Has Time Been Kind to the Apple Watch?

What do BBC News, Instagram, Twitter, Slack, Pokémon GO, eBay and Uber have in common? They all had watchOS apps that have since been discontinued. This week Uber became the latest big name to switch off their Apple Watch app. There are still many useful apps from big and small developers in the watchOS App Store: YouTube Music, Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft PowerPoint and Google Maps are still present (the latter making a comeback recently after being discontinued in 2017). There does however seem to be a trend towards big companies abandoning their ambitions for our wrists, the the remaining apps being far less ambitious.

In the early days of the Apple Watch, Apple would routinely demonstrate it being used to make phone calls, get directions, order food, open garage doors (with a live camera feed) and measure long hikes across the countryside without the need for a phone. The wrist was an existing new frontier for application developers to explore.

I remember in early 2015 – before I had the chance to own an Apple Watch – seeing someone pay for a coffee in Starbucks using their watch. This was before the release of Apple Pay in the UK, and so I concluded this individual must have been using the Starbucks app to make the payment. I thought this was extremely cool, and when I eventually managed to buy my own Apple Watch I installed as many apps as I could on it. Task list managers, calendars, train timetables, news apps, takeaway food services, Reddit clients and even a game of Pong. I even used the aforementioned Uber app during a trip to San Francisco, though remember it being somewhat limited when compared to the iPhone app. This excitement culminated with me upgrading to a cellular model of Apple Watch. I had hopes for this UNIX computer on my wrist to replace my phone in many situations. I could improve my mental health too, by carrying a phone less, and therefore spend less time looking at a screen.

It didn’t happen of course. Despite my cellular Apple Watch Series 4 being plenty fast enough to run 3rd party apps (something that could not be said for the original model) I found most of the applications built for it were either too limited, too buggy, or didn’t exist. The lack of an official WhatsApp client and inability to initiate a conversation from the Watch for example really hampers its usefulness. It was also too easy to run the battery down over the course of a few hours by visiting a location with poor 4G signal. A few times, when simultaneously using the watch’s features by having cellular data, GPS, workout tracking, music the screen flash as a light – all at the same time – the watch simply powered itself down under the stress of it all. I’ve never known an iPhone to do this.

These days, the Apple Watch fills a less ambitious role in my life. I still use the same Series 4 model from 2018. I no longer pay for a dedicated cellular plan – it just doesn’t seem worth the £5 – £7 a month the mobile operators charge. My usage boils down to just a few tasks now. Telling the time, tracking runs, listening to podcasts, using Siri to control HomeKit lights, and of course, notifications. The only 3rd party app I have installed now is an Authenticator app, which I’m not even sure I need as I seem to be able to confirm logins from the notification and never need to launch the app itself.

The Apple Watch in this respect is a bit of a disappointment. I can say the same for the iPad, which once promised to usher in an era of multitouch computing but ended up moving in the direction of a convertible laptop with much of the software looking and behaving like desktop software that came before. The Apple Watch once promised us a dream of wrist-based ambient computing that would fit so seamlessly into our lives that we would barely notice it, but it would be there when we need it. It has ended up being mostly a fitness tracker and notification device.

What can Apple do to turn this around? It’s difficult to say. Allowing the Apple Watch work without the need for an iPhone would probably be the biggest thing. This would mean the need for a better battery when on cellular. It might also encourage developers to build capable apps for the platform, as it would no longer be a given that the user also has a smartphone in their pocket. This might also mean Apple is more incentivised to support more capable APIs for the watch because suddenly the need is there. As it stands, the Apple Watch always has its older sibling, the iPhone standing over its shoulder as it attempts to make its mark on the world. It needs to be able to stand and compete on its own merits. Would today’s Apple do let this happen? While Apple in 2007 was happy to compete against its own iPod with release of the iPhone, today it seems less bold. The iPad is held back and after 11 years is still not as capable as a Mac despite having very similar hardware. While I would like to see an Apple Watch that truly ushers in a post-smartphone world, sadly I think if it happens it will likely come from another company rather than Apple.

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