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Thoughts on the Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is really, really great. I’ve come to really appreciate it, although it does take time (ha ha).

Like many people, I had abandoned a watch 8 years ago or so, as the cell phone was so handy for checking the time. A watch seemed redundant, especially after mine had stopped working. But about two years ago, I did buy a new watch. I was tired of having to find my iPhone to check the time; the glance at your wrist was much simpler and direct. The fashion aspect was nice as well, as watch people do notice watches.

The Apple Watch seems like such an evolution with its a pairing of the smart phone and the watch. It takes the simple idea of time and date and then expands it to greater capabilities, especially with weather and health. Although, as John Gruber has noted, the ability to actually see the time is somewhat diminished with the screen going dark (I still have issues of “flicking my wrist” to see the time and the Apple Watch not waking properly). An old-fashioned watch is always on and never darkens to save battery life, but it feels like such a step backwards that going back to a non-smart watch is not worth it. That’s how great the Apple Watch is.

The Apple Watch apps are not that great, mostly because of their pokey sluggishness. They can take forever to launch, when defeats the whole point of the Apple Watch; if I can get my iPhone in hand to do something faster than the Watch app loads, then it’s a loss. Thinking about it as something like a smartphone is completely wrong; it’s not a small iPhone but something quite different, and the apps are going to be very different as well. WatchOS 2 will make things interesting, as natives will run natively.

Apple Pay is good fun, but as someone who lives in a rural US county, I’ve only got McDonald’s and Walgreens as places to use it. I did have a great early adopter moment when I paid for something at McDonald’s at the first window with my Apple Watch, and when I pulled to the second window the employee had already heard about it (“Oh my gosh! I just heard you paid with your watch! That is so crazy!”).

 What is great with the Watch is the screen itself with its complications. I really like seeing my next calendar event and the current temperature, all the time. Yet the killer feature for the Apple Watch, surprisingly, is the fitness monitoring. I used to wear a Fitbit One, and it was a great little device (although the sleep wristband broke pretty quickly) but it had a major barrier: to check your steps, you had to either fumble for it or launch the smartphone app and wait for the sync. What should have been a constant and easy monitoring/reminding ended up being pretty inefficient. By the time I thought to check my steps, it was 9 PM and too late for me. Like backups, this sort of information needs to happen behind the scenes.

With the ingenious fitness tracking circles constantly available on the Apple Watch face, you have a constant visual check on your day, and you can note where you are midday and do something about it much more easily. Other trackers have this capability, of course, but to combine it with a watch is a real win (some other trackers did the opposite, having a fitness tracker with watch ability, as with the Fitbit Charge and Surge, Microsoft Band, or Nike Fuelband). Plus, Apple is now in the game theory world, since we all love getting goofy awards and seeing a row of achievements. I was mildly crushed the other day when, after 6 days of hitting my target fitness goal, I missed the next day. Big frown! The power of game theory also means I don’t wear my other watches, since I want my steps counted. The Apple Watch has a constant reason for you to wear it, if you are monitoring the fitness tracking; who wants to lose for a day, after all?

Apple’s use of calories as the common currency for activity monitoring is clever. I understand there are different kinds of calories and calorie burning, but it still gives a simple fungible category between exercise and nutrition (the opposite approach to the Nike Fuel Band, which had a bizarre proprietary number for fitness activity). When you see how long it takes you on the elliptical to burn through that Butterfinger candy bar, it means something.

The notifications are nice as well, although I think it needs more granularity. I don’t want all of my texts on my wrist, after all. The answer to technological efficiencies is not to make them more ubiquitous but to use them for filtering. A constantly buzzing wrist will not help you any with your constantly buzzing smartphone.

There are some areas for improvement. I found that the Apple Watch becomes rather useless when you are somewhere without cell phone signal; it actually panics and goes to the wrong time zone, as the iPhone can do as well. I was surprised that you don’t get credit for steps taken without the Watch on but with your iPhone; it seems like there should be some mutual syncing going on. Additionally, as a lap swimmer, there is no way to record my workouts. I can see how the current system of the Watch only records what it actually measures  is simpler (and you can’t cheat!), but it’s also rather unfair. What is odd is the power of game theory, as I’m tending towards the elliptical machine some days precisely because I want the exercise recorded.

People are very aware of this device, and strangers often ask me if it’s an Apple Watch. This alone is a sign of Apple’s terrific successes in the last decade as a company that makes beloved products that, despite being cold slabs of glass and metal technology, still find a strange intimacy in our lives. The Apple Watch is a real win, and considering that Apple has found a way to innovate a new device in a wildly successful iPhone era, it is a startling achievement.

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