It's official. Smartwatches are here to stay. Now that Apple has entered the product category and legitimized it, other OEMs can breath a big sigh of relief. Had Apple not entered the wearable category there would be some big questions regarding the legitimacy of such devices. But, the smartwatch is a broad category (and hopefully we can now cease hyphenating the words "smart" and “watch”), but there is still much discussion regarding what these devices should do. Now that I've had some time to digest the Apple announcement, I have a few thoughts on the matter.
Feature packed or feature minimal?:
Having set the usability bar so high with its previous devices, many writers in the tech community (myself included) were hoping that Apple would solve this wearable conundrum. What should a smartwatch do? What shouldn't a smartwatch do? What types of gestures and user interface navigation features should be implemented? Historically, Apple is excellent at tackling these challenges. But, this time things are a bit different. With the smartphone and the tablet, industry pundits and users had some expectation of how a phone should work and what it should do. We might not have anticipated the importance of multitouch user interfaces, but we understood that a computer in our pockets was something that we wanted and needed. The tablet simply expanded the phone, but it also gave us a larger canvas for content creation and entertainment. Smartwatches - at least in their current state - don’t really bring anything to the table that our other devices can’t already do. The best quote I’ve heard that summarized this predicament was a tweet that said “Apple Watch: replaces a device you no longer wear to tell time & links to a device you no longer use to call people.”
It’s true. Android Wear has a very interesting and innovative user interface, but other than having a touchscreen and Google Now dictation, it doesn’t offer much more functionality than the Pebble Watch. Push notifications from your phone are handy, but a plethora of wrist notifications means users will spend a great deal of time either swiping them away on their wrist or reaching for their smartphone anyway. It becomes unwieldily. It’s a very expensive luxury. For the smartwatch to be a truly innovative and successful category, it has to do a few things better than both the phone or the tablet, otherwise it has no reason for being. It is for this reason that I disagree with more simplistic approach that Android Wear and the Pebble Watch offer. As a smartphone user, these devices are not compelling enough to spend $150 to $250 on.
First things first, let’s talk about the rectangular design. For me, this is superior to round. I love my round analogue watches, but this is an impractical approach for a smartwatch. Why does it have to be round? I am constantly presented with the same argument: “the consensus is that round is better.” Who was part of this consensus? I certainly was not notified. I received no emails, calls, or instant messages consulting my opinion on the pros/cons of round interfaces. Why is round the design something we must aspire to? My suspicion is because it’s always been done that way. It’s what we know. But, this doesn’t work when trying to envision a new category of device. The display shape should be dictated by the desired function. It makes sense to have a display shape that resembles the other devices we use, so when developers design push notifications or dedicated apps with “glanceable” information, they don’t have to squeeze information into a display with its corners cut off. We don’t have round smartphones or tablets, and we don’t write/read on round paper, so why have a round smartwatch?
— As an aside, the concern surrounding the thickness of the Apple Watch is a bit ignorant. Right now all smartwatches are chunky, probably do the fact that a fairly sizeable battery is required to get these tiny devices through the day. It’s never going to be a Movado (at least not for a few generations), but they’ll get thinner. Apple Watch is thick, but the rounded corners and design is still at least marginally more appealing than the LG G Watch or the Moto 360 for that matter - the latter of which is not only thick but has a enormous one-size fits-all watch face. Apple’s decision to include two sizes was brilliant. What matters more than thickness is the weight (heavy watches are tiring) and how close the band is to bottom of the case. The Apple Watch band looks a bit high. A lower strap would mean users are less aware of how much metal is sitting above their wrists. Again, this will be solved with future iterations. —
The real advancements are the Apple Watch’s considerable feature list - specifically the communication, health, and payments - and the user interface. Like I stated previously, swiping through notifications endlessly isn’t a good user experience, and our fingers cover up smartwatch's limited screen real-estate. If a watch is going to have more advanced features, a new user interface and navigation system is required. The Apple Watch icons seem like a bit of a mess, but it’s hard to say how well or poorly it works until I get my hands on one. Considering their icons are rectangular and organized in a grid on the phone, I’m not sure why they didn’t replicate that. Perhaps this seemingly unorganized system was more successful in user testing. It’s possible that a small display - which restricts the user from seeing all apps from an ariel view - is better suited to a more fluid navigation style. The round icon design also makes me wonder if Apple wanted to build a round faced watch, but couldn’t due to manufacturing or supply constraints for this first generation. Round icons would seem to be better suited for a round display, at least for consistency purposes. Only time will tell.
The “digital crown” (as Apple calls it) is a feature of much contention. The usefulness of this feature is dependant on its smooth operation and whether its not too small or too big. That being said, the idea is reminiscent of the click wheel, since it’s an analogue input. A very innovative idea, but I can see future generations transitioning to a trackpad-style interface along the side of the body - if apple sticks with the rectangular design.
The standout features are going to be ones that smartphones don’t do very well. Health comes to mind. While the sensors on the Apple Watch might function no better than those found on Android Wear, the integration with their Healthkit platform (the details of which are still unknown) will surely provide a better experience than what Google has to offer. Navigation using maps is not ideal on a watch, but turn by turn directions for walkers, runners, and cyclists is extremely useful.
Despite these two, the communication features was what I remember most from the unveiling. Described as “gimmicky” by the tech press, the Apple Watch’s “Taptic Engine” (or haptic as the rest of the world calls it) might be the most underrated feature of all. I love the animated emojis and dictation, but they don’t do much to differentiate the device from Android Wear. Smart Reply is a very innovative feature (picking options from a message for quick replies) but I’m not convinced until I see how reliable it is in action and what its limitations are. Taptic is very interesting and possibilities it opens up are outlined in detail by Even Dashevsky in his PC Magazine article. He argues that vibration and haptic feedback in smartphones have only scratched the surface of what is possible. Vibrations from different areas of a device could signal different things, such as left/right directions for navigation, while others could be application specific such as a Foursquare tip or when you’ve arrived somewhere. Dashevsky elaborates:
...feel-based UIs have the promise of being so much more expansive. The technology already exists to recreate tactile experiences using a solid surface, like Fujitsu's tactile touch screen that can recreate textures and sensations such as rough, smooth, or slippery. Just imagine the possibilities: your device could transmit the feeling of running water if a rain storm is approaching, or a friend could "send" you a sandy sensation to let you know they arrived at the beach. This opens up a whole new dimension of interaction. And a device that literally wraps around your arm would be an ideal conduit.
(check out the Apple Watch live demo in the video below at 1:16:70)
Communication between wearables is something that’s severally lacking in the current crop of devices. It might seem trivial, but the ability to get someones attention by tapping their wrist from afar could be quite intriguing. As Mike Elgan noted in his Computer World article, "you feel the touch, it's part of you." This combined with the many personalization options (watch designs and bands) separates it from the generic looking Android Wear devices.
The smartwatch category is a difficult one to figure out. With the exception of pocket calculators of the 1980s, and some earlier entrants into the market, there is really no frame of reference like there was for the iPhone or iPad. It's a much tougher sell this time around because it's not completely clear to consumers why they need something that replicates so much of the functionality of their existing devices.
My takeaway from the category, so far, is that these devices are going to change a lot. As manufacturers understand what customers want, their devices will reflect that. I still stand by my argument that a push notification system isn't sufficient. We need unique functionality that only a wrist device could do. I think more focused features on health, haptic communication, and navigation will be the key elements to a good smartwatch, and so far Apple's offering seems to be closest to target. Android Wear is limited by design (much like heir phones), since Google cannot "enforce" the use of specific hardware features. They are limited to software. By contrast, Apple can make better use of hardware features (like the Digital Crown) to enhance the user experience, not to mention tie all the wearable functionality into its handsets. Overall, this is a good first attempt at an Apple Watch, and to me it seems very much like the first iPod, iPhone, or iPad. It still needs polish, but I have a feeling it will get there soon.