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In my first piece in this series, I wrote that the value of Apple Watch can’t be explained monetarily, but I’ve found in these last weeks that the value is hard to explain in functional terms. Part of the reason is that its delight comes from tiny moments of joy that compound over time, a compounding that outside observers don’t experience.1 But another part of the reason is that what the watch does is so different than what many expect.
This last week, I was on vacation with my family (who gave the watch to me) and at a conference where my watch was noticed (a lot!).2 Amidst the oohs and ahs and people calling it iWatch, I was repeatedly asked the question, “What does it do?” As I answered that question, I realized that the functions of Apple Watch are unique to its form. It’s an oft-quoted maxim that “form follows function,” but in the case of Apple Watch, I believe the exact opposite is true: the Apple Watch’s form is its function. It is Apple’s discipline to allow the form to dictate its function that has set up the Watch for success in a way only Apple could.
It Starts With the Wrist
Wired’s piece on the “History of the Apple Watch” contained the revelation that Apple started with the form of the watch before they had determined its function:
APPLE DECIDED TO make a watch and only then set out to discover what it might be good for (besides, you know, displaying the time). “There was a sense that technology was going to move onto the body,” says Alan Dye, who runs Apple’s human interface group. “We felt like the natural place, the place that had historical relevance and significance, was the wrist.”
So what is it that Apple discovered a watch would be good for? What is its function? What does it do? Here are the unique considerations of the form of a device worn on the wrist, each of which have radical implications on its function.
A watch, by nature of its form of being wrist-worn, will be the following:
- Visible, to the wearer and to others
- Wrist-sized, being small, light, and cool enough to be on the wrist
- In constant contact with one’s skin
- Persistent, always available in a convenient spot
If these things are inherent to the form of a watch, they must fundamentally affect the function of the watch. For example, despite some outrageously stupid smartwatch designs, I have yet to see one try to include a CD player. There are some functions that cannot be included in a watch form, some that should not, and some functions that are ideally suited to its form. It is Apple’s careful thought of these matters that have made Apple Watch so incredible.
For each category, I’ll first identify how Apple has adapted the Watch’s functions to suit its form and then comment on the role that functionality has had in my life with Apple Watch.
A watch is nearly always visible, capable of being seen by others and by the wearer. That fundamentally changes how a watch must function in several ways:
First, it must be beautiful and personalizable. Some may scoff that this isn’t a function of a watch, but this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of a wrist-worn device as jewelry. There’s a reason that wrists are more commonly bedecked with jewelry than ankles the world over; the function of adorning yourself or displaying wealth is inherent to the form. Being fashionable, as Ben Thompson put it, is tablestakes. This is why Apple has made the watch so customizable, as I wrote previously, and while Apple can do more to further this, they’ve set up a solid foundation. People have loved my watch and I have loved wearing it.
Second, its functions must be discreet. There’s a reason the screen doesn’t light up when you receive a notification, and it’s not to save battery life–it’s because no one wants to have an unhide-able item on their person that constantly annoys others with their alerts. (Am I the only one annoyed by people’s phones who constantly buzz, even on silent?) This is why Apple created the Taptic Engine and made notifications appear in two steps; a glance and then a more detailed view if you look at it longer.
The discreet nature of Apple Watch means that I can get and see a notification–and even reply!–while I’m in a class with just 8 people and mere feet away from the teacher. I would never dream of doing that with my phone as it’d be insultingly rude. But I can text my wife a pre-formed “I love you” message with just a couple taps–and without anyone noticing. (She loves that!)
Third, the function must leverage the visibility of the device. There’s a reason why wristwatches won out over pocket watches; their form (wrist-worn) followed the function (telling time) which is far better on the wrist. With Apple Watch, though, the value of the functions (time-telling, complications, notifications, glances, apps) decrease based on how visible they are on the wrist.
This is one reason why I believe Abdel Ibrahim is right that Apple Watch apps aren’t apps. An app that provides value only when deliberately opened is just as valuable as an app you open on the phone (unless it leverages other unique capabilities of the Watch articulated in this piece). Current apps aren’t bad merely because they are slow; even with a native and faster SDK, they aren’t valuable unless they leverage the unique properties of the watch, including its constant visibility.3
This is one of my favorite parts of Apple Watch: getting notifications in a class or conversation and being able to see it without anyone knowing. When one person asked me “What does the Watch do?” I told him that I had received and responded to multiple text messages while in conversation with him–and he had never noticed. That blew his mind. And that never would have happened with a phone. The function of receiving notifications is infinitely more valuable in a wrist form (watch) than a handheld form (phone) because the wrist is more visible than the pocket.
While there is a vast diversity of watch sizes and weights, no traditional watch is five pounds, the size of a dinner plate, or one that burns your wrist. The wrist provides a very natural and binding limit on a watch than a hand does to a phone. So what do that form limitation mean for its function?
First, navigation has to change. As Tim Cook noted, you can’t pinch and zoom on a screen this small. Scrolling up and down with your finger, while possible, also covers up the content. This is why the Digital Crown is absolutely ingenious, allowing you to zoom or scroll or adjust things without covering up the content you’re seeing. Despite my initial confusion, in actual practice, it absolutely shines as a navigational tool. I find myself playing with it to see things scroll, the same way I sometimes swipe my iPad just to see things move, or the way I scrolled on the iPod wheel for fun. There is something magical about a finely-tuned navigational method that makes you just want to use it, even to accomplish nothing.
This also, I believe, is why Apple added the second Contacts button to Apple Watch. The challenges of navigating on such a small screen mean that additional hardware buttons are useful in a way not needed on iPhone. Situations where I can’t use Siri to send a message are also situations where I probably don’t have time to go to the app screen, open messages, find my contact in the field of conversations, and then send a pre-filled message. Having one-click access to my most important contacts is a huge win.
Update 5/22: This also is why Apple has included Force Touch. On a screen this small, having contextual/menu buttons would crowd the space for content. The result would either be a terrible navigation experience, compromised display of content, or both. By putting these controls and buttons in the Force Touch menu, Apple allows the content to be on full display on the watch. The unfortunate byproduct of that choice, though, is that the buttons are hidden from the user, with nothing onscreen to indicate when to use them. I have found that I am sometimes surprised at when I can use Force Touch, when I can’t, and frequently forget to try to use Force Touch at all. On the whole, though, I think this will be learned behavior, just as hidden menus accessed via secondary clicking became learned behavior (which is anything but intuitive).
Second, input has to change. Despite some comical attempts, a form this small is not an ideal place for a keyboard. Apple has partly solved this with pre-filled and contextually aware suggestions, but where the Watch shines is with Siri. The more functionality that can be controlled by voice, the better it will be adapted to the form of the watch.4
So far, Siri has been amazing on the watch–so much better than on the phone ( I suspect due to hardware optimization). Further, the ability to use “Hey Siri” anytime is a game-changer. I can’t tell you how many times I have done things via voice that I otherwise would not or could not have done without it.
A moment that illustrates this perfectly is when I’m in conversation with my wife and have a quick thought or remember something I need to do. Since I believe in Getting Things Done, I need to get that thought or task down immediately. With the watch, I can just use Hey Siri to add a thought to Drafts, the best note-taking app on the planet, or add a task to Things, my favorite task manager.5 I know this sounds crazy, but pulling out my phone at dinner would be incredibly rude, but merely raising my wrist and speaking isn’t (and, because of the form of the watch, my wife also knows that the interruption will be very brief).
Apple has carefully adapted the functionality of Apple Watch to its form by creating new navigational and input methods.
Constant Skin Contact
The constant contact with your skin is so basic to a watch’s form that many people, myself included, have missed its unique power. In this category, rather than being a limit on function due to the form (as size was, above), the touch capacity expands what functionality is possible due to its form. Once again, Apple has masterfully adapted the function of the watch to match its form. Consider the following:
First, the Taptic Engine. This not only allows discreet notification (described above) but also allows intensely intimate communication that is possible no other way. I’ve written previously about the borderline-sexual language in Apple’s marketing, but feeling Digital Touch in action is even more intimate. There is something immensely powerful about touch, especially when it comes from someone you love. I wrote last week about getting my son’s picture on my wrist, but that would not have been as powerful an experience if it did not also feel like he tapped me for my attention. I believe that we’ll look back on the Taptic Engine as one of Apple’s most profound insights into the form of Apple Watch.
Second, Digital Touch. I only know two people with Apple Watches, both of whom shared their number so that we could use Digital Touch. So, while I don’t use it much, I already can see the power this will have. For example, when I first tweeted to see if anyone wanted to share digital touch, I almost wrote “Does anyone want to digital touch me?” I freaked myself out with how intimate that sounded. But when I first exchanged heartbeats with a guy on Twitter, we both felt the need to specify that we didn’t mean anything romantic–because there is something deeply intimate about that. Another individual mentioned that he only knows two people with an Apple Watch–me and a girl–and since he’s married, he feels its inappropriate to send his heartbeat to the girl (even though it’s fine to text her!). There is something immensely intimate and deeply powerful about digital touch that is revolutionary.6
Third, health and fitness. Unlike powerful phones that don’t have skin contact, a wrist-worn device has immense health implications due to the fact that it has constant contact with one’s skin. The heart rate monitor is the very first step as the Apple Watch’s function follows its form, but it already is immensely powerful. Other watches have heart monitors, but merely knowing your heart beat is useless. Apple’s game-changing insight was to take that data and interpret it for users as three simple rings that are psychologically hard to not fill. This has already had a huge impact in my life–most notably in standing up more often (I had no idea how much I sat!) but also in exercising more. If this were all Apple Watch did, it would make my life meaningfully better, but this is just one of the many things it does–and it’s just a taste of the many things Apple can do for health with a device that is touching the skin. Once again, Apple has allowed the function of Apple Watch to follow the form of a wristworn device.
Unique to a wearable is that it, by definition, is worn, and therefore is always with and available to an individual. That form creates immense worlds of functionality, a world that is only starting to be explored. Here are just some of that starting functionality:
First, Health Tracking. I used to track steps with my phone, but this constantly led to situations either where I was missing steps or had to remember to pick up my phone before I ran to rock my crying son. With Apple Watch, I never have to give it a second thought, leading to both a less frustrating and a more accurate assessment of my health. The more my health can be tracked and interpreted automatically, the more informed I can be about healthy lifestyle choices.
Second, Convenience. This thread has been underlying nearly everything else I’ve written, so it doesn’t need much explanation, but it is profoundly powerful. Sending a message no matter where you are, getting a phone call and not having to run to your phone, and pinging your lost phone from your watch are all things made possible by the persistent presence of Apple Watch–and they are all amazing. My favorite is using Apple Watch in the car, when getting a phone call or sending a message would normally result in the difficult, unsafe, and sometimes illegal process of getting my phone out of my pocket. With Apple Watch, I can receive a call on my wrist or raise my wrist or fire off a message with a wrist raise. As I wrote about last week, never underestimate the power of convenience.
Third, Identity. A device on you at all times can identify you to the world in a way that a phone cannot. ApplePay (or checking into hotels!) are powerful examples of how game-changing identity is.7 I’ve experienced some of this amazing the-future-is-now through an mind-bogglingly app, MacID. With MacID on my watch & computer, anytime my computer needs my administrative password, it sends an alert to my watch and, with one tap, I confirm my identity without having to type in my password. MacID is location-aware, so it alerts me as I walk up to my computer, enabling it to be unlocked before I even sit down at my desk. MacID is one of the best apps I’ve seen that leverages the unique form of Apple Watch to provide identity–and worth every penny on the app store. This is just the start of a field that is ripe for exploration and innovative functionality–all enabled by the unique form of Apple Watch.
Update 5/25: Fourth, and closely related to Identity but still distinct, is Hyper-Location Awareness. A wrist-worn device can know not just your ISPN location, not just your cell-tower triangulated position, and not just your GPS location. It can know the location of your arm, whether you’re sitting, standing, or walking a small distance that wouldn’t be tracked by those other types of location identity. So far, I can’t think of any specific functionality that has yet been enabled by this hyper-locality, but I expect this will be a significant piece of the HomeKit puzzle that Apple is trying to build. If so, it shouldn’t be a surprise if Apple launches the rumored “Home” app this WWDC; it’s one function of the wrist that is not truly being utilized at present.
The more I use Apple Watch, the more I realize that Apple has masterfully created a product whose functions are exactly suited to the unique form of a wrist. While there are certainly areas for improvement and development, Apple has laid a solid foundation for the future. As Matt Richman astutely observed, these functionalities of Apple Watch are built upon years of investment that will be exceedingly difficult to match or copy.
Though I broke the uniqueness of a watch’s form into four separate categories, you’ll notice that the functions are all interdependent and interwoven. For example, the identity function of ApplePay requires the heart rate monitor for verification which, in turn, enables health-tracking and intimate communications which, in turn, rely on the Taptic Engine for Digital Touch which, in turn, provides discreet notifications. Every piece of the puzzle is intertwined and is made better because of the other pieces of the puzzle. No one but Apple has created something like this–and it will be years before anyone comes close to matching it either.
Apple has again done what it does best: create a product in a new category that redefines the category to be what it should have been all along. Apple has brilliantly observed what functions are enabled by the form of Apple Watch. The function followed the form. Apple’s ability to attune themselves to a unique form and create a device with such interdependent technologies is absolutely amazing.
But the most amazing thing is this: this is just the starting point for the wrist.
This is part 2 of an ongoing series of weekly reviews of MarkDMill’s experience & reflection on Apple Watch.
- Week 1: You Can’t Put Delight In a Spreadsheet
- Week 4: A Foundation for the Future
- Week 5: The Future of Apple Watch (WWDC & beyond)
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1. People who have only had the watches a matter of days also miss this; one reason I’m doing weekly reviews for the first months rather than try to have a “summarative” review moments after having had the device. I likewise recommend you ignore anything written after less than a week of having a device…and take anything written less than 2 weeks (including mine!) with a large grain of salt.↩️
4. A key reason why I hope Apple will open up a Siri API this WWDC or, as I’ve written about previously, at minimum, a Contacts API so you can send a message with Siri to anyone via any messaging client. ↩️
5. I’m not accomplishing this through the Apple Watch apps, though I have both on Apple Watch. Instead, I use Siri to add thoughts to Drafts and tasks to Things via Apple’s Reminders app. Here are directions for setup in Drafts and setup in Things. Clever integrations like these are just one reason why I recommend those apps so highly. ↩️
6. And scary, too. If texting turned into sexting, what will happen with Digital Touch, heartbeats, & the taptic engine?
I fear for the world when Tinder/Down With Friends & the like can read heartbeats & use the Taptic engine