Half a year later, the Apple Watch feels like a stalled platform

Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Seven months later, my Apple Watch is still the second thing I put on every morning. (Glasses first.) But while I still enjoy using it and recommend buying it, I’m starting to feel the limitations of what the first version of the watch can do.

The main issue: I’m still only using it for a few tasks, and those haven’t changed at all.

Here’s what’s working: I’ve learned to rely on the watch, without thinking, for a handful of functions. These are as basic as quickly telling time to as futuristic-seeming as watching my Uber approach on a tiny map before it swings around the corner.

Notifications, one of the early big-idea purposes of a smartwatch, are pretty reliable and, with some attention to their frequency, very useful. One night at a restaurant, when a handful of things I’d put up for sale on eBay were closing around the same time, the sensation of an arm buzz every few seconds as a new bid rolled in was an amusing delight. (Another round, garçon!)

I reply to a large portion of text messages from the watch, using customized quick responses. Tracking my exercise has helped me lose 10 pounds.

But that’s about it. And they are pretty much the same ways I used the watch when I first got it.

The platform simply feels stalled.

I don’t think I’m being lazy. I’ve searched for new and compelling new uses of the device, but they are nowhere to be found. That’s despite several months having passed since Apple launched the second version of watchOS, which gives app makers more control over the watch, including its sensors and digital crown.

One of the big new features of watchOS 2 was supposed to be custom widgets for the watch face, called complications. But the few I’ve tried are very basic replacements of system complications, or they are impractical for daily use. (One I’d love to try, real-time sports scores during a game, still seems to be missing from the apps that could provide such a thing.) Games on the watch, meanwhile, still feel awkward and slow, despite gaining new access to the operating system.

It just doesn’t feel like the dawn of the iPhone app revolution in 2008, when that’s all people wanted to talk about. How does an Apple Watch app go viral?

In preparation for this story, I asked several prominent startup investors in New York and Silicon Valley if they’ve encountered any interesting companies that use the Apple Watch as a primary interface. The consensus: none yet. (Though one pointed at Workflow, an interesting, if geeky, app for creating simple automation shortcuts.) Meanwhile, the new Apple TV streaming media player, which launched in late October, already has several interesting new apps and ideas.

Is this just a weak discovery process? A natural evolution? Or did Apple overshoot in its ambitions with the first version of the watch?

Perhaps the problem is that it’s an iPhone accessory that wants to be an iPhone.

The watch was designed as a sibling to the iPhone. Its capability feels constrained, because it is. Everything has been optimized for power efficiency. It relies on the iPhone for configuration, intelligence, and internet access. This has been a known issue since the beginning.

But after months of use, it’s increasingly clear that this is what needs to change the most. The watch needs to be untethered from the iPhone for speed, independence, and direct access to the power of the cloud. Or it will never be more than a cute sidekick.

Other smartwatch makers are starting—and struggling—to offer models that connect directly to cellular networks, but it should happen eventually. Whether it’s version two or three of the Apple Watch, that’s when things should really get interesting.

(Conspiracy theory: Maybe a super-simple Apple Watch cellular internet service is the virtual “MVNO” network that Apple has reportedly been sniffing around? That might actually make sense.)

It’s also now obvious that it’s going to take more time before great watch-native services appear.

The least exciting part.
The least exciting part.
Image: Apple

So far, app makers have mostly tried to shrink down their existing iPhone apps for a watch-sized screen, and it rarely works well. It’s easy to understand why Apple chose the “app” model for the watch: It’s a way to distribute third-party features that developers and consumers understand, and it has been a huge success for Apple with the iPhone. But it just hasn’t translated well to the watch.

To be fair, Uber and Instagram weren’t created until several years into the iPhone app revolution. It takes time to master a new interface, harness the capabilities of a new device, and build network effects.

Apple hasn’t helped matters by designing watchOS with a grid of cute, round app icons, which gives the impression that it’s supposed to be used the same way as an iPhone. Wake up the watch, press a button, poke around for the right app, launch it, wait for it, and then get your task done. That’s the wrong model, even for the basic reason that it adds time and work to what should be instant, simple tasks.

That screen of app icons is perhaps the most attractive screen on the watch, and looks powerful in marketing: Hey, look at all those logos! But it has turned out to be mostly useless. I’d rather have more options—and contextual intelligence—for configuring watch-face complications that appear on the device’s primary interface.

Apple has already started to tweak the hardware—on the outside.

I wonder if the company was surprised by how popular the aluminum “sport” model has been, relative to the flagship stainless steel line. Many of the initial luxury and fashion angles to the Apple Watch launch now feel particularly forced and silly. (Though its more recent collaboration with Hermès is a smart, upscale extension.)

This fall, Apple introduced several new sport watch and band colors, and they look nice. I’ve been testing one configuration on loan from Apple—a “gold” aluminum watch with a navy sport band—and like it a lot. (Like a classic navy blazer, it looks good both dressed up and down.) One question is whether the watch lineup will eventually evolve to include new case designs, as well, or if they’ll always be the same rectangular screen.

Sign me up for version two.

Overall, I still really like the Apple Watch, and will continue to wear it daily. It has been a fun and useful addition to my life. Go ahead and get one—or gift one—if you’re curious. But keep realistic expectations about its utility and longevity.

The Apple Watch seems to be selling well enough to earn the company’s continued attention and investment, at least for the foreseeable future. Apple has likely sold more than 5 million of them so far. That’s probably enough to make it the smartwatch market leader for some time to come. But it’s still far short of a hit. J.Crew isn’t stocking a case of Apple Watch bands next to its iPhone cases yet. Apple makes long bets, and this appears to be one of them.

Beyond faster hardware, quicker network access, and a thinner case, I’m most eager to see what Apple does with the high-level concept. Is this where the company takes its first-generation lessons and delivers something with more context, focus, and intelligence? Or is that cute screen of app icons still our best look at the future?

Previously: One month with the Apple Watch