The Ideal Wrist Computer

Phil Schiller once described Apple’s hardware philosophy as (somewhat grandiosely titled) “Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products.” During an interview with Backchannel, he elaborated:

“Each one is offering computers something unique and each is made with a simple form that is pretty eternal. The job of the watch is to do more and more things on your wrist so that you don’t need to pick up your phone as often. The job of the phone is to do more and more things such that maybe you don’t need your iPad, and it should be always trying and striving to do that. The job of the iPad should be to be so powerful and capable that you never need a notebook. Like, Why do I need a notebook? I can add a keyboard! I can do all these things! The job of the notebook is to make it so you never need a desktop, right? It’s been doing this for a decade. So that leaves the poor desktop at the end of the line, What’s its job? Its job is to challenge what we think a computer can do and do things that no computer has ever done before, be more and more powerful and capable so that we need a desktop because of its capabilities.” – Phil Schiller

And that’s exactly what Apple has been doing with their lineup of rectangles. The iPad Pro has been the “clearest expression of [Apple’s] vision of the future of personal computing” with the leaps and bounds iOS 11 made to multitasking and app capabilities. The iPhone has already become many people’s primary computer, and the future of iPhone points to an expensive pocket supercomputer with features and prowess (and also price) that people would normally expect from iPads and laptops. What about the Apple Watch? Is it about to replace your iPhone with the new LTE capabilities and faster and faster processors?

Although that question gets asked a lot, I don’t believe in one device category replacing another by doing identical things. I think the first two generations of Apple Watch were steps towards what the Watch was meant to be — not an iPhone replacement, but rather a device that excels at tasks better done on a wrist, and a few only possible on a wearable. What are the ideals of such devices, and how does the Apple Watch fare in each of those areas? Here is my take:

1. Intent-centric interface

An interface that optimizes for accomplishing single-intent tasks that do not require a lot of information manipulation. Add a todo. Book an Uber. Append to a note. Look up a piece of information. Set a timer. Where’s my next meeting? What time is flight boarding? When’s the next CalTrain to San Francisco? These are perfect for the wrist. The entire interaction from an intent to a solution shouldn’t take over a minute and should be easily done on a square inch of space. The Apple Watch still has long ways to go for well polished intent-centric journeys. Too many 3P apps try too hard to shoehorn their iPhone workflows into their Watch counterparts. Siri’s interpretation problem persists even in watchOS 4.

2. Independent lifecycle

A wrist computer should be able to set itself up out-of-box and wipe out itself for reselling/recycle without help from another device, in addition to basic independence over LTE during the bulk of its lifetime. I don’t have a personal experience with the Apple Watch over LTE yet, but a lot of other reviewers are complaining about stability and battery life issues, so those could be blockers. To really make it independent, we’d also need to identify ourselves without these long strings of Latin letter email addresses and passwords. Perhaps a biometric ID securely sent to Apple to log in will be sufficient enough to set up a brand new Apple Watch without a companion iPhone in the near future. Built-in iPhone X sensor notch, anyone?

3. Strong app ecosystem

The Apple Watch developer environment seems to be in a similar stage as the earlier versions of iOS. There is a huge discrepancy between what hardware and software resources developers have access to versus what Apple’s native apps have. This discrepancy is most likely due to watchOS still being a young OS and a lot of the engineering questions need to be figured out and properly built, but without more independent freedom over LTE, background processes, and user interface, etc, apps are not yet utilizing the best of Watch’s hardware capabilities.

4. Fast and natural I/O

Short of telepathy and holographic keyboard, the 3rd best alternative to high-bandwidth information input on a 1.5” screen is probably dictation. But dictation through Siri is inexcusably bad across all Apple products. I thought my accent had something to do with it but it turns out that many of my native speaker friends struggle as well. So yea, this has a lot of room for improvement.

Giving it another chance

I had a Series 2, originally intending to use the health features, native music playback, and time-sensitive notifications (e.g. Uber driver arrived, next meeting in 5 min). It turned out that music was a major P.I.T.A to sync (especially for my use case) and apps ware painfully slow. Health features worked well, except I realized I’m not the type of person who’s driven by progress rings and automated motivational messages. I told people who asked me for opinions: “if my Watch broke, I wouldn’t buy a new one.” And that was exactly what happened. One unfortunate day, my Watch fell on the floor during a shower and the opportunistic soap water and hard floor together destroyed the touch screen with a perfectly sharp cracking sound. I returned my Watch for recycling and never thought about buying another.

Now that the LTE version is out with 70% faster processor, I’m interested in it again. LTE to the Apple Watch is like App Store to the iPhone and Split View and Keyboard to the iPad Pro, it’s looking like an inflection point for this product category. It solves my 2 out of 3 items on my wishlist from before:

  • Much, much faster app loading time and UI animations
  • LTE connection for Siri and music
  • A way to dictate new content into Apple Notes

I tried it on my friend’s Watch, note-taking still seems impossible to do, but the LTE capability and speed should allow me to count on it to do a lot more. I wondered: how much of what I used to do on my iPhone is better done with an Apple Watch? With this guiding question in mind and the above four ideals as my product principles, I ordered a Series 3 with LTE to try it out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *