One Year with the Apple Watch

IMG_3279It’s now almost a year ago I got my Apple Watch. Originally, I found it a quite silly idea, and mostly got it because I found the idea of the iPad equally silly when it was first released, but would have a hard time without my tablet today.

The biggest thing I wanted from the Apple Watch was a remote for my iPhone during biking. At the time I spent 3-4 hours a day commuting on my bike, and wanted something that would let me stay up-to-date on my mails, news, audio books/podcasts, fitness tracker, and mapping. All the stuff I at great risk to my general well-being was pulling my phone out of my pocket to do.

I already wrote a long piece detailing what the iPhone misses for cyclists, most of which are still relevant today. They can for a large part be summarized as: ways to interact with my phone without requiring me to pull out my phone, unlock it, and use the screen.

I got my Apple Watch from Galeries Lafayette as the Netherlands typically falls in the 2nd or 3rd European release wave for Apple, and I happened to be in Paris anyway. I got the small sports edition, which is the cheapest model. The larger model just looks too big on my arm and I didn’t want to spend a lot on a first generation Apple product.

For the longest time, the Apple Watch had essentially two functions: reminding me to stand up every hour at ten to the hour and making people ask what I thought of the Apple Watch. There wasn’t really anything in the form of applications, and the on s that were there sucked because Apple got applications entirely wrong on the first attempt. More on that later.

IMG_6622IMG_6195The fitness functions of the Watch are… Ok, I guess? I enjoy the reminder to stand up, and if anybody is creepy or aspie enough to keep track, they would notice I several times during the day get up to go the crapper or fetch tea at ten minutes to the hour, which is when the Watch gives a warning if I’ve not moved so far the past hour. I am pretty good at keeping my 12 hours of standing for at least 1 minute most days. For actual activity tracking, it’s not really that hot, though. I already have both Facebook Moves and Withings for tracking steps and Sportstracker and Moves for tracking workouts (using Sportstracker for actual workouts, Moves for keeping track of day-to-day movement). I dislike having to switch on the tracker manually (Moves does this automatically and it’s GREAT!), but like to use the tracker as an easily accessible speedometer while biking.

IMG_6623The first generation of the software didn’t allow proper apps. It only allowed shitty remotes for iPhone apps, which meant they were about as interactive as the political system and about as slow as well. When apps first came out, I was excited and immediately got some of my favorites like OmniFocus and Deliveries. Problem is, they just didn’t work. The application model was so shitty, the applications were useless. I use OmniFocus for keeping track of todo items, but the app was so slow it would always be faster to pull out my phone and check there instead. If I decided to wait – perhaps I was grocery shopping and getting my grocery list on my Watch instead of hauling around my phone like some big-glassed nerd – I could always look forward to the checked items not getting reliably synchronized. It’s not a jab at the application; if anybody gets Mac and iOS development right, it’s Omni Group. The watch just didn’t allow them to make a usable application.

IMG_6445The second watchOS improved on this – now applications could run almost natively and have better synchronization. OmniFocus now actually works and even keeps sync mostly working. It’s great that I can see number of outstanding todo items in my watch face as a complication. Which is a watch term apparently, that everybody now uses and pretends they always knew because Apple introduced it and technobabble really works for selling products.

I use my watch as a light switch. Since I got it I stumbled upon a house and bought it. I installed Philips Hue lights everywhere because I’m a huge nerd like that. While I do have light switches, I use my watch to control the lights around half the time. If I’m doing stuff in the kitchen, it’s practical to just tell Siri “turn the kitchen lights on,” instead of having to track over the extra cm to the light switch. I use it sitting at my computer to switch on office lights without having to get up, and as part of my daily ritual going to bed, I finish by telling Siri to “switch the lights off.”

I love the walking directions – the first days with the Watch, I was in Paris and would just set a goal and walk in the general direction of, say, Louvre and have the watch subtly give my directions by gently buzzing. That works really well. I enjoy having weather information on my wrist and check it in the morning to decide how to dress for the 15 minutes bike ride to work. Same goes for my daily schedule and to some extent for notifications.

But I don’t really use any apps anymore. I don’t really use it for notifications. Many of the things I wanted from the Watch it doesn’t deliver on. A big part is that starting with the iPhone 6s the new TouchId sensor works so well that unlocking my phone is effortless, and checking notifications or mails is a breeze. Interacting with the Apple Watch sucks.

There, I said it. Interacting with the Apple Watch sucks, so I try doing so to the point where I use it very little. A large part is the format and I believe the watch should just show what I want when I want without me having to do anything, but more on that later. The direct interaction problems stem from two things – perhaps event just one of the two is the root cause. The first is that the watch sucks at recognizing taps on the screen. When I’m biking to work, I put my Watch in fitness mode using Siri (because other ways are a royal pain) but when I arrive, I to that force touch thing to bring up the controls. I then tap the “end workout” button. Again and again, because it seems to never recognize it. Sure, my fingers maybe moist from the weather, may be cold and it might be hard to distinguish an accidental brush against the watch from an intentional touch. I don’t care. I want it to just work and it doesn’t. When I have to select an app from that overview screen it almost never works the first time. Using the screen is an exercise in frustration and I always have to push several times to accomplish anything. Except when I don’t but out of habit still do and get sent somewhere else.

The recognition problem may be caused by the other problem or they may be independent, but the big problem is that the watch is just too damn slow. Start an app and prepare to wait a second or two for loading and another couple seconds for its data to load from the phone. It is bad with applications optimized for the second generation software and worse than hitler on a unicorn on applications that still use the first generation frameworks.

IMG_6626You would think that hating to use the screen, I could just use Siri instead, and I actually do. I’m not a fan of Siri in the first place, largely because it has a hard time understanding me. My language situation is probably more complicated than that of most, being native Danish, surrounded by Dutch speakers every day and spending most of my time speaking English with an accent that’s most often mistaken for British (I prefer to think of it as Britneyish). I’ve set up Siri to respond in an Australian accent because why not. None of this makes speech recognition easier, I know, but I again don’t care. I care that the end result is I often have to restate my commands according to the speech recognition. For example, Siri sucks at distinguishing my “start” from “stop.” Which arguably are not the same. It also doesn’t really cope well with my “cycling,” so my “start cycling” command to start the fitness tracker to avoid the horrible screen interface instead becomes “stop sucking.” It makes sense, but I just get greeted by “surely, I don’t know what you mean.”

Siri also suffers from slowness; it takes around half a second from me pushing the button till the Siri screen shows up, another second or so before the animation thing indicates it hears what I say, and yet another half a second before it buzzes to indicate it listens. Sometime it can understand things immediately, sometimes I have to wait. This means I generally have to wait several seconds from I want something done till Siri listens. Or I have to repeat my command, which is why people in Vaartbroek every morning can hear me practically beg Siri several times to “begin biking,” because I’ve learned this variation of “start cycling” works the most often.

IMG_6450It also sucks that the watch has such a complex communication pattern. It makes it slow and error prone. I realize the connection to switch off my lights is a heck more complicated than somebody would wouldn’t neurotically over-engineer shit would make it. My watch needs to connect to my phone via Bluetooth, which connects via my wifi to my homebridge for lights, which finally uses a ZigBee mesh network to connect to individual light bulbs. But, again, I don’t care. Just make it work. I don’t want this to take seconds or even fail, yet I have to put up with both for an uncomfortable proportion of the time. It might not be entirely the Watch’s fault, but I know that the light switches, which have to go thru an almost equally complex procedure and is almost-instantaneous and fails much less. The app on my phone almost never fails.

I see connection problems a lot when I’m on the edge of networks; in my garage I’m on the edge of coverage of my wifi, so Siri almost always fails even though I have that feature a lot of people don’t know or hate, which makes the iPhone switch to cellular if wifi is limited. The same is true near the toilets at work, which makes checking mail hard after I’ve been using the facilities, because let’s pretend I don’t do most of my business mail correspondence on the crapper.

In the previous, I’ve several times complained about things getting delayed for several seconds. It might sound like I’m just some ADHD impatient smuck, but the entire point of the watch is to be immediate available and more convenient than pulling out my phone. And it isn’t, with the one exception when I want to put on music in the shower after my morning summary from WSJ/Audible has finished.

I’m sure that Apple will fix some/most of the speed problems in the next generation. The first iPhone also sucked. Eventually, they’ll also work on the connection and screen issues to the point interaction actually becomes possible. Even then, I think a large part of the interaction metaphor is flawed.

IMG_3595The reason I have an Apple Watch instead of either some (even more) over-priced status symbol watches, or just using my smart phone like a homeless person, is to have information readily available. I’ve already mentioned that I love having the outside temperature, my schedule, and number of todo items readily available. There as bunch of extra information that would be useful to have available at times, but I don’t want to have to interact with the watch to get to it. Sure, I have an app that can let me know if it’s about to rain in the next 30 minutes – super useful for planning when to head home from work – I have apps that can tell me when the next train/plane leaves, how many unread mails I have, whether I had my vitamins in the morning, and so on and so on. But I don’t want to start apps!

I think the watch should completely ditch the app model. Instead just have information screens, and let me out much more information into them. It should be something like the android widget home screens, except the widgets (sorry, COMPLICATIONS) should be much more alive. Apps can add one or more widgets; at the simplest the widget just displays an icon, but it can also be more interactive, such as a “transport” widgets, which shows when the next train/plane leaves, when it arrives if I’m on the plane.

Functionality that’s currently special should just be special cases of this. Notifications are special and I honestly don’t think they need to be. Make a number of widgets from just a dot like we have now, including steps like showing number of notifications or even showing the last notification. I’m torn whether notifications should be shown centrally or, e.g., my latest message should be shown in a messaging app widget. Currently, my watch is wasting a button to hail up a screen full of apps. Have it hail another screen of widgets. Same for the current notification screen. And get rid of the glances at the bottom.

Just give me plenty of custom areas to get information; sure set them up in a particular way using defaults, but as it is now, the notification screen is largely useless – either I have just one notification – or, more likely, the one notification I just got and care about has been dismissed because it’s bugging me – or I have so many the notification area is useless anyway. The glances are useless because they take up an entire screen, which means I have to scroll every time I want some information, and that information is not up-to-date anyway, so I just give up.

This would also solve one of my other big gripes: full-screen apps. When I go biking, I put on the fitness tracker. Sometimes I throw on a map. Both are full screen applications, which means only one is active at a time. I largely don’t care about the fitness tracker, but it does show some stats that amuse me (mostly the speedometer). Most of the time I don’t care about the directions, just want to know when to turn next or the general direction we should be going. This means that looking at my watch, the visible app is probably not the one I want. Sure I could switch apps, but that requires two hands (one for having the watch on the other to desperately try and coercing the shitty interface to recognize my touch commands) making it even more dangerous to control than my phone which has sent me face first hugging the asphalt more than once already. It gets worse when I try controlling the music to the point where I often revert to using Siri on my phone instead. It’s a sad state of affairs when trying to make Siri understand whatever moon speak my begging English has deteriorated into to make myself understandable to a computer is the more convenient choice.

Also, fucking fix the navigation to work on bikes. It’s retarded that I have to spend the entire ride listening to “please return to route” because I’m 5 meters to the right of where it thinks the road is. As it is, I off ten have to remove the step-by-step navigation, where the watch shines, and instead use the holocaust of a navigation scheme to get to the map and squint at the 38mm “large” screen to get a vague idea of where I am and where I’m a competition against the watch trying to fetch that information from my phone.

Much of this was written on an iPad while waiting to board a plane. I have my boarding pass on my watch, so I don’t have to fish out my phone. Except some places they want to see the destination or departure date and some places want to read the barcode, which of course don’t fit on the screen at once. And it turns out that readers shaped for paper doesn’t fit my arm and holding the watch face down on a reader on top of a table requires more dexterity than a fat guy my age can reasonable be expected to be able to exhibit. Another case of great idea that almost works.

I’m sure at least some of the things will happen. My guess is that Apple is holding out on the second generation in part because they need a much faster chip so they can fix at least the sluggishness of the watch. Hopefully also some of the communication problems. They have historically been listening to sensible critique and changed their devices – just compare the current generation iPhones to the first. The first was extremely unimpressive and limited compared to what we see today, with Apple only introducing features when the heard ware can support it adequately. The iPad was way ahead of the release schedule, and while the first iPad was bulky as all hell, it was a superbly well-working device. The Apple Watch is not. It was just not ready for prime time, but I might get the second one as well if the feature set seems compelling.

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