What is the Apple Watch? The simple answer is Apple’s first smartwatch. In fact Apple calls it its “most personal device ever”. But early reviewers have wrestled with the raison d’être of the Apple Watch.
“Do you want another tiny computer in your life that you have to worry about and charge every day?” wondered The Verge‘s Nilay Patel. “That’s the real question of the Apple Watch. Does it offer so much to you that you’re willing to deal with the hassles and idiosyncrasies of a new platform that is clearly still finding a true purpose?”
“After over a week of living with Apple’s latest gadget on my wrist, I realized the company isn’t just selling some wrist-worn computer, it’s selling good looks and coolness, with some bonus computer features. Too many features that are too hard to find, if you ask me,” decided the WSJ‘s Joanna Stern.
“All these new functions, notifications, and tapping do make the Apple Watch very distracting. In some ways, it can be more distracting than your iPhone, and checking it can feel more offensive to people around you than pulling out your phone,” judged Bloomberg‘s Josh Topolsky.
The NYT‘s Farhad Manjoo was more smitten — once he’d got to grips with the thing, and tailored its alerts to things he actually wanted to be alerted to. “After a few days, I began to get snippets of information from the digital world without having to look at the screen — or, if I had to look, I glanced for a few seconds rather than minutes,” he enthused.
“By notifying me of digital events as soon as they happened, and letting me act on them instantly, without having to fumble for my phone, the Watch became something like a natural extension of my body — a direct link, in a way that I’ve never felt before, from the digital world to my brain.”
Long time Apple watcher Gruber thinks the Apple Watch is very much a watch — if by a watch you mean “a wrist worn glance-able display of status information”, plus to a lesser degree a “signifier” of personal taste and style. Analyst Horace Dediu thinks it’s so much more than a watch — closer to a productivity machine, thanks to its omnipresent, on-body proximity.
“The product has a completely different character. It tries not to do more but to do less. But that which it does is more meaningful, more thoughtful,” Dediu writes in a philosophical dissection of his early experience with the Apple Watch (which even invokes the ‘b’ word: beauty).
“We talk of computing speeds and network feeds but we spend much more time and money to visit people who have little to say and say it slowly. We value charm and wit more than bandwidth and throughput. We are drawn to beauty more than to speed. This is what this computer captures.”
What is the Apple Watch? Right now, it’s mostly potential — and that’s why many first wave reviews are splashing around in search of a clear purpose. If you consider what the Watch could be, rather than what this first iteration is, it’s a whole lot of potential.
I wonder whether the Apple Watch could be the perfectly timed virtual assistant that technologists have been trying to bring us for years. After all, it serves up Siri in a form that’s far more fitting than the smartphones and tablets where the app started out.
On the iPhone (or iPad) it’s all too easy to forget Siri exists, given myriad other iOS functions and app distractions on tap. Not that there’s any shortage of ways you can interact with the Apple Watch (touch, force touch, digital crown wheel, physical buttons, NFC, voice, heart rate…). But the path of least resistance with a less-is-more device should really be voice, because voice is the primary human communication medium. And it could be on the Apple Watch — if/when Siri’s voice recognition improves.
As Manjoo notes: “The Watch… relies heavily on voice dictation and the voice assistant Siri, which is more useful on your wrist than on your phone, but still just as hit-or-miss. I grew used to calling on Siri to set kitchen timers or reminders while I was cooking, or to look up the weather while I was driving. And I also grew used to her getting these requests wrong almost as often as she got them right.”
The Apple Watch deliberately places Siri right by your elbow, as a fixture on your person and thus ideally placed to understand and contextualize your current needs — as any real-life assistant would. Literally in a position to be able to tap you on the wrist to get your attention. A wearable as a contextually intelligent, omni-present virtual assistant is a far grander vision than the average smartwatch has sold us up to now, with fitness tracking the most common promise in the category.
Google’s Android Wear, with its focus on serving up timely contextual info to Android-based smartwatches, is the closest rival vision. And Google has a head start here, with its predictive virtual assistant tech, Google Now, which data mines usage of Google services like Gmail to anticipate user needs and serve up cards of relevant info.
But Google also has an escalating privacy problem as tech gets ever more personal. Its business model is about harvesting personal data to flesh out ever more detailed user profiles to sell to advertisers and third parties. And would you really want to employ a personal assistant who, after they put down the phone on your latest request, picks it up again to sell your intel on — whether it’s the contents of your diary, your tastes and predilections, your big and small family dramas?
Wearables are by definition intimate. They are physically connected to you and can be privy to your entire waking life. The Apple Watch has a built-in microphone, for goodness sakes — it could easily be turned into a portable listening device that eavesdrops on everything you say and hear. So Apple’s hardware-focused business model and pro-privacy stance offers an important differentiating edge vs Google. Promising to safeguard user data not sell it is increasingly attractive as technology gets increasingly intimate.
It’s also clear that Apple has been thinking about virtual assistants for years. It bought the startup behind Siri back in 2010 — spending more than $200 million to do so, according to Silicon Valley buzz at the time. In 2013 it also picked up personal assistant app Cue. Discussions about why Apple wanted to make a personal assistant have often focused on the evolution of mobile search. But what if this is also about the evolution of the virtual assistant concept — moving what has mostly been an underachieving technology from an overshadowed and overlooked position, as just another app on your phone, to deliberately place it in prime position for usage and for being useful — allowing the tech to shine.
It’s fair to say that Siri on the iPhone (and iPad) hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. But Siri on the Apple Watch? Here the voice assistant becomes far more interesting. Firstly there’s no keyboard on the Apple Watch, so inputting anything here necessarily leans more heavily on voice recognition. Voice is also a quicker input mechanism (or again, it could be if Siri’s accuracy improves) which meshes with the smartwatch convenience promise.
Secondly it comes back to context and placement. The Apple Watch, as Matthew Panzerino has argued, is designed to help you lift key signals from out of the digital noise. Its big promise is time saved. So its raison d’être is exactly to sift, to screen, to triage, to enable its wearer to do more by doing less themselves. And therefore, to delegate more. To let the tech take the strain. Which is exactly what Siri promises to do (even if it the tech too often fails to deliver on that right now).
Just imagine what sort of experience the Watch could be used to smoothly deliver in future — either by voice, or indeed a few directive taps within the relevant pared-back apps — as the tech matures and knits together user needs, personal context and their customized web of digital services…
‘Siri, tell anyone who contacts me in the next two hours that I’m busy’
‘Siri, hold all my calls til further notice’
‘Siri, let me know when Joanne emails me back’
‘Siri, call me an Uber in 10 minutes’
‘Siri, tell Alfred to pick up my dry cleaning’
“Siri, order my favorite take-out. With extra chili sauce’
‘Siri, book a table somewhere nice in SoMa on Thursday evening. Dinner for four’
And so on.
In a world of apps for everything, something has to give — and that something is time. It’s finite. There’s no app can fix that. Indeed the proliferation of apps and services is only exacerbating tech’s time-sink tendencies. And Apple has not only spotted that, but with the Apple Watch it has repackaged it as a wearable business opportunity.
In tech’s chronically time-strapped times, the virtual assistant concept starts to become a whole lot more interesting — if it can live up to the billing as an intelligent go-between; a personalized, savvy interface layer that manages interactions between you and myriad digital services so you don’t waste precious time sweating the detail. The more apps there are, the less you want or need to personally interact with them. It’s results you want, not a ‘delightful experience’.
Of course there are a lot of ifs here. And plenty of buts. Siri isn’t there yet, clearly. Nor is the Apple Watch, at this nascent stage. And an appropriately servile app ecosystem has yet to come. But the potential for what the Apple Watch could be is starting to take shape.
The vision is a screen that screens; that sits between you and the noise; that gives an intelligent virtual assistant an appropriate physical form which helps it know when to interrupt and when to stay silent; to know what’s important and what can wait. And that pyramid-shaped filtration system — comprised of you the human, your wearable virtual assistant and the portable computer in your back pocket (still there for when you want or need to deep-dive into an app) — is a combination designed to get the utilitarian stuff done (the bookings, the formulaic communications, the scheduling, the timely alerts, and so on) with the minimum of human effort — so you can focus on the stuff that can’t or shouldn’t be delegated.
You could even argue that startups like Magic have spotted a similar opportunity to build a convenience service layer to satisfy an increasingly time-strapped yet on-demand(ing) world.
That’s the grand vision. And perhaps the best case yet for why we need wearable tech.
Now Apple just needs to execute.
Siri, your time is coming.