Is the Apple Watch an essential communication tool, an expensive remote for the iPhone, or something else entirely?
I chased my Apple Watch around the world. The announcement of WatchOS6 sold me on getting one. My heart was set on either the Titanium or Ceramic model. But I wasn’t about to buy it in the UK, where prices for Apple products, like so many other things, are needlessly expensive.
I had an October trip coming up, so it made sense to shop in Tokyo. Apple products are competively priced in Japan and the added benefit of now being able to buy tax-free made it very attractive. Clearly I wasn’t the only one thinking this, as the queues outside Apple stores in Tokyo stretched for blocks in the warm sunshine. The Watch models I wanted were all out of stock.
The next leg of that trip saw me in Australia. But my visit to the Apple store in Adelaide was fruitless. The models I wanted were “special order items,” said the Apple store person, under the watchful eye of the security guard who stood close by all the Watch products.
New York was no better; the Watch models I wanted were in stock, but a US model couldn’t be paired with a mobile phone account in either the UK or Japan.
It wasn’t until I was back in Japan a few months ago that I finally got my shiny ceramic Apple Watch.
I’ll admit that all that trouble to save a bit of money on the exact model I wanted is a bit much. But, that aside, is the Apple Watch really worth it?
What Is An Apple Watch?
Of course, the answer will always depend on how you want to use the Apple Watch. Some people like it because it’s a kind of ultimate portable communication device. Calls, e-mails, text messages, all on your wrist, like sci-fi made real. Others like it because it’s a remarkable remote for your iPhone, allowing you to deal with a lot of things like notifications, media, and even paying for things, without having to take your iPhone out of your bag or pocket.
The appeal of the Apple Watch is different for me. Taking phone calls on my wrist, or controlling music and taking photos from a watch, is cool. Its promise is something that really started to pay off with WatchOS6 – the Watch as an intelligent tracking device. The Apple Watch helps me understand where I am and how I’m experiencing that place.
Watches Have Always Done More Than Tell Time
Think about what a watch is. It tells the time, sure, but more importantly it locates us in time. As I write this it’s 10.28 and I’m sitting at a desk in my hotel room in central Tokyo. Soon the time will be closer to 12.00 and I’ll have to be somewhere other than this room in order to eat lunch. I have appointments later in the day, at 15.00 and 17.30, but those aren’t just numbers, they are markers for places I must be, people I must talk to, and experiences I hope to have.
Time is really a thing we use to locate ourselves in the word. And a watch helps us to use time to navigate a universe of experiences.
So, when we consider smart watches, like Apple Watch, what we’re really doing is trying to add intelligence to this process of locating ourselves in the world and navigating our experiences.
As far as locating me in the world and navigating experiences, the Apple Watch does some remarkable things.
Apple Watch And Interpreting Reality
Take the faces of the Apple Watch as a starting point. The Watch allows you to set up several different watchfaces which you can switch between, depending on what information your want to see and how you want to see it. I have three set up on my Watch; a classic simple watch face called California, a big digital face called Numerals Duo, with big numbers for checking the time quickly on public transport, and a smaller classic face called Utility running three complications, or small apps, so I can see the time where my parents live, where my daughter lives, and the weather forecast.
Standing at the busy intersection of two six-lane roads in Tokyo – two levels of Expressway above.
Noise level is around 69-71dB with peaks of 76dB.
Most two-lane backstreets near where I live in London are much louder than this.
— Fernando Gros (@fernandogros) March 3, 2020
Apple Watch And Digital Minimalism
Straight out of the box, the Apple Watch is a nightmare for a digital minimalist. It promises to turn all the distraction and noise of a mobile device into an unignorable hot mess on your wrist. So, like any new device, you have to take control of it and make it work for you.
Which of course begs the question: why would a digital minimalist, someone intent on reducing the number of distractions and random requests for attention in their life, choose an Apple Watch?
The answer lies in setting up the Watch as an available tracking device, rather than an enabled attention-grabber.
So my Apple Watch is connected to the internet, which makes things like Siri voice commands possible, but it isn’t set up to look at the internet. So, if I set up a quick timer (and I use timers all day long), or decide to dictate a quick note, I can do so without the temptation to check e-mail or Twitter at the same time.
And most of the time the Apple Watch is just doing stuff for me, in the background, like tracking my heart rate and exposure to high noise levels, so I can think about how my health relates to my environment. Or it is adding data about how long I stand during the day, or how many steps I take, without my having to take my phone with me, say when I go for a walk in the park.
Apple Watch As A Status Symbol
Some years back I heard someone describe a watch as a “single function device.” The point they were trying to make was that watches, as a technology, would die out because they do only one thing, tell time, and in the future we would only have devices that serve multiple functions.
“If I want to know the time, I can look at my smartphone,” they said, as if this somehow proved their point.
Of course, this turned out to be wrong. Watches do more than just “tell time” and time is a more complex and metaphysically fascinating thing than just a number. And once we added intelligence to the watch, it became an even more compelling device.
But even back then they were wrong, because watches never did simply one thing. Watches have always been a powerful fashion accessory and status symbol. There used to by a saying that you could tell a lot about a man by looking at his watch and his shoes, and in many ways that still holds true.
And, while I’d love to end this commentary on the place the Apple Watch has in my life right now just by tackling its features and usability, there’s no escaping that this is a very expensive item.
Which is perhaps good, because it means we can’t avoid, as is so often the case in conversations about technology, discussing the way Apple Watch works as a fashion and status icon.
Ever since the second coming of Steve Jobs, Apple’s success was down to making products that weren’t always the most technologically powerful, but were always the most attractive and fashionable items in the tech world.
Even within Apple’s range of desirable products, there’s a hierarchy. This is most obvious in the way Apple uses the word Pro to mark a qualitative difference. The three cameras of the iPhone 11 Pro highlight a noticeable difference to regular models.
Within the Apple Watch range there’s a big jump in price between regular models and the Hermés range or the Apple Watch Edition models. But underneath the exterior, they are the same little portable computer running the same software. And no one really cares about the specifications of the computer anymore, just what they can do with it.
Because, as has always been the case, watches do a lot more than tell the time. And smart watches do far more than just put a computer on our wrist.