Blog Post

Don’t call the Apple Watch a smartwatch, even though it has the same challenges they do

Did you see the Apple Watch introduction on Tuesday? I was there, but I had to go back and view it again online to answer this question: How many times was the word “smartwatch” said during the launch event?

You can go watch for yourself and I’ll wait or I can save you some time. The answer is: None.

That’s a subtle, smart strategy on Apple’s part. I suspect the company executives knew exactly what they were doing by omitting the word. Instead, they spoke of a highly personal device and called it a timepiece, or just a watch.

An attendee inspects the new Apple Watch.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
An attendee inspects the new Apple Watch. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Here’s another question though: Did [company]Apple[/company] provide enough reasons — or any reason, really — for millions of consumers to buy the Apple Watch? I’m not sure it did, at least not yet. Bear in mind that CEO Tim Cook and company didn’t share all of the Apple Watch functions on stage. We’ll surely hear more as we get closer to the early 2015 product launch.

By not calling it a smartwatch, Apple can define the device they way it sees fit. But I’m already seeing some of the same challenges that current smartwatches face. Do we even know what we want a smartwatch to do?

What will you use the Apple Watch for?

Apple thinks it does. The Apple Watch is a companion device; one that works with iPhones. Obviously, it tells the time. There will be third-party apps for it and you can use it for navigation — I especially like the different haptic feedback bits that signal a left or a right turn when used with the Maps app. There is continuous heart rate monitoring, exercise tracking and fitness goals:that’s a big heath focus. You can ask Siri questions. And you can send iMessages or even communicate watch to watch with your friends.

But all of that gets me back to the idea: What is a smartwatch? By that I mean, do people want another screen just to get at most of the same apps, data and activities that are already available for the phone they’ll need to have with them anyway?

Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom
Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

Here’s a perfect example: When you favorite a photo on your iPhone, it will automatically be made available on your Apple Watch. While that’s interesting from a technology perspective, will people want to show off those pictures on a small screen wrapped around their wrist?

I had a related thought when capturing a video demo of the Apple Watch interface. While Apple has done a great job with the overall software design, there are still several taps, touches and twists to get at certain features. At some point, it’s just simpler to pull out the phone and do what needs to be done. Check the video and see if you agree.

Notifications on the wrist at a glance are handy, so that I can appreciate. There’s no contextual aspect to those notifications like Google Now for Android Wear — at least not that we know of — but even a watch built around the useful Google Now service isn’t enough for me to spend $200 or more for a smartwatch at this point. And Apple’s new watch starts at $349 with premium options costing some additional fee.

It’s hard to redefine a category that’s still being defined

There are several examples of Apple redefining markets. It did so with the iPod and digital music and then again with the iPhone, which came to define the current generation of smartphones. A smartwatch, however, is still a bit of an enigma. Nobody has cracked the code that makes the device highly desirable by most people. Instead, we’ve seen a shift of screens from phone to wrist along with the required interface tweaks because it seems like the next thing to do when it comes to mobile technology.

A close-up of the Dial Crown on the Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom
A close-up of the Dial Crown on the Apple Watch. Photo by Tom Krazit/Gigaom

Don’t get me wrong: I think Apple has designed an interesting, fashionable device. The idea of taking a traditional, familiar watch element — the crown — and using it to zoom without obscuring the watch display is clever. It’s a feature that I could see some smartwatches “borrow” in the future. But overall, the Apple Watch faces the same complications as competing devices in terms of battery capacity and usefulness.

After all, you still need your phone with you and for many tasks, it’s likely going to be the better device. You still have taps, swipes and button presses to get around on a watch, so why cram them onto a smaller screen when it’s more comfortable on a larger one for the same functionality?

The company has definitely put its stamp and design chops on the smartwatch, even if it’s not calling it a smartwatch. There’s also a big focus on health and fitness here. And for those reasons, it will surely appeal to some customers in early 2015. Barring surprise features though, at this point I’m still not sure Apple has provided tens of millions a compelling reason to get their first smartwatch, even if it comes from Apple and isn’t called a smartwatch at all.

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21 Responses to “Don’t call the Apple Watch a smartwatch, even though it has the same challenges they do”

  1. anon_fool

    i don’t think it has ‘continuous’ heart monitoring. that would be too taxing on the battery.
    what i would believe, based on the massive sensor size, is that they have an implementation which is far more accurate & reliable under a wider range of conditions.

  2. Bruno Vilela

    I find it interesting how most of the commentary I’ve seen on apple watch comes from people who speculate on the the need for a smart watch without ever having worn one.
    I remember the 90’s when most people would get annoyed at cell phone users.
    I own a Gear 2 paired with my Note 3. Combined with my MacBook pro, my iPad, and my apple TV it has pretty much completed my tech ecosystem.
    Do I need a smart watch? No! But for $250 it does everything my other watches do plus a whole lot more. In the case of my Gear 2 it means I never have to search for the missing AC remote anymore. I just use the IR blaster to turn it on and off and set the temperature and fan speed. As a matter of fact, the IR is the second most used function next to seeing the time.
    I think the apple watch is a good looking watch. Far from being the best looking watch I have ever seen but good looking enough. Eventually it will do everything the others do and the category will reach a peak of shared functionalities. Looks to me apple just couldn’t hold a big product event and only show a marginally better phone with a bigger screen so they tossed in the watch even though it is not ready for launch. Else they would be selling it this Xmas.
    All said and done, I feel Steve Jobs would have a fit if his designers proposed a product with a big mole sticking out of the side of his beautifully smooth surfaced watch. Why not a touch sensitive strip like the have on most midi controllers nowadays?

  3. I’m with Kevin on this one. I have yet to see a wrist device that adds enough useful functions to justify it . . . except for a wrist watch (at 5% of the iWatch price). Smartwatches may well become the geek accessory (like calculator watches once were, but I suspect they will be shown off more than used. Right now they are the Google Glass of the wrist.

    This could change in a few years with better voice recognition and advanced personal assistants but even when that day comes I’d rather have a headset reading me my Twitter/RSS/email/news feeds versus watching my wrist.

    As far as the iPad comparison, the innovation was that by running a phone OS you could make a limited functionality tablet cheap. I’ve owned Windows tablets for over ten years and, until the iPad came out, none of them were cheap. Unfortunately for the iWatch, cheap is not part of its DNA with a starting price is almost 20% more than an iPad Mini.

    • I kinda agree… What’s missing or unknown, but essential:
      1) Really rugged
      2) Water proof enough for DAY at beach
      3) Bright screen for day at beach
      4) More than two days battery life.
      It need all four to sell well. Lowering the price won’t compensate.

  4. Agree. As you know, I’ve railed against the SmartWatch term forever. One reason – the Smart is still the Phone. The wrist is for “Glance”. It’s terminal / server in a radical back-to-the-future way. Hence Tim emphasized, new UI. He said they did not try to shrink the SmartPhone.
    Agree also that you still need to reach for the phone sometimes. Likewise, the tablet does not replace the notebook.
    Agree on price, but for a different reason. Is it rugged enough? If it worked at the beach, several day rafting trips, triathlon, etc. then it’s worth a premium.
    Last question: Is the visibility GREAT in full sunlight?

  5. Jack Decker

    This is just another useless meaningless gizmo. Yes, yes, I saw the post equating objections to it as being the same as to the iPad, but a very small highly-portable laptop minus a cumbersome keyboard was what the computer industry was going for for a long time. Laptops were and still are being made thinner and lighter. The iPad is for when you don’t need to type anything. That’s pretty much it. Once retractable keyboards and a kickstand bar for the back of the monitor (so you can rest it on your lap, desk, etc.) are added to tablet PCs, the tablet PC will simply become another laptop.

    But the iWatch? What need does it serve? Nothing. The cellphone has killed the watch industry. Need to know the time? Ask someone for the time and observe what they do. They pull out their cellphone, tap it, and tell you. I’ve seen this done by even people WEARING a watch! So are you … is anyone going to carry around another devise to perform a function that your cellphone already provides you? Some geeks and Apple fanboys will but not the average person. This isn’t even the ill-fated Blue-Ray that online streaming services made irrelevant. It is just more junk you have to carry around that duplicates what your cellphone already does and does better at.

    As for the iWatch becoming a Dick Tracy wrist cellphones, sorry, but that idea is dead on arrival too. First, it doesn’t give you any privacy and, second, it will annoy those around you. You know the jerks that put their cellphones on speaker all the time to talk to people. Yeah, that’s what a wrist cellphone will be like.

  6. I just don’t get why some journalists like yourself get wrapped around the axle about these devices being called smartwatches.

    Is it because they are tethered to external resources to provide complete functionality? Show me a Smartphone that doesn’t have similar limitations. Take away a network connection and most phones work in a degraded state and the same is true for a smartwatch, it can still keep time and do some other basic functions without access the your phone, but just like your phone, it needs access to external resources to maximize it’s value.

    Is it because it is not a 1:1 replacement for a phone? Well, it isn’t meant to be and when we see smartwatches that attempt to do so (ahem…Gear), they are miserable failures because the expectation exceeds our technical ability.

    But, that doesn’t make them useless. Almost 70K of us bought into Pebble’s minimalistic approach and continued to support balanced efforts like Android Wear and Moto 360 where they fully understood the limitations of the technology and deliver value…good value, within those limitations.

  7. We still need more details on this. What can it do without an iPhone nearby? What can’t it do? Lots of questions for me, although I would rather get a discreet tap on my wrist (followed by an even more discreet glance) during meetings than a discreet vibration in my pocket.

  8. I was a Jawbone Up user and now I use a FitBit Force. I bought the Force AFTER the recall before they disappeared from eBay. Why? Because having a feedback screen on my wrist – even though I could’ve used my iPhone for that purpose, was very convenient. If the interface is simple, the Watch will be a great way to get more diverse info very quickly, without having to get my phone out and dig through all of the apps on it to find what I need. I’ll get it!

  9. Christophe Hubert

    Reminds me people saying “I don’t see the use for an iPad since I already have a computer” … You’ll see early 2015 that Apple has again created a New Reference :)

  10. Shawn Joseph

    I’m with you on this one Kevin. I’m a tech guy through and through (Have worked in IT for the last 20 years), but I can’t for the life of me get excited about a smart watch, Apple Watch or anything outside a fitbit with basic functionality. I can’t find a NEED for such a device. Now an iPhone 6+, that’s an entirely different scenario ;)

  11. There were two othe more important omission in the unveiling I think. And they omission doesn’t bode well I think. Because if they were good news Apple would have played them up.
    1. Weather resistance. Not a word of water or dust protection, even though it is commonly mentioned by other wearable makers about their own products. My guess is this means Apple isn’t employing any. A mighty expensive shower or rinse of a dish the first time you forget.
    2. Battery life. This is even bigger still. Not mentioning it at all leaves a very bad taste. If the desire was to stall sales of Android Wear until Apple gets to market, and that was the desire, then this is a figure which should have been mentioned if it was at all good.
    The truth about the last point is that coupled with the limited demos and no third party being allowed to use the watch in anything but auto demo mode means the software is simply not close to ready. And because of that they can’t give battery numbers as they don’t have them yet themselves.
    End of the day Apple Watch had some nice touches. The haptic notification system being the most useful and interesting. Meanwhile Google is already ahead with some things. Android Wear can have onboard GPS for instance – so no need to carry the phone with you on runs to make use of your watch. Also by the time Apple Watch hits the streets there will probably be more Android Wear on the market and both the hardware and software will be rapidly iterating.
    With smart phones Apple stunned the world with a surprise launch of a product generations ahead of everyone else. It took a long time for the world to catch up. With smart watches though there is already a world class ecosystem in place to compete and the first products from each are very close together. I’m not sure Apple will be able to cope with Android iteration rate.

    • The “Sport” edition clearly will be water resistant. They show a photo of a guy sweating profusely all over it. A picture is worth words, which is why Apple is usually a 1000 ahead of techies desperately fixated on a feature list.

      World-class ecosystem of “smart watches” already in place? Hardly. Nothing has taken. Just like tablets before the iPad.

      • World class ecosystem of Android already in place. The watches, neither Apple’s nor anyone’s are ecosystems unto themselves.
        That sport edition watch will be great with the sweating all over – and presumably your phone in your pocket? Or I guess you keep it in a bag or something? Maybe Apple will sell a $50 bag you can carry your phone in to get GPS route tracking features for running, biking, kyacking maybe…

        • RFO Jefferson

          Could you please say “world class” a thousand more times? It’ll make the idea that the Android ecosystem is world class even funnier each time. Now, if you specify an element of the ecosystem, as in “the Android ecosystem is world-class hackable,” then, sure, that’s true. Yet still funny!


        Water resistant just doesn’t cut it. They don’t have to be Omega SeaMaster level but it has to be waterproof. That is a major faux pas on Apple’s part if it’s not. They just took a major hit on mainstream uptake if you can’t swim with it.

        • You’re both right. Apple products really do suck and they never think about these obvious user experience things which is why they should hire smart guys like you to lead them to the light. Seriously, you can’t fairly evaluate new product categories demanding feature parity with the past, plus expect 100 new possibilities never before seen. “Major hit on mainstream… if you can’t swim with it”. See how that prediction pans out.