The Apple Watch And The Smartphone’s Second Act

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The Apple Watch And The Smartphone’s Second Act

“I heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Life seems harsh. And cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world. Doctor says: ‘Treatment is simple. The great clown – Pagliacci – is in town. Go see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. ‘But doctor… he says ‘I am Pagliacci.’ Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.” – Rorschach, Watchmen

The smartphone was supposed to free us from our computers. And it did for a while. You didn’t have to sit at your desk to check your email! You could delete a voicemail without even listening to it first! Life was grand.

Then, around the time that Apple introduced the App Store, the bell curve that represented all of this smartphone savings turned back on us and started eating all of that time up and then some.

Yes, there have been real, life-changing apps and services to come out of the app marketplace boom. 1Password, Uber, Evernote, Waze, Word Lens, Dropbox, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon, Instagram, Twitter and many other icons on your smartphone have likely altered the way you live or see the world. But for each one of those there are hundreds, if not thousands, of in-app-purchase time-wasters crowing for your attention.

Games are great — I’m a gamer to the core — but most popular phone games are specifically engineered to devour our attention and money that you could be paying into other pursuits. And that doesn’t even get into the agnostic services like email push notifications, messaging and social networks — time sucks that you deem necessary and contribute to.

When I made the case before its release that the Apple Watch could act as ablative armor for these time sucks, the reaction was predictable: Great, now we’re spending hundreds of dollars to use the thing we spent hundreds of dollars on less. But that’s an incredibly simplistic way of looking at it. It’s not just our digital lives that could be transformed by a device like the smartwatch, it’s our physical ones, as well.

But in order to get us there, we have to actually see the Apple Watch working as intended. And that’s what watchOS 2 is about.

The Real Apple Watch

I’ve been playing with the final (aside from some late hiccups) version of watchOS 2 for a little over a week now and it’s fair to say that it makes the Apple Watch fully functional for the first time. With this update, Apple has unlocked a lot of the potential that was only hinted at by the initial release.

Whatever you want to call it — revision b, version 1.5, etc. — the Apple Watch feels like it’s out of beta testing. When the Watch launched, it was backed by WatchKit, a software development kit that gave superficial access to its hardware like the pressure sensitive touch screen and digital crown.

WatchKit, though it enabled developers to draft up the minimum skeleton of a Watch app quickly, left a lot to be desired when it came to direct access to more powerful sensors. Additionally, its communications protocols were slow and clunky, presenting many Watch owners with a flawed, laggy view of the true capabilities of the device.

WatchOS 2 solves many of those issues. First of all, apps can be loaded directly onto the device and run “natively.” Previously, apps ran on your iPhone and ‘projected’ their interfaces to the Watch, creating an inevitable delay as the two devices communicated, figured out the proper response and sent that information back to the Watch in a big lump of comms traffic. 

Tapping on the wrong button no longer brings you inevitably to the spinning ‘wait’ icon.

Now, with the apps running natively and simply tapping into the iPhone’s data connection or companion apps for on-the-fly updates, actions taken on the Watch feel much more responsive. App load times are down; tapping on the wrong button no longer brings you inevitably to the spinning ‘wait’ icon as the Watch waits for a communication dump. Streaming protocols allow your iPhone to continuously deliver the data that your favorite app needs, enabling them to feel like they’re ready to obey you.

The overall effect has made my Watch feel snappy and responsive in a way it hasn’t been since launch. Apps built using WatchKit, by comparison, feel like a demo reel for the real thing.

Along with native code and streaming communication, new apps can also now access the full range of sensors in the Watch, like heart rate, accelerometer, microphone and its haptic (vibrating) feedback engine. They can also play back audio and video using native protocols.

The result of all of this is that Apple Watch presents a much more capable and confident face to the user.

Other features built-in by Apple also add to a feeling of maturity in Apple Watch 1.5. The differences are so large, I’ve come to think of the hardware and software both being upgraded, hence the 1.5 versioning.

Transit directions are cached into the Watch, so if you go underground, you can still scroll through your subway stops using the Digital Crown (though they don’t use CityMapper’s intelligent timing method to automatically advance you through your trip).

The crown is also now used to scroll through your day right from the watch face. That feature, called Time Travel, is a great example of how this second iteration of the Watch honors its physicality — while providing you with a truly useful feature that couldn’t exist on a standard watch. It also works far better than any such feature would on a phone because of the unique control method and glance-ability.

It’s the equivalent of picking your way through your calendar app, your weather app and your news app to cobble together the shape of your day — all in one scroll of a wheel. The update is probably worth getting access to Time Travel alone, without any of the other features.

The Smartphone’s Second Act

A couple of months ago there was a minor furor about Apple Watch apps sparked by a piece in the Times. The gist of it was that some companies were not making Watch app companions to their popular iPhone apps. People took that and ran with it, assuming that developers were ‘cool’ on the Watch. That’s not necessarily the issue, as we detailed later. Sometimes, the answer is simply that there doesn’t need to be an app for the Watch if you don’t have a compelling use case.

What is it that turns what should be a fairly straightforward observation (some high-profile developers don’t have a Watch app yet) into such a sticky logic trap?

The reason, I believe, is that the Apple Watch was not built to service the App Store, it was built to act as a bridge between a person’s digital and physical worlds.

With the iPhone and iPad, the App Store could be measured in terms of volume. How many apps? How many downloads? What kind of variety are we seeing? The Watch is a different beast entirely. Apple Watch apps don’t work at all like iPhone or iPad apps if they’re built correctly. And having a ‘watch app for everything’ is a terrible, terrible idea. 

Having a ‘watch app for everything’ is a terrible, terrible idea.

There are two kinds of Apple Watch apps: active and passive. The active types hew much more closely to an iPhone or iPad app and are easier to understand.

The best active Watch apps provide an actionable item within a thin temporal or spatial window, and that item takes between 1 and 3 seconds to act on. Period.

They provide you a notification, you act or don’t act on that and move on with your life: You’re walking out the door and your wrist tells you your Uber’s license plate number; you cross a neighborhood line and you get an alert from Foursquare that you’re near a lunch place that you’ve saved; you’re told that your team has just taken the lead. These are all things that combine location and time together to provide immediate value within that few-second envelope. Outside of that, they’re useless. 

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The second kind of app is much more exciting. Passive apps now have the ability to use the sensors and hardware of the Watch to make things happen for you automatically based on precise location, time and identity. On an episode of The Talk Show a while back, I called the Watch a ’tube of lubricant for your life’, and it’s this possibility that is the most exciting to me.

Let’s digress for a second to set the stage.

Here’s a thought that I’ve been having more and more lately: the smartphone isn’t just a computer, it’s the computer.

Somehow, unbelievably, humans have stumbled onto the computing paradigm that is going to define how we interact with the systems of the world relatively early in the technological timeline. Whether we call it a smartphone or not in the future and whether it shrinks or grows, the concept of a personal computer that contains what we are, digitally, and can act as the central ‘processor’ to a host of companion devices like desktop terminals and wearables is here to stay.

If you accept this premise, then it makes sense to imagine a world where there are various pieces of purpose built hardware orbiting around our ‘central processing unit’ that are all suited to various tasks. We walk up to a terminal and confirm our identity and it streams information from a device that links our identity, our place and our information together securely to let us immediately work. This is the missing bit to the ‘cloud computer’ — a way to triangulate our physical beings and our digital universe in a way that feels human and logical.

What is the role of the smartwatch in all of this? Reducing friction. A role that I believe the new iPhones share, but that’s another story.

Imagine, for instance, walking out of your door without touching a lock or your alarm panel. When you’re a few feet away from your door, your home uses Bluetooth triangulation and your alarm to see that no one else is inside and locks the door automatically. You reach for your car door and it knows it’s you, unlocking the door, adjusting your seat and entertainment system to your liking and pulling your most likely destination to your navigation system. When you’re a couple hundred feet away, the alarm arms. You reach for the door handle at work and it uses the confirmed identity passed to it by the Watch touching your skin to admit you and log you in. You sit down at your terminal and it confirms your ID without having to enter a password, pulls your latest Office docs from your phone to grab your late-night edits and you’re off. 

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Combine that with payments, passes, transit and loyalty and a smattering of predictive features provided by the more powerful processor in your phone and you have a 50-gallon drum of smooth juice. And most of these interactions require nothing more than a handful of Bluetooth LE-capable devices and/or beacons. It’s not far-future, it’s near-future.

This doesn’t even touch on the potential that the Watch has to act as an X-ray device for our bodies, alerting us to health issues before they become serious. A few months ago I monitored a loved one’s heart episode live with the Watch as it happened, and it provided a far more continuous and active view of what was happening (a trained nurse was on site, and we were ready to take appropriate action).

It’s no coincidence that Apple demoed a real-time heart rate monitor onstage. Apps like Cardiogram and AirStrip’s Sense4Baby — this is powerful stuff. Being given access to near-medical-grade health monitoring enables people to speak the language of their bodies. It’s already begun saving lives.

WatchOS 2’s expanded HomeKit and Siri support are a good start. A bunch of new HomeKit devices hitting the ground soon will enable many of these things, and native apps are now capable of real-time communication with those devices and your phone.

In this, the mother of all integration plays, Apple’s nature works both for and against it. The tight integration of hardware and software so crucial to its operating policies give it a head start. Google has provided and will continue to provide many of these tools to its developers and hardware partners, but only small subsets of its hundreds of millions of users will have all of the required hardware and software bits to make it work out of the box. This is neither good nor evil (I don’t care about the platform wars and believe that the more options we have the better). It just is.

But just as Apple’s tight handle on hardware and software give it an edge when rolling out integrated systems, it also creates barriers to making this kind of future happen. A large part of this working out relies on third-party adoption of Apple’s protocols like HomeKit. The company has already run into issues getting manufacturers to turn out new products because it requires specialized chips that support heavier-than-average encryption. This is welcome — the world of home automation is notoriously crap when it comes to security, it’s the Wild West out there. But it also demonstrates Apple’s hard-line stance when it comes to outside hardware.

For all of Apple’s protocols and chatter about HomeKit and its hundreds of millions of compatible devices being actively used by customers, those third parties don’t get a seat at the design table. They’re not invited to contribute to the design of Apple’s systems or hardware in any way. Once again, I’m not passing judgment; it just is what it is.

If Apple is able to crack that nut, and convince partners and consumers that it has the keys to making this kind of world a reality, then the Apple Watch is just the beginning of a lower-friction and more contextually aware future. And watchOS 2 is giving us our first real glimpse inside.