The Apple Watch Turns Four: Some Thoughts

Four years ago today, the Apple Watch went on sale. Like many of Apple’s biggest hits, it wasn’t immediately well-understood. I think that was partly because of the distraction of the solid gold Edition model, and also partly because of the way the company pitched it. Like the iPhone’s infamous iPod, phone, and internet communicator setup, the Apple Watch was three things: a precise and customizable timepiece, an intimate communications device, and a health and fitness companion. It debuted in two sizes, classified by case material into three collections, all with a bunch of different band options, and with feature-rich software and third-party app availability. In hindsight, I think the rollout of the Apple Watch was unnecessarily complicated for a first-generation product.

But several generations of Apple Watch models and WatchOS versions later, that almost doesn’t matter. The watch has been, it is safe to say, a resounding success for the company. Apple has never broken out sales figures for it, but it’s likely one of the best-selling device families they’ve ever done. From a convoluted and much-mocked start, it has grown to become an invaluable accessory for millions. One more reason it was so often misunderstood: it’s truly the kind of product that you need to use to understand it.

I bought my first shortly after Apple started shipping them in 2015; I liked my Apple Watch so much that I replaced it with a Series 1 model the same day I shattered my Sport’s display in December 2016. But despite the allure of recent models’ GPS capabilities and far nicer industrial design, I have not had the itch to upgrade.

The Apple Watch is, for me, a highly polarizing product within my own head. That is: the things I like about it I really like about it; the things that I do not are deeply frustrating. I think its small size and more limited nature concentrate and amplify its high points as much as its flaws.

I adore the activity and fitness tracking, for example. In an office job, it’s far too easy to remain seated for hours at a time, standing up only to refill a coffee cup or water bottle, or to use the restroom. Similarly, it’s not uncommon for many people to spend a majority of their day barely moving their limbs: you get in the car, you stand in an elevator, you sit at your desk, and then you get back in the elevator and get in your car to go home — and this is likely even more sedentary for those who work from home. I don’t necessarily have the most extreme version of this as I have a walking commute, but reminders to get some physical activity are welcomed, particularly on the weekend and in the winter. Because of the Apple Watch, I walk through Calgary’s excellent indoor walkway system during the winter instead of taking the train to and from work.

I also like some of the smart watch face features. It feels completely natural for me to glance at my watch to check the weather or to see what appointments or reminders I have that day. Having Siri on my wrist is also a revelation. These features combine to help create the kind of passive technology future many of us have dreamed of. If only I could tilt my wrist and see when the next bus or train is due to arrive — that would nearly complete a feeling of immersion.

And then there are some of the finer things that are made possible because the watch is persistently authenticated throughout the day. Paying with my wrist doesn’t always feel natural, but virtually every transit pass I’ve bought since Apple Pay became available in Canada was purchased from my Apple Watch. I also think the ability to automatically unlock my iMac is sublime.

But then there are the things that I feel more negative about, and which have not meaningfully changed over the past four years — the worst of which is the third-party app ecosystem on the device. Even though I have a Series 1 Apple Watch, this has little to do with speed and everything to do with functionality. It feels like third-party developers either cannot figure out what they want to do with their WatchOS apps, or they’re not able to do what they want because of API limitations.

While the fit and finish of the hardware is nice and getting nicer — and the rectangular shape is apt for the many list-based functions of the device — it’s still a little strange to see so many people wearing the exact same watch every day. Band customization only gets you so far, no matter how good the bands are — and they are very good, indeed — and how fantastic the band changing system is; it’s still the same easily-identifiable watch everyone else is wearing. And it’s a little frustrating that it has to be a watch; in the morning, it’s a choice between wearing a traditional watch or wearing my Apple Watch. Rather than augmenting what I already wear, it replaces something.

I’m also not wholly convinced that pushing notifications to my wrist is somehow beneficial for either my phone use or my attentiveness. The notifications that go to my watch are limited to messages, custom Slack notifications,1 phone calls, and activity stuff, but I still have to use my iPhone to act upon virtually all of these. Also, looking at my phone during a meeting or while talking with a friend is considered rude, and I’m not sure looking at my watch is much better. I like that I can look at my watch and make a judgement right away whether it’s something that needs my attention now, or if it’s something I can deal with later; but, because notifications are generally irritating, I’ve already limited them to things that I generally act upon immediately. In general, I still think that devices need to do a better job of managing notifications.

Finally, there’s something about wearing an Apple Watch with my AirPods in my ears while looking at an iPhone that makes me feel, well, a little bit dorky. I don’t want to make a big deal out of this; I’m sure it’s just elevated levels of self-consciousness that are more indicative of who I am than of the device. This is almost certainly a me problem. But, still.

The Apple Watch has been on my mind lately for a couple of reasons, but one main one: my Series 1 is rapidly giving up the ghost. The first release of WatchOS 5.2 made its battery drain by early afternoon every day. And, even though recent beta seeds have restored its all-day battery life, I haven’t stopped thinking about what I would replace it with. Apple still offers the Series 3 which would give me plenty of new features at an affordable price, yet it’s in the same chunky case as the watch I have now. Spending over $500 in Canada would get me the Series 4 with its far nicer industrial design, and I’m just not sure it’s worth the cost for how I use it.

So, I dug out my old Boccia that I haven’t worn much since I got my first Apple Watch. It doesn’t have the same fit and finish as my Apple Watch; its band is not as easily swapped. It does not display the weather. It does not tell me when I should get some exercise. But it feels nice. It’s coincidental that the battery I needed for it arrived yesterday, but I’ve been wearing it all day, and I really like it. And this is not an expensive watch; if I were to spend $500 on a new watch, that would buy a pretty nice timepiece. It’s not Tudor or Omega money, but it would get me a decent Seiko or Citizen. Or I can leave it in the bank and add to it for a watch that’s far more like a piece of jewellery than it is a wrist computer. Even the nicest stainless steel Apple Watch is still identifiable primarily as a device.

Like I said, it’s a complete coincidence that all of this discovery happened around the fourth anniversary of the Apple Watch’s launch; but, this fortuitous timing gives me the opportunity to assess how it has built upon the first-generation product’s three pillars:

  • A precise and customizable timepiece: All computer clocks are precise; nobody expected the Apple Watch to struggle to keep time. This seemed like a silly and hyperbolic factor against which the Apple Watch should be judged. As far as customizability is concerned, case colours and different bands only get you so far; its hardware still screams “Apple Watch”.2 However, WatchOS updates have made it far more personalized with features like the Siri watch face and better third-party app integration.

  • An intimate communications device: I now know a lot of people with an Apple Watch, but I don’t know anyone who uses Digital Touch, shares their heartbeat, or even responds to texts with their watch. These features have not changed much over time, and the device’s size dictates its often awkward interaction mechanisms. Perhaps you frequently take calls on your watch or respond to texts with your voice, and that’s fine; it’s just not something I’ve seen a lot of people doing, even while they’re working out.

  • A health and fitness companion: This is, by far, the area where I think the Apple Watch has succeeded the most, and Apple has demonstrated this year after year by adding health features. The Workout app has come a long way since its launch, with new categories of workouts, workout detection, and a far simpler design. Newer generations of Apple Watch have added fall notification and an ECG, which I still think is wildly impressive. This is where I see myself continuing to use my Apple Watch in a more limited capacity, as it’s what I’ve been using it primarily for every day since I got it: taking my Apple Watch off broke my 379 day streak of closing all my rings. I’m a little bummed about that.

The Apple Watch seems to be excelling in one of its three pillars, doing fine in another, and totally missing the mark on the third. Apple is clearly learning what people use their Apple Watch for and adjusting accordingly, investing most heavily in its fitness and health features.

I have also learned something over the last four years that I’ve used an Apple Watch: I learned that my hesitance to upgrade is not from a lack of new features — there are plenty of those — but almost the opposite. I don’t know that I want more of anything happening on my wrist; I guess I just want less.

  1. I have a Slack workspace all for myself with some custom news alerts and push notifications set up. It’s kind of like a roll-your-own notification service for stuff that I care about. It’s quite silly, granted, but it works for me. ↥︎

  2. The Apple Watch’s hardware is notable for introducing three interaction mechanisms: Force Touch, the Taptic Engine, and the Digital Crown.

    Force Touch has been applied across Apple’s product line: it’s used for trackpads on the Mac, and its general principles were brought to the iPhone with 3D Touch. But its role on the Apple Watch has been scaled back since the first release of WatchOS, and 3D Touch is a mixed bag. Maybe the best current implementation of Force Touch is with the nearly solid-state trackpads in Apple’s current notebook lineup and in the second-generation Magic Trackpad, but I don’t use any of the Force Touch stuff in MacOS.

    The Digital Crown continues to baffle me. It’s a smart way to use the language of a knob that’s present on pretty much all watches. But so much of the interaction in WatchOS remains screen-dependent, which means that I often see people touching their Apple Watch screens instead of using the Digital Crown.

    The Taptic Engine has been a resounding success, as far as I’m concerned. It is among the finest physical interaction methods I’ve used on any device, particularly in its iPhone implementation. The vibration motors in most phones suck; some phones still ship with shitty buzzy vibrator mechanisms in 2019. The Taptic Engine in the Apple Watch is equally great; its strong pulses on the wrist feel sophisticated, not obtrusive. ↥︎