Apple Watch: A Work in Progress but Packed with Potential

The Smartwatch Looks Set to Push What’s Possible

Apple_WatchI’ve now being using the Apple Watch for over two months and it’s time to offer an initial verdict. It seems my expectations were too high and as a result I’ve been left underwhelmed.

I accept some may feel that’s a harsh assessment given that in just over 80 days, even by the most conservative estimates, the Apple Watch is already the most successful smartwatch in history.

However, my thoughts on the device as it is right now don’t reflect what I consider to be its enormous potential. It has a better chance of success than any other smartwatch so far, and we’re merely at the beginning of that journey. But more of that later.

As it stands, like other devices, the Apple Watch still lacks a feature, service or capability that dramatically improves my life. I think Apple Pay may turn out to be the dramatic improvement I’m looking for, but it’s still early days for Apple’s fledgling service in the UK. It’s been said before, but I still find myself concluding that smartwatches are a solution looking for a problem.

For many people, their first impression is far more positive. The Apple Watch is often the first smartwatch they’ve ever used, which almost guarantees a period of delight. For me, it’s just another in a long line of devices. Since 2013 I’ve used almost 20 different smartwatches — a full list is at the end in case you’re wondering — and they typically remain on my wrist for at least two weeks. I feel this gives me a good chance to assess their capabilities.

What do I find most useful on all these devices? Telling the time and alerts about calls, texts and other information. And essentially the majority of the devices I’ve used do these things.

The Apple Watch is probably the nicest smartwatch I’ve had when it comes to materials and design. But I’m lucky enough to be wearing the $700 stainless steel version with the Milanese Loop band, and at that price it’d better look good. The device also comes with all the hardware refinement that you’d expect from Apple; elements such as the cleverly designed, easily changeable straps have won plaudits from very senior figures from traditional watchmakers that I’ve discussed it with.

However, in my opinion the user experience today is just not there yet. I like it that I can easily change watch faces; although I can do that on Android Wear and Pebble devices too. Then there are the apps: there are dramatically more Apple Watch apps than for other smartwatches, but few offer unique enough experiences to stop me pulling my iPhone out of my pocket. In fact, sometimes it’s much quicker to just look at the phone. By the time an app has fired up on the Apple Watch and the data has transferred from the phone it’s just too late. Of course, Apple has recognised this and native app support will transform this experience — but I’m judging it on today’s experience, not tomorrow’s.

Other notable highlights include the taptic engine, which is definitely the most-refined alerting mechanism I’ve used on a smartwatch, and Siri works pretty well for the odd enquiry or setting a timer.

So with this rather downbeat assessment in mind why am I so bullish about the future prospects for Apple’s product?

Well, this is version 1.0 and Apple has a proven track record of making a nice first device and then slowly but surely making it better and better. I’m not going to lie — I was among those who misjudged the original iPhone. It was easy to pick holes in the first model when it launched: poor battery life, no concessions to operators or subsidy, and missing features like 3G and MMS made it easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. But over time it’s become one of the most transformative electronic devices of our generation. That’s because the product that appeared in 2007 is not the product that hundreds of millions of people are using today. It was a full year before Apple opened the App Store, a major catalyst to the iPhone’s success. I predict we’ll take a similar journey with its watch.

When you go beyond the basic features and think about the sheer potential of the device you start to realise how significant it is. To me, it comes down to offering capabilities that are so compelling it’s not even worth the milliseconds it takes to whip your smartphone out of your pocket.

A perfect example of this is payment. Apple Pay landed in the UK this month. Although I’ve only used it a few times, my initial impression is that having a secure, predictable payment mechanism easily accessible on your wrist is hugely useful, whether you’re buying a coffee or hopping on a bus.

Another inspiring application is an electronic hotel room key – something Apple is already supporting at some Starwood hotels. No more arriving at your room struggling to get an unreliable plastic keycard out of your pocket or wallet, with a coffee in one hand and a suitcase in the other. A tap of the wrist and you’re in.

Things get even better when you add another layer of intelligence. At some point in the future, you’ll arrive at the hotel or approach the counter to pay for your coffee; a nearby beacon will tell your Apple Watch what information you’re likely to need. As if by magic the relevant loyalty card appears on the watch face ready to help you check in or pay for the coffee. These types of rich application are limited only by developers’ imagination and the software needed to create them. Apple is holding up its side of the equation by improving developer software for the watch all the time.

Closer to home there’s further potential to be unlocked. I prescribe to a vision that almost every object in my life will gain some sort of connectivity over the next 20 years. Apple’s clearly betting on this too given the investment it’s making in HomeKit and CarPlay. Blend those capabilities with a device that can control lots of things from your wrist and it starts to get very exciting.

Apple wins in this scenario, because by the end of 2015 it will have by far the largest number of smartwatches out there — well over 10 million units — backed by a vibrant developer community and some of the world’s most affluent consumers. That’s a potent combination that can’t be ignored. Although I might find the Apple Watch underwhelming today, I’m expecting to find it turns into a device that plays a much more important role in my life.

That list of other smartwatches I’ve used: Alcatel Watch, Apple Watch, Basis B1, Basis Peak, Fitbit Surge, LG G Watch, Martian Notifier, Moto 360, Neptune Pine, Samsung Galaxy Gear, Gear Live, Gear 2 and Gear S, Pebble Watch, Pebble Time, Qualcomm Toq, Sony Smartwatch 2, Sony Smartwatch 3 and Wellograph Wellness Watch.