Andy Ihnatko has a complicated relationship with the Apple Watch

SHARE Andy Ihnatko has a complicated relationship with the Apple Watch

Selfie and other photos by Andy Ihnatko

What do I think about the Apple Watch, overall?

I just don’t know.

This has been bothering me since Tuesday. I was at the iPhone and the iPad launch events and though I left with some questions and concerns, I left San Francisco tingling a little bit. I wasn’t unimpressed by Apple Watch, and my thoughts are overall positive. But it concerns me a little that it’s such an important new product for Apple and that they put so much effort into this event … and I’m still not entirely sure what the Apple Watch is or what role Apple thinks it will perform in people’s lives.

I came away with an impression that the hardware is finalized but other things — the “total package” of this device and its world — aren’t. It’s unlike Apple to not tell a complete and well-written story about a new product and if I’m left feeling a little bit fuzzy about what the user experience will be like, I have to believe that it’s because they’re still tying that package together.

If my impression is on the mark, it’d would explain why the event was a little vague on so many aspects of Apple Watch and yet went such deep-dive on the fitness features. I presume that this part of the experience is locked and loaded.

Another issue: I didn’t have the chance to interact with the device for real. So it’s impossible for me to even work out if the digital crown is a great idea. I’ve watched people operate it close-up and on video. I’m left wondering if that’s even an intuitively efficient way of interacting with a device.

And I did actively wonder if all of those different interaction mechanisms — the crown wheel, the crown button, the second clickybutton, the swipes, the taps, the presses of the touchscreen — might be overwhelming and overkill for such a small device.

I watched people demonstrate Apple Watch. I saw fingers fluttering from one interface item to the other. The fingers and wrist of the user’s right hand pivoted and flexed and pivoted again and twisted as fingertips moved from the wheel to the screen back to the wheel then to the second button.

And remember that this is a watch, strapped to a human wrist. It can’t be dogged down too tightly or you’ll cut off the blood flow to your hand. So the demonstrator sometimes used their right thumb to steady the opposite side of the watch while their index finger was working the wheel or pushing the button underneath it.

Mind you, photos, videos and descriptions of the original Mac seemed clumsy to many people who had never worked the mouse themselves. In the abstract, you’re constantly taking your hands of the keyboard to push this chunky bar of soap around the desk and then going back to the keyboard. But in practice, it’s not awkward at all.

So long as I’m comparing the controls of the watch to those on the original Mac mouse, though, I can’t help but point out that it only had one button. The mouses that preceded it has lots of controls but the Mac team decided that with this brand-new device, one button was sufficient and led to a cleaner device that was easier to use.

As to the on-screen interface … it often looked very busy. Apple spoke frequently of the “constellation” of app icons. It left me slightly aghast. This is the “home” screen, not a “screw it, show me everything” menu option; you press the crown in and that’s what you see instead of the watch screen. And it’s dozens and dozens of icons, a veritable snowstorm.

On a tiny screen? On my wrist? Even if I were OK with the clutter, do I really want a hundred of apps on such a device, instead of a simple, tightly curated range of functions?

Yes, I can easily swipe across the starfield and zoom in on the app I want (with lots of hand movements; see above). But if I have this watch on my wrist, I’ll also have an iPhone in my pocket to handle any real “app”-ish needs. I instinctively feel as though this kind of complication is the wrong choice for a watch interface.

Again, these are the impressions of a mere watcher of an Apple Watch user, not an actual user of an Apple Watch. It’s very, very frustrating that I didn’t get a chance to try it for real. I hate offering an opinion like this in ignorance of actual experience so I need to make the context clear. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t be writing about these thoughts if they hadn’t been nagging at me for the past few days.

I’m also bothered that Apple didn’t communicate what role the Apple Watch was meant to play, in general, which is the same struggle that Google and Pebble are facing with their own smart watch concepts. Again, I chalk this up to the fact that it’s still early days and many elements are probably still being locked down.

Screen World

More than anything else, I’m nagged by one question, and I think it’ll define the Apple Watch:

Is Apple Watch meant to help me spend more time looking at screens, or less time?

I think the sweet spot that smart watches can fill is to liberate us from the need to unpocket our phones and unlock them and launch apps all day. For the love of God, all we want to do is to set a reminder, turn the front lights off, or let someone know that I’m stopping off at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way and would you like me to pick you up a butter pecan iced latte?

If the core action is so simple and straightforward, why must it be bookended by so much baggage?

I didn’t fully appreciate how inefficient phones are, and how wasteful they are of my attention, until I started using wearables, such as Google Glass. I’m almost done testing the Moto 360 Android Wear watch (yes, I had it on all day during the Apple event) and what a godsend it was. I raise my wrist to my mouth and the thing I want to do is done in five seconds. I didn’t even have to put down the orange juice in my right hand or the muffin in my left while I stood on the plaza outside, waiting for the event to begin.

The Moto 360, then, is clearly here to help me spend less time looking at screens. The very core concept of Android Wear is to leave you unaware of the very presence of apps. You just see a scrolling stack of cards, each with a single, simple piece of information that’s relevant to your current situation. Glance and go. Don’t stand and stare.

I loved the Apple Watch’s astronomy watch face. That’s the one that lets you zoom through the whole solar system. It creates a sense of delight. I’m grateful to any consumer item that keeps finding ways to put a smile on my face.

But this astronomy watch face engrosses the user. And maybe a watch app that “engrosses” you is making the same mistake as a desktop app with too many buttons. You have no need to ever know when the moon will be in its next Waning Gibbous phase. And yet there you are, standing at the bus stop, spending five minutes flying through the universe, when you just wanted to check the time and make sure that you didn’t miss any important texts.

What happened? You got sucked back into Screen World.

Screen World is a land where time has no meaning. It is a land many thousands of miles away from your current physical location. Buttons dispense an endless supply of food pellets and each pellet makes you want to push the button again and get another pellet instead of turning your attention elsewhere.

So yes, you’re being amused by the universe while you’re at the bus stop and that’s pretty cool. But you’re also being distracted from the real world. It’s a world that faintly smells of urine. OK, I shouldn’t have used a bus stop as an example. But in general, this world is a pretty good one. It’s served the needs of billions of human customers for about 120,000 years, after 4.54 billion years spent getting the place set up and looking nice for us.

(A fact I verified by raising my wrist and asking the Moto 360: “OK, Google … how old is the planet?” and then returning my left hand to the keyboard.)

I come back to Apple’s line about the Apple Watch’s digital crown, and how it lets the user interact with the screen without blocking it with their fingers. I trust Apple to exercise self-restraint in watch app design but I worry about third-party developers. It seems to enable and even ennoble the sort of apps where the user spends ten minutes twiddling a wheel and staring at the display.

(Oh my God: TEMPEST. Someone should totally make a version of the Atari arcade game “Tempest” for this watch. Or Pong. No! “Little Breakout,” the breakout game that came with the Apple II!)

I digress.

Apple sends a message with every product that they build. It just seems to me that showing off a huge constellation of Apple Watch app icons and an “explore the solar system” watch face isn’t sending a message of “simplicity and context.”

I said at the very top of my first column about Apple Watch that we’re all figuring out the proper role for smart watches. Makers, columnists and consumers are all starting from scratch with this concept and we bring our own aspirations to the table.

My personal thoughts about wrist computing is that I already have plenty of desktop, portable and mobile gear for transporting me into Screen World. I want a watch to give me the benefits of a connected computer (information, communication, navigation) with the lowest level of distraction possible. If I ever want to leave the real world and go to Screen World, I’ve got the phone.

I don’t know what the Apple Watch is, but it seems like it wants me to spend time looking at it. It wants to be a destination, not an incidental transaction.

And in places, Apple Watch left me downright puzzled. Apple showed off Photos. It connects to the photo stream in your cloud and thus, conceivably, to every photo you’ve ever taken. Use the touchscreen and the crown to fly through this field of minuscule dots and turn them into viewable images of places and people and events.

But … why?

Again: My iPhone is right in my pocket. As I stare at the blinking cursor here in front of me I’m leaning back in my seat and trying to imagine a scenario in which doing that on a tiny screen with one hand would be preferable to using the nice big phone in my pocket. Looking at a photo on my wrist isn’t more convenient, it isn’t a better viewing experience, and it’s no good for showing the photo to someone else.

What if the feature is just there so I can send a recent photo to someone via the watch? OK, but wouldn’t that be easier to do on the phone? Again: It’s. Right. There.

I hope you see what I’m talking about. Apple convinced me that the Apple Watch is an exceptional piece of hardware that is capable of doing many exceptional things. After listening to a full Apple rollout presentation and then spending about an hour with it in the demo area, though, I’m left with a lot of fundamental questions. It’s a nice computer, but is it a relevant wrist computer?

When Apple introduced the iPhone, I was immediately convinced (even before I got to play with it hands-on) that they’d designed a new kind of computer that was perfectly suited to the ideology and context of a pocket-size thing that you carry everywhere and hold in one hand. They’d figured out the difference between the reasons why someone pulls a phone out of a pants pocket and why they pull a laptop out of a bag. It was clearly the result of months of arguments about what the user’s relationship with the iPhone was meant to be.

I had the same sort of experience with the iPad. I have an iPhone and I have a MacBook. What role would a 9.7-inch multitouch tablet fill? If Apple wasn’t explicit about what that role would be, specifically, I was left with a certainty that a unique role existed, and that the iPad could fill it.

I’m bothered that I didn’t walk away from this launch event with the conviction that the Apple Watch is perfectly aligned with the ideology and context of a device on a wrist.

The thought festers. The iPhone and the iPad rollouts left me with a tingling sensation at the back of my neck. I liked the Apple Watch. But I’m feeling a great deal of caution. I still need to know so much more about it.

Don’t interpret that as criticism. I can’t underscore this strongly enough: I don’t have enough information to base any conclusions about the Apple Watch, besides how good it looks on my wrist.

(Very. Particularly with the serpentine metal band.)

The other thing I ought to note is that it’s not like there’s one right solution to wrist computing. Things are in flux.

Speaking of smart watches in general, I don’t want a watch that forces me to switch my brain to “using my smart watch” mode and then back to what I was doing. Others might like staring at a watch screen for minutes at a time. If it makes them happy and suits their needs, who am I to tell them to feel differently?

In any event, it’s still way too early for anybody to really judge Apple Watch. It’s a work in progress, shown months ahead of release. I expect, and hope, that on the day of the formal rollout a clearer picture will have emerged, and Apple will have finished writing the storybook.

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