What’s an Apple Watch Good For?

What’s an Apple Watch Good For?

Shane BarnhillThursday,30 April 2015

I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch for about 6 days now. It’s a handy device, with several convenient features that I’ll get to below, but I think my overall reaction to the watch thus far is best summed up in this brief Twitter exchange with my friend Lauren:


Although the Apple Watch launched with over 3000 apps — an impressive feat, considering that most developers had to build their apps using emulators, with no ability to test them on actual hardware — it’s clear to me that there aren’t any killer apps for the Apple Watch yet. Just as the essential, killer apps for the desktop (e.g. Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop) didn’t immediately translate over as killer apps for mobile devices, most killer mobile apps (e.g. Instagram) don’t translate over to the wrist very well.

Instagram is an especially good case in point. There are a lot of reasons why Instagram became successful so quickly, but in part it was just the right product at the right place at the right time. It’s location aware, takes advantage of decent-quality phone cameras, ties in with existing social channels, and doesn’t rely on an abundance of text input. But imagine if Instagram had been developed for the desktop, before the rise of smartphones. Maybe it could have surpassed Flickr for photo storage and sharing, but it wouldn’t have been an everyday app, along for the ride as the twin rockets of iOS and Android took off. It’s just perfect for smartphones.

But on the Apple Watch, Instagram is terrible. Photos are too small to appreciate (see image, below), the app’s feed is limited to a small number of photos, and the stripped-down set of features that were ported over from the mobile app aren’t useful or fun. I can’t see myself using Instagram on the Apple Watch with any regularity. Everything that makes Instagram fun — beautiful photos and an easy, lean-back experience — feels like work on the Apple Watch.  It’s just not going to be able to make the jump from the phone to the wrist very well.

(Obligatory hairy wrist photo. This time, of Instagram.)

Now, there are some apps that are very good on the Apple Watch, mainly because they’ve kept their features simple and have not tried to replicate what worked for them on mobile phones. BuzzFeed does a good job with simple, one-touch quizzes, and The New York Times’ app, which provides single-sentence summaries of the day’s top stories, has become one of my go-to “glances.” Apple’s Workout app is easy-to-use, although it still feels spartan. And it sure is convenient to be able to take calls on my wrist while driving, instead of struggling to fish my iPhone 6+ out of my pocket with one hand, while driving with the other. But none of these apps provide “killer app” use cases that will propel them to massive downloads and tens of millions of incremental daily active users (although you could argue that wrist-based calling will be a godsend for people who live in states with “hands free” laws to prevent distracted driving).

A few other quick takeaways:

This is not a conspicuous piece of jewelry and/or gadget. Nobody has even noticed the Apple Watch on my wrist, except in the few cases when it caused me to violate social norms, such as when I held up a line in Whole Foods while trying to use Apple Pay for the first time, or when I broke eye contact during a work meeting in order to look at an incoming message. And then there was the time that I opened the workout app just as the puck was dropping during my weekly hockey game. My fellow defenseman simply skated over and said, “Seriously, dude? You’re screwing around with your ‘iWatch’ as the game is getting started?”

The user interface still needs some work. For example, Apple’s Force Touch is a great way to help people interact with devices without adding additional buttons. It’s a joy to use on the Apple Watch when it’s an obvious option, and it will eventually change how iPhone owners interact with their phones. But it’s rarely clear when Force Touch is available and when it isn’t; I often find myself pressing on my watch’s screen thinking, “Well, is this all there is, or is something else available that I’m missing?”

The Workout app is decent, but very limited. The post-workout statistics are nice, and the interface for logging a new workout is simple, but the default workouts — running, walking, cycling, rowing, stair-stepping and using elliptical machines — will leave a lot of people feeling left out. For example, I usually play hockey, lift weights and practice yoga during the week, but the Apple Watch’s workout app just provides a catch-all “Other” option for capturing these activities, and it doesn’t seem to value them very highly. I get credit for far fewer steps and calories burned from these activities than I do from using my FitBit Charge HR and Jawbone UP.

Apple Watch - Workout app

But it’s just so damn convenient. There may not be any must-have apps yet that are exclusive to the Apple Watch, but after a few days, you do start to get used to not having to pull your phone out of your pocket for reading notifications, fielding phone calls, or checking your calendar. You’re probably rolling your eyes as you read that statement — and you should be — because it sounds like a super lazy thing to say. And it is. But it’s fantastic.

Lastly, this product is a luxury, not one that anyone “needs.” Consequently, expect the market size for the Apple Watch to be dramatically smaller than the market size for the iPhone. Apple sold over 135 million iPhones during its first two quarters of 2015, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it took a decade for Apple to sell that many watches (I don’t think the market size will actually be that small, but I wouldn’t be stunned if it were the case, either).

In summary, don’t rush out and buy an Apple Watch, unless you’re a huge dork like me. The app ecosystem still needs to mature (after all, it’s been less than a week), the user interface is likely to see some dramatic improvements, and as a fitness device, the Apple Watch isn’t enough of an upgrade over fitness bands being offered from companies like FitBit and Jawbone. But there’s something about the Apple Watch that does grab you after a few days, leaving you with the distinct feeling that you don’t ever want to go back to the way things were before you tried one.

But what is that value proposition, exactly?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

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Hat Tips:

TechCrunch, Quora, The Verge, The New York Times, Apple, Apple InsiderImage Credit: Flickr

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