Lachlan's avatar@lachlanjc/notebook

The Apple Watch needs decisive editing

I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch every day since the day the first version shipped, back when I was in middle school. It’s become a basic expectation of my brain to be able to glance down & see weather, my activity progress, etc—it’d be absolutely bizarre for me to try living without one.

Typically, the Apple Watch is more useful the more you’re outside your house; at home, using a larger-screened device is usually more convenient. But during COVID, especially with the changes in watchOS 7 from last year, I’ve found my usage of the Apple Watch to evolve with it.

Living in New York pre-COVID, a few experiences made up much of my usage:

  • Text/check calendar/notifications while I’m on the go
  • Track activity
  • Control music/podcast playback
  • Pay for subway/public transit
  • Pay at stores
  • Maps/directions

With watchOS 7 during COVID, beyond the activity tracking & music, the most frequent interactions with my Watch have expanded:

  • Track walks, runs, & bike rides
  • Workouts with Fitness+
  • Sleep tracking + alarm
  • Checking my schedule with Fantastical
  • Handwashing timers

While Apple continues to make progress with each iteration of watchOS, & overall each release has been a positive change, a huge number of features earlier versions of watchOS focused on feel obsolete already.

  • Now that Complications dominate, the Dock for launching apps feels useless. The one-up scrolling list design makes it slower to navigate than the Home Screen. A new iteration of app launching, using Complications, a customizable list of accessible apps (the equivalent of iOS Home Screens), & an App Library as the junk drawer could make navigating apps so much faster.
  • Walkie-Talkie is worse than useless. It has so much hope for quick audio interactions (when grocery shopping with family members, for example), but the unreliability & unbelievably slow speed are deal-breakers.
  • Digital Touch is a gimmick. I’m glad it was shelved into a Messages feature, but its removal would not be missed.
  • Breathe is nice, but doesn’t do enough to bring me back (its notifications don’t count). I’m optimistic for what’s coming in watchOS 8, but I’ll have to try it longer-term.
  • Noise was a fun idea, but beyond the alerts, not regularly useful as an app.
  • Radio being a separate app from Music doesn’t make sense, especially a few years in.
  • The App Store is a necessity for an independent device, but browsing collections of apps is not an interaction I'm ever looking for on my wrist. Memoji creation falls into the same category.
  • Raise to Speak for Siri is incredibly hit or miss. It’s so publicly embarrassing to ask Siri the same question multiple times, & I had to immediately disable Siri’s vocal responses on Apple Watch since so many of the responses are useless but attempting to be clever.
  • The Siri watchface feels like the most under-invested in high-potential feature for the Watch. The entire premise of a computer on one’s wrist should be based around it knowing what you want & making that quickly accessible. Unfortunately, it’s never been developed past the initial version, which displays a stream of irrelevant information from apps like News, Breathe, & Photos instead of anything I would pull out my iPhone to quickly check. A modern version, designed as extended complications contextually displayed like the Smart Rotate of iOS 14’s widget stacks, could go so far.
  • While I’m super glad Shortcuts are operable on the Apple Watch, even as a Shortcuts superfan, I haven’t found great use cases for the app on my wrist.
  • On a different note: while several of the health features—ECG, Fall Detection, SOS, now Blood Oxygen—are amazing to have, & I hope Apple keeps developing more, as a young healthy person they’re not very useful in a daily routine.

Looking ahead at watchOS 8:

  • Photos was never an experience that needed to be significant on the Apple Watch, since the device can’t capture photos beyond screenshots & is such a small display. The sharing to Messages ability is much-needed, but beyond that, I don’t expect to browse my memories there.
  • Home absolutely needed a redesign, but like so many other apps, the slow, one-up scrolling list view is a terrible fit for most lists on the Watch. Slow interactions have always been the enemy of the Apple Watch, & I hope these get removed from most apps.
  • The new Scribble looks absolutely fantastic. Though I somewhat-frequently dictate on my Watch, not having access to e.g. emojis means I have to get out my iPhone depending on the content of the reply I want to send. Using the Digital Crown for cursor placement/scrolling seems excellent.
  • New workout types like Pilates & more analysis in Sleep are most welcome.
  • The usefulness of the Always-On Display being limited to the watchface was the primary reason I didn’t upgrade for the feature—extending that to apps should make the display drastically more passively useful.

At this point, the Apple Watch needs two major moves from Apple: decisive curation & mature independence.

Apple clearly didn’t know what the Apple Watch would be good for with the first version, & marketed it as an all-capable do-anything device, but over time its strengths (fitness, health, notifications) have crystallized. Experiences that didn’t work out, like Digital Touch & Walkie-Talkie, should be cut entirely or disabled by default; there’s too many apps pre-installed (Memoji, Noise, Shortcuts should be opt-in), many of which have never been updated since their respective introductions. Meanwhile, useful additions like Handwashing remain buried in settings, instead of prompting or enabling upfront. Make tough decisions & edit—each of the recent OS releases has felt like a grab-bag of additions without a clear vision of where the Watch should fit in.

Second, the time has come for the Apple Watch to go independent from the iPhone. While most owners will continue to wear them paired to an iPhone, the exercise would force Apple to take a hard look at countless workflows & interactions with the Watch that feel supremely under-baked. For example, if a friend sends me an Apple Music song in Messages, tapping it opens a micro web browser with the Apple Music website, where I’m unable to play the song, instead of simply streaming the song in the Music app. Asking Siri on the Watch to play a song should stream it on the Watch, not on my iPhone’s speaker. While you’re on a FaceTime Audio or phone call, it’s impossible to switch apps (to e.g. Maps directions while walking) without ending the phone call entirely. Find My showing people but neither devices (though allowing pinging the paired iPhone in Control Center) nor AirTags is frustrating. With the iPhone unavailable as a crutch for everything the Watch fails at, these experiences can be polished & the limitations removed. Like the M1 iPad Pro, there’s so many experiences that feel like the software is behind what the hardware could make possible. Improving these micro-interactions would also make LTE drastically more useful on the Watch; when you can’t get directions while walking with a phone call, it’s not worth paying for cellular when you need your iPhone with you regardless.

What we don’t need more of is a procession of new apps, trying the cram the Watch into every facet of life. Focus on what’s unique to the Apple Watch & what’s great on the Apple Watch, lean into that. Apple Fitness+, which I’ve written about before, exemplified what a great new Apple Watch experience looks like. At home, I use it near-daily to get more intense exercise like HIIT or strength training, & while I’m traveling, it’s fantastic to top off my rings with activities like yoga.

The Apple Watch is the only device I own that makes me a better version of myself: I’m more active, healthier & sleep better, & look at my iPhone less. Unlike the iPhone, you can never accidentally lose an hour staring at your watch. These more minimal, passive experiences with electronics will become so much more important in the future, & the Apple Watch is the only device of its kind making progress toward that future. I’m incredibly excited for its future, but to get there, I hope Apple will take a hard look at the current features, make decisive cuts & opinionated settings, & bring the device fully independent.