limited to just Apple’s first-party apps. For instance, a complication from Dark Sky telling me when it was going to start raining would be amazing, and I’m certain that there are lots of other really useful apps for the main face of the Watch. I’m hoping that’s one of the first bits of usability exposed during the next software update.
The other central concepts in using the Watch are Notifications, Glances, and Apps. Notifications are just what they sound like, and display as either a pop-over style update or in a list after pulling down from the top of the initial Watch screen. Aside from telling the time, Notifications have been the most game changing piece of the Watch in my life. It really is the case, as reported by lots of other reviewers, that I am looking at my phone a lot, lot less than I did prior to wearing the Apple Watch. Notifications on my wrist allows me to glance and decide whether any individual thing needs the escalation of “Deal With Now” or if I can just…not. As just one example, I wore the Watch at Computers in Libraries the day after receiving it, and realized after a few meals that I hadn’t taken my phone out of my pocket at all during lunch or dinner. I don’t remember the last time I didn’t take my phone out and put it on the table beside my plate…it’s nearly an automatic gesture from everyone I hang out with. With the Watch, I avoided the psychological habit of needing to be “connected” with the phone. It was shockingly liberating.
Glances are mini-apps, accessible by swiping up from the bottom of the main watch face. They are displayed as a linear row of full-screen windows that are swiped through, left or right, that are single-screen displays of an app’s information. For instance, going back to my favorite weather app, Dark Sky, the “glance” is just the weather in your current location, whereas the full application contains multiple screens of information. Glances can be useful, but since the only way to navigate is literally by paging through them one after the other, if you have more than 5-8 Glances active, finding the one you want becomes an exercise in futility. Luckily you can control which apps allow Glances and which don’t, as well as the order left-to-right of your glances, from the Apple Watch app on your iPhone.
Finally, we have what is the least useful bit of the current incarnation of the Apple Watch…the Apps. This is surprising, given that it was the app store and 3rd party app development that really ignited the iPhone as a mobile platform. However, the current status of Apps on the Watch as second or third class citizens makes them very difficult to use effectively. Currently, third-party apps don’t run on the watch natively, the run on the tethered iPhone and push display items to the watch when called. This means that the process of opening an App on the Watch is roughly: Press the digital crown in once, tap an App icon from the screen, and wait as the Watch tells the app on your iPhone what it wants, the app on the iPhone spins up and calls out for network resources if needed, the network traffic comes back, the iPhone app builds the view for the Watch, and finally the view is sent back to the watch over Bluetooth. This is roughly like sending an email to tell your neighbor to order a pizza, then having it delivered to her house and having her walk it over to you. It does end with you getting pizza, but there’s clearly a better way to accomplish this task.
When you launch a third-party app, pretty much any of them, there’s a 3-10 second delay while it does its little dance from the watch to the phone to the network and back again. This isn’t to say that the apps aren’t usable….many are, and some are very well designed and thought out. A few stand outs are Transit, Dark Sky, Workflow, and Lastpass. But for apps to really be usable, they have to be on-Watch, and not dancing between the two devices. The good news is that Apple has already announced that “this year” there will be an SDK for third-party native Watch apps…the only mystery is whether that will be an announcement at WWDC in June, or are they going to take “this year” literally and push that ability well into the Fall or Winter.
Two other Watch abilities that I haven’t yet mentioned are the Digital Touch haptic communication and Apple Pay. Haptics between Watches include the ability to “tap” someone else on the wrist to get their attention to communicate something, or to send them your heartbeat via the built in heartrate sensor. These are both interesting, and the taptic engine is a marvel of possibility, but until it’s opened up to third parties it strikes me as a parlor trick.
Apple Pay, on the other hand, is a revelation. With Apple Pay active on the Watch, you can double-press the side button and pay for something faster than you could even pull your iPhone from your pocket, and in the best sort of Apple way, it Just Works. It’s so easy and useful that I can see preferentially choosing to go to one store over another based on the fact that their payment system is compatible…it’s that good.
There are dozens of other services that the Apple Watch throws at you: activity measurement, maps, Siri on your wrist, taking a phone call from your wrist, music controls, remotes for your music or Keynote presentation. All of these are well done, and fine reasons to use the Watch. But if I have to boil my use case down using just the first 10 days, notifications, apple pay, and the fact that it is…well….a really nice watch are the things that keep me using it. It’s clearly going to be an ongoing platform for Apple, and they have a very, very good track record for incremental improvement of experience. I’m very bullish on the Watch overall, even if my recommendation for most people right now is to wait for version 2 or 3.
So what’s the library play for Apple Watch? Given the existing capabilities, I would say that using some of the older, proven tech in Apple’s stack gets much better with the Watch. Passbook for your patron’s library card is a no brainer, and a fantastic use, and Apple Pay for fines/fees is going to be interesting as adoption of that service continues to grow. Also, Apple Pay is among the most secure and private mechanisms available for the use of a debit/credit card, which I think is a huge patron privacy benefit.
If your library already supports an iOS app, adding Watch functionality now is probably not really worth it. At the very least, waiting until WWDC in June and seeing what they announce (or don’t) for the next version of WatchKit is warranted. It’s interesting to consider what a library Watch app might do…it isn’t possible to do text entry other than via Siri and voice transcription, so actually searching a catalog in the traditional manner isn’t really going to work. On the other hand, a Watch app that displayed a patron’s “cart” of interested books with the call numbers would be really handy while browsing in the stacks.
I said above that I am recommending that the average technology consumer wait on the Apple Watch until v2 or v3. This will give Apple time to work out the issues with some of the biggest hardware flaws (no on-board GPS, and like all Apple devices it will get thinner and lighter). It will also give the ecosystem time to evolve, 3rd party apps to run natively on the Watch, and for the price to drop a small amount. By version 3 the low end of the line will be under $300, the design will be slightly improved, and there will be more and better app experiences that enrich the experience of wearing the Watch. Until then, I’m going to keep mine, because even with its flaws it’s an absolutely incredible piece of tech engineering that has already shown that it can improve my relationship with my information ecosystem. And I think it will get better and better at doing just that, allowing me to deal with the information flows in my life. That, turns out, might just be worth the cost of the Apple Watch.