By John Gruber
Josh Lowensohn, writing for The Verge on Google’s latest update to Android Wear:
Two other changes Google’s made in the update impact what you see on screen, and how you interact with it. One is a new low-power mode for the screen when you’re not actively looking at it. It allows apps to ambiently display just a minimal amount of data, usually in black and white, without a gesture to turn the screen on. Google already does this for your watch face, but is opening up the feature for apps too. This is especially useful for things like shopping lists, fitness apps, and music controls, Chang says. Developers will now be able to tweak how often the information you see gets updated in the low-power mode, but it could ultimately mean less fiddling.
This is a significant difference between Android Wear and Apple Watch. Apple Watch and most1 Android Wear watches use OLED displays, on which black pixels consume little power. Apple Watch embraces its OLED display by presenting an “on” UI where almost everything has a black background — its watch faces, the app home screen, and all of the built-in apps have black backgrounds. When you read email on Apple Watch, it’s white text on a black background. It’s a very different aesthetic from iOS and Mac OS, where the default has always been black text on a white background. The other thing worth noting is that when Apple Watch is “off”, the screen turns off completely. It’s just black.
Android Wear has a colorful Material Design-style UI for its “on” state — white backgrounds and lots of primary colors, very much the same aesthetic design as Google’s apps for Android and iOS. It looks like what its name implies: a version of Android running on a watch. Its “off” state, though, uses a black background and a small amount of static (non-animated) status information. Like, say, the hour and minute hands of an analog clock face, and/or the text of your most recent notification. Like with Pebble, something is displayed on screen unless the device is truly powered off. This is undeniably useful, and something like this ambient mode for Apple Watch would address my complaint about not being able to glance the time without moving my wrist at all.
Apple’s approach is more conservative energy-wise in both “on” and “off” states. Google’s leaves something informative on screen at all times.
Apple’s decision to have the screen display nothing while “off” was clearly a concession to battery life. But I’m convinced that Apple chose the black-background look for the “on” state more for aesthetic reasons than for battery life — a fundamental aspect of Apple Watch’s design is that you can almost never see where the screen ends and the surrounding bezel begins. It’s a compelling, elegant effect. The battery-life advantages of this design are just a nice side effect. ★
A weekend Twitter thread regarding custom watch faces for Android Wear and the prospects of custom faces for Apple Watch led me to FaceRepo, a repository of downloadable watch faces for Android Wear. Remember the sites with “skins” for SoundJam and Audion? Like that, but for Android Wear. A few thoughts that went through my mind after perusing the offerings:
I don’t expect Apple to open up watch faces to arbitrary designs, even when the full Apple Watch SDK ships later this year. If they do allow third-party faces, I think it’ll be through design partners hand-selected by Apple. (The Mickey face is arguably an example of this already.) The idea of fully-customizable watch faces is right in the sweet spot between the differing philosophies of Google (anything goes) and Apple (tightly controlled). Apple Watch currently offers 10 different faces, and most of those faces offer a lot of customization regarding which complications are visible, and the tint colors. It’s a lot of fun to play with, but here’s the thing: there is no way to set up a watch face that is ugly, or that doesn’t look very Apple-Watch-y. Even the Mickey face looks like an Apple Watch Mickey face, because of the San Francisco font on the hour markers and the complications. That is by design, and I don’t see that changing.
Among those in favor of full customization, Andy Ihnatko tweeted: “Like, what if Apple said ‘We don’t trust you to choose well-designed iPhone wallpaper.’” We don’t have to imagine — that’s exactly what Apple did until iOS 4 in 2010. For the first three years of the iPhone, you got a black background on your home screen and you liked it. This is what makes Apple so polarizing, and often unpopular with the tinkering crowd — they will limit user configurability, often severely, in the name of design purity and brand consistency. “This is what we, the designers of this product, want it to look like” vs. “Go ahead and make it look however you, the user, want it to look”.
I’m a little surprised at how heavily skeuomorphic many of these Android Wear faces are — they’re heavy on 3D lighting effects, textures, drop shadows, and in some cases even fake watch crystal gloss. That aesthetic feels surprisingly dated to my eyes today. That’s not just an Apple thing, either — Android’s Material Design has moved just as far from skeuomorphic textures. The default faces for most Android Wear devices are not like this (but some are), but these third-party ones skew heavily towards this blingy Kai’s Power Tools aesthetic.
And then there’s this one, which made my day.
To be fair to Google, the third-party faces featured on their Play Store are more in tune with the Material Design aesthetic. But most of them are very colorful. These, for example, fit right in with Material Design — and would stick out like sore thumbs on Apple Watch. Apple’s watch faces all have black backgrounds, as does the rest of the Apple Watch interface. That’s because Apple Watch has an OLED display, which doesn’t need to turn on pixels to show black — it’s a design aesthetic and an energy-saving move. (Update: I didn’t mean to imply here that Android Wear watches don’t use OLED displays, too — but clearly the Android Wear UI was not designed with black backgrounds in mind.)
Third-party watch faces for Pebble are generally terrible, even considering the constraints of the Pebble Watch display. This might improve with the upcoming Pebble Time, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
I just can’t see Apple ever allowing these sort of watch faces for Apple Watch — that’ll be left for the jailbreak crowd. A few weeks ago I thought third-party watch faces would be like third-party apps were for the iPhone — something that wasn’t there at the launch, but which came sooner rather than later. Having spent three weeks with Apple Watch, I feel differently now. Apps are the apps of Apple Watch — that’s where there will be thousands of third-party designs. Watch Faces are different. They’re more fundamental to the device.
Apple will almost certainly introduce more built-in faces eventually, including some that allow for more personalization. In September, they showed two that have since been removed: Timelapse (they showed two options: one with Big Ben and Parliament at night in London; the other showed a scenic lake and mountain) and Photo (which, in Apple’s press materials, showed a snapshot of friends at a beach).1 And they might work with hand-selected partners like Disney to create additional faces like the Mickey one. But I don’t think they’re ever going to open the gates to App Store-style “anyone can make a watch face” watch faces. I think Apple sees watch faces as part of the system, like the lock and home screens for iOS. We’re eight years into iOS and there still isn’t any support for third-party lock or home screens. I expect the same thing for watch faces. ★
It seems pretty obvious why Apple nixed these two faces: they’re the ones that use the most energy on an OLED display. Just about every compromise I’ve noticed in Apple Watch OS 1.0 is in the service of extending battery life at all costs. ↩︎
Apple Watch is, in many ways, the Bizarro iPhone — in some ways parallel and similar, but in others, the inverse, the opposite.
Both were introduced as three things in one. Steve Jobs, introducing the iPhone back in 2007: “The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.” Tim Cook, introducing the Apple Watch: “In addition to being a beautiful object, Apple Watch is the most advanced timepiece ever created, it’s a revolutionary new way to connect with others, and it’s a comprehensive health and fitness companion.”
An iPod, a phone, and an “Internet communicator”.
A watch, a “new way to connect with each other”, and a health and fitness companion.
The iPhone did more than just those things. Apple Watch does more than just these things. But with both devices, Apple framed our introduction to these fundamentally new products with similar “it does three main things” formulations. The reason seems clear: to simplify complex products, and to root something new and unknown in old and familiar contexts.
But there are fundamental differences — between the iPhone and Apple Watch as products, and between the way Apple has approached them, in terms of both design and marketing. Amidst all the interviews and media access Apple has granted in the run-up to the watch hitting the market, the most informative statement, to my mind, was this, from Jony Ive to The Financial Times’s Nick Foulkes:
However, it was not without some trepidation that he embarked on the watch. “It was different with the phone — all of us working on the first iPhone were driven by an absolute disdain for the cellphones we were using at the time. That’s not the case here. We’re a group of people who love our watches. So we’re working on something, yet have a high regard for what currently exists.”
He believes it was the intimacy of the watch that made it desirable, almost necessary, for Apple to tackle.
Everything that makes Apple Watch interesting, everything that makes it unprecedented, is right there in that bit from Foulkes’s profile.
Loosely, the path of all consumer electronic categories is to evolve as ever more computer-y gadgets, until a tipping point occurs and they turn into ever more gadget-y genuine computers. The sample size (in terms of product categories) is small, but Apple seemingly tries to enter markets at, or just after, that tipping point — when Moore’s Law and Apple’s ever-increasing engineering and manufacturing prowess allow them to produce a gadget-y computer that the computer-y gadgets from the established market leaders cannot compete with.1 That was the iPod. That was the iPhone.
That, they hope, is Apple Watch.
It wasn’t just pre-iPod “MP3 players” that sucked, it was all portable music players that sucked. CDs only held a dozen songs. I spent my teenage years with Sony Walkmen — devices I truly adored — that played cassette tapes. The appeal of hard-drive-based MP3 players was obvious to everyone, and the superiority of the iPod (especially in combination with iTunes) was obvious to almost everyone outside the speeds-and-feeds Slashdot mindset.
Pre-iPhone mobile phones were either dumb phones that didn’t do much other than make phone calls and text by painstakingly pecking out messages on numeric keypads, or “smartphones” that at best did one thing well — text messaging — and in most cases did nothing well.
But as Ive points out, this time, the established market — watches — is not despised. They not only don’t suck, they are beloved. And the best and most-beloved watches aren’t even electronic. They’re purely mechanical — all gadget, no computer.
It was obvious that portable media players were being computerized. It was obvious that mobile phones were being computerized. Who better to enter the market, in both cases, than the world’s best personal computer maker? It is not obvious — based on the watch market today — that wrist watches should or will be computerized.
There are two types of people in the world: those who wear a watch, and those who don’t. Watch wearers, in my experience, recognize that non-wearers are manifold. Those who don’t wear a watch, on the other hand, often seem under the impression that few people wear watches anymore. They’re wrong — fewer people wear watches than in the past, but many do.2
Apple is targeting people from both groups. They want watch wearers to switch, and they want non-watch wearers to start wearing one. Those are two wholly separate marketing and product design challenges.
The emphasis on Apple Watch as, in Apple’s words, “the most advanced timepiece ever created” is an attempt to bridge that gap. To casual watch wearers, it says, “You’ll still be able to do with Apple Watch what you do with your current watch: tell the time (and if you want, the date) at a glance and trust that it’s accurate.” To non-watch wearers, it says “Apple Watch is a great watch.”
The funny thing about this marketing angle is that it rings utterly hollow to serious watch people. $30 quartz watches generally keep very accurate time — much more accurately than mechanical watches that cost tens of thousands of dollars. The gold standard for quality watch movements is COSC certification — a series of tests administered by the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute. To be COSC-certified, a mechanical watch need be accurate only to -4/+6 seconds per day. Apple is advertising Apple Watch as being accurate to 5 hundredths of a second. Accuracy isn’t even close to the primary appeal for mechanical watch aficionados.
Apple time-keeping accuracy braggadocio feels puffed up from the perspective of computers, too. Computers tend to have very accurate clocks (at least compared to mechanical watches), and with network time servers, they can be programmed to regularly correct themselves to within a few milliseconds of Coordinated Universal Time. In the eight days I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch, its timekeeping has never been anything but perfectly accurate — but so too has been the timekeeping on my iPhone, my iPad, and my Macs. All of these devices show the exact same time, all the time.
What matters as a timepiece is what it’s like using Apple Watch to check the time. My big concern, from the get-go, is the fact that Apple Watch’s screen remains off until you tap the screen (or one of the buttons) or it detects, via its accelerometer and gyroscope (and perhaps other sensors?) that you’ve moved your wrist into a “tell the time” position. I’m generally wary of “magic” features, and a watch that detects when you’re looking at it is “magic”.
This feature, which Apple calls “Activate on Wrist Raise” works pretty damn well. It’s not perfect, alas, but it’s far more accurate than I feared it would be. The way it seems to work is that if the watch thinks you’re looking at the face, it turns the screen on for about 6 seconds, then turns it off again — even if you’re still holding your wrist in the looking-at-it position. If you turn the display on by tapping the screen or pressing the side button or digital crown, it stays on for about 17 seconds before turning off. I presume the difference is because it’s far more likely that you’ll trigger a false positive for a wrist raise than that you’ll accidentally tap the screen or press one of the buttons. So, the display only stays on for 6 seconds for a wrist raise to avoid wasting battery life for false positives.
In Settings: General: Activate on Wrist Raise, you can turn this feature off. (It’s on by default, and I think the overwhelming majority of users will keep it on.) When it’s on, you can also specify where you go when the screen activates: Clock Face (the default) or Last Used App. Let’s say you’re using the Messages app. When you’re done, you just lower your wrist, and the display will soon go to sleep. By default, the next time the display wakes up you’ll be back at the clock face. (Unless you wake it back up within a few seconds of it going to sleep — in that case it does the right thing and keeps you where you were, regardless of your settings.) If you change this to “Last Used App”, you’ll instead be right back where you were when the display went to sleep. “Last Used App” makes Apple Watch work more like an iOS device. But it’s not an iOS device, and I think Apple’s default here is correct.
I wish, though, for one more setting: I’d like an option for the display to stay on for a longer duration with Wrist Raise turned on. Battery life on Apple Watch has been fine (see below for details) — more than good enough that, for me at least, it would still get through the day with room to spare even if the display remained on for the same 17-second-or-so duration with Wrist Raise detection as it does for a button push or screen tap.
I’ve worn a watch every day since I was in 7th grade, almost 30 years ago. I’m used to being able to see the time with just a glance whenever there is sufficient light. Apple Watch is somewhat frustrating in this regard. Even when Wrist Raise detection works perfectly, it takes a moment for the watch face to appear. There’s an inherent tiny amount of lag that isn’t there with a regular watch.
Some other specific examples. I was in New York last week, and stopped to have coffee with a friend in the afternoon. He had a meeting to get to, and I wanted to catch a 4:00 train home to Philadelphia. I was sitting on a low bench, leaning forward, elbows on my knees. It got to 3:00 or so, and I started glancing at my watch every few minutes. But it was always off, because my wrist was already positioned with the watch face up. The only way I could check the time was to artificially flick my wrist or to use my right hand to tap the screen — in either case, a far heavier gesture than the mere glance I’d have needed with my regular watch.
Similarly, it turns out I regularly check the time on my watch while working at my desk, typing. I didn’t even know I had this habit until this week, when it stopped working for me because I was wearing an Apple Watch. Again, because in this position the watch face is already up, the display remains off. My wrist doesn’t move when I want to check the time with my fingers on the keyboard — only my head and eyes do. And yes, my Mac shows the time in the menu bar. I can’t help that I have this habit, and Apple Watch works against it.
Here’s one more scenario. I grind my coffee right before I brew it. I put a few scoops of coffee in my grinder, cap it, and press down with my right hand to engage the grinder. I then look at my left wrist to check that 20 or so seconds have expired. But with Apple Watch, the display keeps turning off every 6 seconds. There are ways around this — I could switch to the stopwatch, start it, and then start grinding my coffee. But my habit is not to even think about my watch or the time until after I’ve already started grinding the beans, at which point my right hand is already occupied pressing down on the lid to the grinder.
One more ding against Apple Watch as a watch: every other watch I’ve ever owned, with the exception of my beloved boyhood Superman mechanical watch, has been sufficiently water resistant to wear while swimming. Apple describes Apple Watch’s water resistance thus:
Apple Watch is splash and water resistant but not waterproof. You can, for example, wear and use Apple Watch during exercise, in the rain, and while washing your hands, but submerging Apple Watch is not recommended. Apple Watch has a water resistance rating of IPX7 under IEC standard 60529.
I understand why this is difficult: Apple Watch has a speaker and a microphone, a side button, and — perhaps trickiest of all water resistance-wise — the digital crown. But I’m used to wearing a watch I can wear while swimming without any worries.
There is also one scenario where Apple Watch is far superior to my regular watches when checking the time: in the dark. Also, though it sounds trivial, I enjoy the perfect 60 FPS smoothness of Apple Watch’s second hand — a smoothness no mechanical watch could ever match.
For non-watch wearers, Apple Watch’s functionality as a timepiece should be just fine. Flicking your wrist or tapping the screen is far more convenient than taking your iPhone out of your pocket or bag to check the time. But for regular watch wearers, it’s going to take some getting used to, and it’s always going to be a bit of an inconvenience compared to an always-glance-able watch. It’s a fundamental conflict: a regular watch never turns off, but a display like Apple Watch’s cannot always stay on.
Time telling is where Apple Watch fares worst compared to traditional watches. That was inevitable. The primary purpose of traditional watches is telling time. Apple Watch is a general purpose computing device, for which telling time is an important, but not primary, use.
In short, I think Apple Watch might be a tougher sell to current watch wearers than non-watch wearers. Non-watch wearers have an open wrist, and if they cared about the glance-able convenience of an always-visible watch dial, they would be wearing a traditional watch already. Watch wearers, on the other hand, already have something on their wrist that Apple Watch needs to replace,3 and the reason they already have a watch on their wrist is that they care about telling time at a glance — something Apple Watch is (and only ever will be, I suspect) merely OK at, not great at.
The review unit loaned to me by Apple is the 42 mm stainless steel watch with link bracelet. They asked, and that was the size and bracelet style I requested. They also loaned me a Sport Band (white — they didn’t ask for a color preference).
It has the finest fit and finish of any Apple product I’ve ever used. It is a wonderfully well-constructed and designed object. Everything about it feels good, and material-wise, it looks great. The side button has a very nice clickiness, and the digital crown feels great as you spin it. (The digital crown does feel somewhat different than I recall from my hands-on time back in September, but that could be faulty memory on my part. My recollection from September was that it had more of an oily feel, more lubricity.)
The link bracelet is quite comfortable, and the user-removable links work as well as advertised for sizing it to fit. The clasp is elegant and clever. The link bracelet is very good — but I expected it to be very good.
The Sport Band is a downright revelation — I’d go so far as to call it the most comfortable watch band I’ve ever worn. I’ve rolled my eyes at Apple’s use of fluoroelastomer in lieu of rubber to describe the material of these bands, but it truly does have a premium, richly supple feel to it. The way the end of the band tucks under the other side of the strap — a design Marc Newson first used at Ikepod — is brilliant. Up until now, it struck me as odd that the $10,000 Edition models came with the same bands4 as the entry-model $349/399 Sport watches. Having worn it, it now strikes me the other way around — that the $349/399 Sport watches are equipped with straps that can genuinely be described as luxurious, fluoroelastomer or not.
At first, I found swapping watch bands to be a bit fiddly. I can see why Apple wasn’t allowing anyone to do so in the hands-on areas at the press events. But once you do it a few times, you get the hang of it. They really are rather easy to remove, yet they feel very secure once clicked into place. My advice: pay attention to the angle of the slot as you slide them into place.
In most lighting conditions, the entire face of the watch, regardless if the display is on or off, appears uniformly black. In bright sunlight and certain severe indoor lighting, you can see the display apart from the surrounding bezel. But in most cases, Apple Watch doesn’t look like a gadget with a display — it looks like a watch with a black face. This however, is another difference from traditional watches. A high-end mechanical watch looks better in direct sunlight — the more light, the better you can see its details. With Apple Watch, bright light exposes the truth behind its seemingly seamless black face.
Functionality aside — a big thing to put aside, but bear with me — I would not choose a rectangular-faced watch. But you can’t put functionality aside — the whole point of Apple Watch is that it does many things that have never been possible with a traditional watch, and most of those features are better suited to a rectangular display. A rectangular display can fit a circular watch face; a circular display is inherently ill-suited for anything other than radial dials like watch hands or the gauges on a dashboard.
For all the variety in watch bands and clock faces that Apple is offering — not to mention what is surely a coming tidal wave of third-party straps and bands — the most striking thing about Apple Watch is its singular gender-neutral shape. In addition to size differences, most traditional watches embrace decidedly male or female design cues; Apple Watch distinguishes itself by embracing neither. It thus cuts a distinctive and unabashedly modern figure on the wrist.
The quality of Apple Watch simply as an object is meaningful. When you wear something, it matters how it feels, and it matters how you think it looks. And much like with time-telling as a feature, Apple Watch may well appeal more to those who aren’t currently watch wearers than to those who are.
After more than a week of daily use, Apple Watch has more than alleviated any concerns I had about getting through a day on a single charge. I noted the remaining charge when I went to bed each night. It was usually still in the 30s or 40s. Once it was still over 50 percent charged. Once, it was down to 27. And one day — last Thursday — it was all the way down to 5 percent. But that day was an exception — I used the watch for an extraordinary amount of testing, nothing at all resembling typical usage. I’m surprised the watch had any remaining charge at all that day. I never once charged the watch other than while I slept.
That said, compared to a traditional watch, daily charging is terrible. Most quartz watches run for several years on a $10 battery. Mechanical automatic watches are self-winding — their mainsprings stay wound from the natural motion of your arm while you wear them. I have a Citizen Eco-Drive watch powered by solar energy that I bought six years ago and without ever having done a thing to power it other than expose it to light, it still keeps nearly perfect time.
Here’s how Apple describes the watch’s magnetic inductive charger:
You’ll want to use Apple Watch all day long. So we gave it a battery that lasts up to 18 hours and made charging it at the end of the day utterly effortless. In fact, our goal was to make Apple Watch easy to charge in the dark. Without looking. While being only partially awake. We arrived at a solution that combines our MagSafe technology with inductive charging. It’s a completely sealed system free of exposed contacts. And it’s very forgiving, requiring no precise alignment. You simply hold the connector near the back of the watch, where magnets cause it to snap into place automatically.
I find every word of that description (including the 18 hours of battery life) to be accurate and free of hyperbole. I’d love to see a charging system like this for the iPhone.
With time-telling and with the watch as a personal object, a statement of style, Apple is playing defense. Apple Watch is competing with traditional watches that are unbeatable in those regards. Apple has acquitted themselves well in both regards — adequately in terms of telling time, and very well in terms of the watch as an object of style and design.
In every other regard, Apple Watch is doing things traditional watches do poorly or can’t do at all. Health and fitness monitoring is one such area. These features are not something I am suited to review in depth. I don’t own any fitness tracking devices, and I don’t have much of an interest in them. To me, Apple Watch’s health and fitness tracking features might be like what the iPhone’s camera is to someone with no interest in photography. I’m glad it’s there, and I’ll surely wind up using it in some ways, but it’s not a reason why I would buy it in the first place.
Clearly, much thought was put into the fitness reminders and achievements. I haven’t changed any of the defaults, and it feels like Apple has struck a careful balance between successfully motivating me to move (and stand) more throughout the day, without crossing over the line to badgering.
I sit while I write, and it usually takes me a long time to work up some momentum. Apple Watch’s “It’s time to stand” reminders — as helpful though they may be for my well-being — wreak havoc on my productivity if I pay attention to them while I’m in the flow. I’ve started ignoring them while writing, but if I’m doing anything else while at my desk, I stand up when the watch tells me to. Handoff is helpful in this regard — if I’m reading something in Safari, I’ll just use Handoff to send it to my iPhone or iPad and continue reading while I wander around the house for a few minutes.
In addition to the allure of carrying (well, wearing) fewer standalone devices — step counter, heart rate monitor, etc. — Apple Watch’s fitness tracking features have the benefit of the iPhone serving as an intelligent central hub for the data. For example, if you walk around wearing only your Apple Watch, then walk around with both the watch and your iPhone in your pocket, then take off the watch and walk some more carrying only the phone — the stats aggregated in the Health app on your iPhone seems to keep all this straight and do the right thing. Steps neither get missed nor counted twice. This could prove useful for someone who wants to wear an Apple Watch only while working out, but who carries an iPhone the rest of the day. You should get accurate overall statistics for the day.
At Apple Watch’s introduction and several times since, Apple has emphasized that each breakthrough product in the company’s history, starting with the Macintosh, has required new input technology to support the interaction design. The mouse for the Mac. The click wheel for the iPod. Multitouch for the iPhone. (Unmentioned: the stylus for the Newton.) Apple invented none of these things (with the possible exception of the click wheel), but Apple was the first to bring each of them to the mass market.
For Apple Watch, Apple is billing the Digital Crown as the breakthrough input device. And, to be sure, there’s no other watch, smart or otherwise, with a crown like this. Eight years of daily iPhone use had me swiping the Apple Watch touchscreen to scroll at first, but I quickly learned to adopt the digital crown instead. It truly is a good and clever idea, and, presuming it is patent-protected strongly enough, the lack of a digital crown is going to put competitors at a disadvantage. You can scroll the screen by swiping it, but scrolling the crown is better.
But fundamentally, what’s novel about the digital crown is the context of the wrist. As a concept, it’s pretty much the same idea as a scroll wheel on a mouse — you rotate it up and down to scroll/zoom, and you press it to click.
To me, the breakthrough in Apple Watch is the Taptic Engine and force touch. Technically, they’re two separate things. The Taptic Engine allows Apple Watch to tap you; force touch allows Apple Watch to recognize a stronger press from your finger. But they seem to go together. The new MacBook trackpad has both haptic feedback and recognition of force touches, and Apple Watch has both, too. I don’t think Apple will ever release a device that has one but not the other.
This is the introduction of a new dimension in input and output, and for me, it’s central to the appeal of Apple Watch. By default, Apple Watch has sounds turned on for incoming notifications. I can see why this is the default, but in practice, I keep sounds turned off all the time,5 not just in contexts where I typically silence my phone. Taps are all I need for notifications. They’re strong enough that you notice them, but subtle enough that they don’t feel like an interruption. When my phone vibrates, it feels like it’s telling me, Hey, I need you now. When the Apple Watch taps me, it feels like it’s telling me, Hey, when you get the chance, I’ve got something for you.
Taps go hand-in-hand with force touch. When you initiate a force touch, the watch gives you haptic feedback — thus there’s no confusion whether you tapped hard enough to qualify as a force touch. (Force touches also carry visual feedback — on any force touch in any context, the display animates back in a “bounce”, even in contexts where force touch has no meaning. Also, I believe that on Apple Watch, force touch has no location — the only target for force touch is the entire display. There’s never any scenario where you force touch this button or that button. Makes sense on a display this small.) The Taptic Engine also ties in with the digital crown. Scroll to the end of a list and Apple Watch has a rubber band “bounce” animation, much like iOS. But on Apple Watch, the rubber band animation coincides with haptic feedback that somehow conveys the uncanny sensation that the digital crown suddenly has more tension. It feels like you’re stretching a rubber band. Now that I’m getting used to this on Apple Watch, it makes the haptic-less rubber band end-of-scrollview bounce on iPhone and iPad feel thin.
And without taps, Apple Watch is rather dull. The first unit I received from Apple seemingly had a hardware defect. Taps worked at first, but I found them surprisingly weak — so weak they were easy to miss, even with the watch strapped relatively snugly to my wrist. By the end of the first day, taps weren’t working at all. Apple sent me a replacement unit the next day, and it was like an altogether different experience. Without the Taptic Engine, Apple Watch is not a compelling device.
Which brings us to the last of Apple’s triumvirate of tentpole uses for Apple Watch: the “new way to connect with each other”.
Apple Watch also has old ways to communicate, like initiating phone calls and sending text messages. But the new ways are all about touch. Touch input from the sender, touch output to the recipient. And they only work between Apple Watches.
There are three forms, in increasing intimacy: doodles, taps, and your heartbeat. Touch communication. What the telephone was for voice, what video was for seeing, Apple Watch is for touch. No, you’re not really touching someone, but when you call someone, you’re not really hearing them, either. When you FaceTime them, you’re not really seeing them, you’re looking at a picture of them on a screen. But a phone call feels like you’re talking to someone. A FaceTime call feels like you’re looking at someone. And with digital touch on Apple Watch, it feels, in a very real sense, like you’re touching and being touched by another person.
Touch is an intimate sense. I see and hear dozens, often hundreds, sometimes thousands of people in a day. Most days, I touch only a few. Some days, I only touch two: my wife and my son.
Apple, as a company, is famously averse to extraneous hardware buttons. Sometimes they’re averse to useful hardware buttons (e.g. the mute switch/rotation lock that was removed from the latest iPads). Which makes the “side button” on Apple Watch all the more conspicuous. It serves other purposes — you double tap it to initiate an Apple Pay transaction, and you press it in conjunction with the digital crown to take a screenshot — but I don’t think this button would exist if not for the communication mode it invokes when you simply tap it. Apple thinks communication initiated from Apple Watch is important enough to justify that button. And I think that means digital touch.
I’m old enough, and cynical enough, that I rolled my eyes (at least figuratively) back in September when Apple first demonstrated sending taps and heartbeats to other Apple Watch users. But then I looked past my cynicism, and my eyes were opened.
You’re 16. You’re in school. You’re sitting in class. You have a crush on another student — you’ve fallen hard. You can’t stop thinking about them. You suspect the feelings are mutual — but you don’t know. You’re afraid to just come right out and ask, verbally — afraid of the crushing weight of rejection. But you both wear an Apple Watch. So you take a flyer and send a few taps. And you wait. Nothing in response. Dammit. Why are you so stupid? Whoa — a few taps are sent in return, along with a hand-drawn smiley face. You send more taps. You receive more taps back. This is it. You send your heartbeat. It is racing, thumping. Your crush sends their heartbeat back.
You’re flirting. Not through words. Not through speech. Physically flirting, by touch. And you’re not even in the same classroom. Maybe you don’t even go to the same school.
I’m not saying digital touch is only for teenagers. I’m not saying it’s only for flirting. But the scenario above exemplifies the ways that digital touch opens the door to forms of remote communication that most of us haven’t ever considered. Non-verbal, non-visual, physical communication across any distance. This could be something big.
If you’re the only person you know with an Apple Watch, your timekeeping will still be precise, your activity tracking will still be accurate — but digital touch as a form of communication will be pointless. Digital touch only works, only becomes a thing, if Apple Watch becomes a thing. Digital touch is not designed for an isolated product. It is designed as a tentpole feature for a hit product with widespread appeal and adoption. The single most innovative feature of Apple Watch — the most intimate feature of the company’s most personal device — will only matter if some of the people you care most about wear one too. ★
My theory: watch wearers, even casual ones, tend to notice the watches other people wear. Non-watch wearers don’t, and don’t even notice whether other people are even wearing a watch at all. ↩︎
Sure, in theory one could wear a traditional watch on one wrist and an Apple Watch on the other, but that strikes me as severely uncouth. ↩︎
Well, nearly the same bands — the Edition Sports bands have solid gold pins. ↩︎
Conspicuously absent in this nearly 6,000-word review is any mention of Apple Watch’s user interface or interaction model. That’s not because I don’t have significant comments, but because I have so many. It’ll be another full review unto itself. But I might as well explain how to toggle the mute switch. From the watch face, swipe up to show Glances. Glances, effectively, are like widgets. The leftmost (first) Glance is locked in place: it’s like Control Center on iOS, with four controls: toggles for Airplane Mode, Do Not Disturb, and Mute, and a “find my iPhone” button that makes your paired iPhone play a sound. ↩︎