On Apple Watch

A week ago, Apple announced release dates and the price list for the Apple Watch, and of course everyone’s going nuts with articles about it. By now, this is no surprise: it’s standard practice every time there’s an announcement from Apple; not only the wave of press directly reporting on it, but also all the litter, the flotsam and jetsam that attempts to surf that wave, desperately trying to catch a sliver of refracted PR.

Generally, I try and keep out of it. Apart from anything else, I’m weary of the same tired old memes being trotted out each time. But, I’ve naturally been spending a bunch of time thinking and reading about the Apple Watch of late: I develop iOS apps, and here’s a brand new, very different kind of device. Should my apps be on Apple Watch? What would they do?

At the heart of it, what really interests me is the… philosophy of the Watch. How to understand where it’s coming from and figure out where it’s going.

I mean, I feel like a lot of people don’t really get Apple Watch. And sure, on one level, that’s not surprising: people rarely get anything Apple do until about 3 years later when the world’s already changed. Every single new Apple product since the original iMac has faced the same kinds of category-error criticisms, and they’ve been massively successful. Now, this is no guarantee that the Watch will be successful too. But it does mean that it deserves closer examination: turning it over, looking for the angles where everything lines up.

For example, I’ve seen a lot of commentary on the Watch focusing on things like battery lifefootnote 1, asking why you’d use it instead of an iPhone, or (straight from the Modern Luddite Playbook) lamenting that people will spend all their time fiddling with it instead of talking to each other, like they used to do before the Watchfootnote 2.

The problem with this analysis is that it’s coming at the Watch from the wrong direction.

My belief is that to understand the Watch you have to get completely away from this kind of thinking. Yes, it’s technologically “a computer on your wrist”. But that’s just an implementation detail. Almost an accident. It’s not what it’s for. You shouldn’t be sitting there fiddling with it.

If you are? If you want to? I have to ask why, because, the phone or a tablet is much better for that: however awesomely powerful the Watch becomes in future, it’s still a lousy form-factor for general-purpose computing. And maybe that’s why people think it’s ridiculous — because, obviously it’s much worse for pounding nails into wood, than this hammer they already have.

I don’t know the mind of Apple employees, but if I had to guess, I’d guess that internally Apple measure the success of the Watch by how little time you spend using it, not how much.

I think their goal is to set a really high ratio between utility and screen time. Part of that is by making it useful. Part of that is by minimising screen time.

They’re sending out emails to iOS developers inviting us to UX labs, and what I’ve heard is that they’re recommending a “session” of usage should max out at 15 seconds, and that’s in an extreme case — any longer than that indicates your use-case is probably suited to another device. Of which they sell a bunch, if you’d like to peruse their store.

I suspect they would feel that, if you drain the battery, they’ve failed not because the battery isn’t powerful enough, but because they’ve just stuck a tiny computer on your wrist and now you’re tweeting your facebooks and flapping words with friends. And that’s not what they’re about.

Apart from anything else, your arm gets tired, with your elbow stuck out like that.

So what is it about…?

Well… I think it’s about crawling slowly towards a more sci-fi future, but in a way that feels human and natural and socially-acceptable instead of dorky. It’s about being a magic wand without the Harry Potter glasses. I think it’s about being, not a “destination” (like your phone or computer) where you go to spend time, but an interface for interacting with other things:

  • your own body — with all the health & fitness stuff
  • a handful of people — briefly, and just those closest to you, not the internet firehose
  • stuff around you, particularly stuff that needs to know that you are you

Some of the obvious examples they’ve shown already are using it to pay for groceries, to unlock your hotel room door, or your car. I’m sure there will be more examples like this, which are about security/authentication. Because you only have to prove your identity to the Watchfootnote 3 once when you put it on in the morning, and then it stays unlocked, ready for immediate use. But, it’s still secure — no-one else can use it, unless you take it off — and it automatically locks itself when that happens.footnote 4

And it includes Passbook support, which enables potentially anyone to provide services this way.footnote 6 But as well as the authentication aspect, there’s also stuff that’s potentially shared-usage, but wants to customise for your preferences. So maybe the Watch won’t just log your calories burned while at the gym, it’ll also talk to the exercise machine to tailor it to your workout needs. Maybe you just wave it against the office coffee machine to get your preferred beverage.

Or even something like a whole building. Remember that Apple have HomeKit for interfacing with home automation, like lights or heating or all sorts of other stuff.

Or, for public or commercial spaces: since last year Apple have been running Apple Maps Connect, where building owners can register and — in conjunction with GPS and iBeacons — enable their buildings for indoor navigation.

So, if you have the Target app on your iPhone, and enter a shopping list, the Watch will guide you around the store, and let you know when you’re near the items on your list (that not a hypothesis, it’s listed on the website) by tapping you lightly on the wrist. Picture this extending to museums and art galleries, navigating public transport, or finding your seat at the cinema.

What does this mean for Wooji Juice? Honestly, I don’t think there’s much scope for Watch tie-ins (“extensions” in Apple-speak) for the current range of apps. But, I do have some ideas for how it ties in with as-yet-unreleased apps.

What I want to avoid, though, is gimmicky, “hey look it’s on the Watch because we can and oh god someone please pay attention to our app” Watch extensions.

So, for example, I could write a Watch extension for Mitosynth (or Grain Science, or Sylo Synth) that, say, lists the instrumentsfootnote 7 and lets you switch between them.

But why would you want to? Other than to say that you can (which is what I want to avoid)? There are two main ways people use Mitosynth: either directly playing it on the device, or remotely controlling it over MIDI. If they’re playing it directly, they can switch instruments directly too. If they’re controlling it remotely over MIDI, they can change instruments over MIDI too. There’s just no use-case that makes sense.

On the other hand, for certain kinds of audio app, the Watch is ideal. Because it can tap you on the wrist, giving you important notifications while remaining completely silent — and therefore without being picked up in a recording. For example.

One last thing about the Watch I find interesting… people are getting quite worked up about the range of prices — in particular suggesting that the luxury models will “alienate” their regular customers.

But all Watches, from the cheapest to the most expensive (costing 50x as much), have identical gutsfootnote 8, features, performance and behaviour.

Imagine if you could buy a Ferrari, Aston Martin, or Bugattifootnote 9 “Sport” for 1/50th the price… and the speed was the same, the acceleration the same, the handling, in fact every aspect of the behaviour and performance was the same, and even the body styling was the same — the only difference was the seat trim and the shell being made out of a cheaper material?

There’s literally nothing stopping anyone from choosing the cheapest Apple Watch available except their own vanity. Which isn’t to discount the value of style… but either you value it or you don’t. If you value it, you pay for it. If you don’t value it, you don’t pay for it. It’s almost oddly democratic — like speeding tickets in Scandinavia.

Maybe people who buy the solid gold Apple Watch Edition have more money than sense, but I’m happy for them to spend their money how they like, if it means the rest of us get to use exactly the same features for 2% of the cost.

1. In a hilariously-loaded article intent on completely ignoring reality in favour of generating outrage. Because clicks.

2. I mean, before smartphones. I mean, before mobile phones. I mean, before video games. I mean, before TV. I mean, before the radio. I mean, before novels. It’s a long and rich tradition. Cuneiform tablets will doom us all.

3. Either by tapping in a PIN, or using your fingerprint on the phone.

4. Remember, it has a heart-beat sensor, and that’s what triggers the locking: not being on a livefootnote 5 human wrist any more. Which also avoids the more macabre theft scenarios…

5. Next internet controversy: “These Undead Tried On Apple Watches — What They Discovered Will Shock You!” — you’re welcome, BuzzFeed

6. See also: PassKit, PassDock, PassSource, PassTool, Urban Airship and probably dozens of other websites providing turn-key Passbook support.

7. Patches/programs/presets/whatever you want to call them.

8. “Movement” seems to be the horologistic phrase de jour to describe this.

9. Or, you know, whatever other species of luxury good you prefer.

10. There is no Footnote 10.