I recently began wearing an Apple Watch regularly. Generally I’m not a watch guy haven’t been since I gave up my calculator watch in the late ’80s but in recent years I’ve learned to appreciate some of the utility features of smartwatches.
I especially like the notifications, which necessitate only a glance at the wrist instead of the heavier lift literally and figuratively of digging my iPhone out of my pocket. First world problems, sure, but those are really what the Apple Watch (and, arguably, all consumer tech) was designed to address.
Other aspects of the Apple Watch frustrate me, though. For starters, there’s no ambient mode, meaning you can’t just flip a setting that’ll keep the watch face on all the time. To see the time, you need to tap the screen, push one of the buttons, or move your wrist in a significant way. For all of Apple’s claims of to-the-microsecond accuracy, the lack of ambient mode actually makes the Apple Watch worse at telling the time than a regular watch, which always has the time ready to serve up, even when you just sneak a peek at it without moving a muscle.
That’s five steps for something that should be two at the most.
In using the Apple Watch day to day, I’m also annoyed that audio playback controls what I would consider a fundamental feature of the watch are buried. If you’re listening to, say, a podcast, in order to pause playback you first need to move your wrist, press the home button, swipe to the Now Playing “glance” (the term Apple uses for app screens), tap to activate the glance, then tap again to actually press pause. That’s five steps for something that should be two at the most.
I could go on. But I also want to be clear: None of these individual gripes ruins what is otherwise a fine wearable gadget. The Apple Watch is a well-designed piece of hardware, and taking into account Apple’s signature marrying of software and hardware I’d go as far to say as it’s the best smartwatch money can buy.
But as the Apple Watch has evolved, it’s become clear that Apple prioritizes some customers over others. When Apple unveiled the Apple Watch Series 2 last fall, the biggest upgrades were better waterproofing for swimmers and the Nike+ version for runners. The watch had always been a fitness tracker, but now it was doubly so.
On June 5, Apple will kick off its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), and it’s widely expected the company will continue with this wearable-health kick. More sophisticated health tools for watchOS are surely on deck, and we might even get an official look at the blood-glucose Apple Watch accessory Tim Cook’s apparently been spotted wearing.
That’s all well and good, but health and fitness occupy just one part of the smartwatch experience. With their ability to bring alerts, maps and other useful messages to your wrist, smartwatches have an informational component that I’d argue has wider appeal to the broader iPhone-buying public. And, apart from the UI clean-up in watchOS 3, Apple has shown little interest in refining that side of the equation.
Besides fitness, Apple likes to play up the Apple Watch as a fashion accessory, but this unnecessarily holds back the watch, too. With respect to design, Apple treats the watch like a Faberg egg artistically considered to the point where every design decision had just one answer and no other. That plays into Apple Watch-as-jewelry image (and helps sell those Edition models), but it’s left fans of round watches which many find aesthetically superior out in the cold.
In a slightly different way, that same attitude is behind the choice to eschew ambient mode. It’s understandable: Having the watch face on all the time would significantly impact battery life. But you could say the same thing about several features of the iPhone 7 (screen brightness, background app refresh, and auto-lock timeout to name just a few), and I don’t see Apple limiting those to absolutely ensure the phone lasts all day. But for some reason Apple Watch users don’t get the option.
All this speaks to the kind of Apple Watch user Apple wants to cultivate: fashionably discerning, addicted to fitness, supremely trusting in Apple’s hardware design. In other words, just like the folks who work at Apple Park in Cupertino.
No offense to those people, but they’re not the entirety of Apple’s customer base, and it’s here where the Apple Watch unnecessarily limits itself. The iPhone has a lot of things that make it special and unique among smartphones, but ultimately it’s a deceptively simple window to your digital life. Whether that life revolves around social media, business, entertainment, work, sports the little glass slab in your hand doesn’t judge.
But the Apple Watch does. It sits there, encouraging you to breathe, nudging you to stand up, or to just marvel at its polished contours and its hyper-accurate second hand. “Be more like us,” it almost seems to whisper in the voice of Tim Cook or Jony Ive.
No thanks. I’d rather be more like me.