08 September 2015

Apple Watch

I waited a couple of years to pick up the iPhone and, as an interaction designer, I regretted my hesitation. I had been an early adopter on smart phones — I even bought that Handspring phone attachment for a Palm PDA — and so had wanted to wait because I saw that the iPhone was still a little undercooked when it was first released. But I missed getting a head start on absorbing the feel of the interface-level behaviors.

So when the iPad was released, I pre-ordered it the day it was announced.

With the Apple Watch, I waited until I could see it in the flesh. But I made an Apple store appointment to do that the first day it was available, and so now I've been wearing one for months.

I have been an enthusiast for the idea at least, as I have been thinking about smart watches for a long time. I have sprung for a few that wound up in a drawer. In a post anticipating the iPad, I said ...

I have said for many years that there are only five fundamental form factors for personal computing, yet we have only colonized three of them, and one of them only recently: the Desk, the Clamshell, the Tablet, the Pocket Thing, and the Wrist Thing.

... and in recent years had come to think of the smart watch as a solution to some of the awkward behaviors of the smart phone. (Chiefly that it does this barbaric 19th Century behavior of making noise to get my attention.)

Having spent several months with it, I will grant that the Apple Watch has its charms. Having a watch face which shows me my next calendar event keeps it on my wrist, and I find that I use timers and alarms more often now that I have the watch to make them convenient. The software isn't quite compelling enough that it is entirely worth what I paid for it, though I expect that to improve over time.

But I grow more and more surprised at what I think is a fundamental wrong turn in the way that it is conceived. The Apple Watch has “watch apps” independent of my iPhone's apps, but I think it would be better if it were conceived entirely as a peripheral to the iPhone rather than as any kind of separate entity.

Consider these ingredients:

  • The Watch has sensors that tell it when it is on my wrist
  • The iPhone has sensors that tell it when it is in my bag or pocket (between the cameras and the proximity sensor)
  • Apple has devoted great effort in recent years to creating a unified notification system

This should add up to the iPhone being smart about how it notifies me of things, just Doing The Right Thing in each among several possible conditions:

  1. iPhone off, Watch on
    I have indicated that I want to be notified through my Watch by putting it on, so in this condition my iPhone never makes a sound. Anything that has an interrupt notification — a banner or an alert — on my iPhone will give me a tap and an onscreen indication on the Watch. I don't need to separately configure my notifications for the Watch, and iPhone app makers don't need to build a separate Watch apps: the Notifications settings on the iPhone tell iOS to do the right thing.
  2. iPhone off, Watch off
    In this condition, I may need audio alerts from my iPhone, since I'm not paying attention to it and the Watch cannot do the job with a tap. Depending on my setting for the hard switch on the phone and the Do Not Disturb moon, the iPhone delivers audio and vibration alerts for notifications. To make sure I don't miss the alert, the Watch matches the iPhone's audio alert behaviors, in case it is closer at hand than the iPhone.
  3. iPhone on, not in an audio or video app
    If the iPhone is on and not running an audio or video app, it's safe to assume that I'm looking at it. So interrupt notifications will tell me what I need to know without requiring the intervention of the Watch ... though if I'm wearing the Watch, as a grace note it gives me a small tap to coïncide with the visible notification.
  4. iPhone on, in an audio or video app, Watch on
    I don't want an annoying interruption in my audio or video, so Notifications manifest only on my Watch, as if the iPhone were off.
  5. iPhone on, in an audio or video app, Watch off
    In this condition, the iPhone obeys the hard switch and the Do Not Disturb moon, which indicate my intent about whether I want interruptions.

Thus the Watch configurator app on the iPhone does not need its own section for Notifications; this unified system inherits everything it needs from the iPhone's Notifications behavior.

By this same logic, the Watch should be smart about what iPhone app I last looked at. Whether the iPhone is on or off, if I was in an iPhone app that has a Watch interface built for it, then crown-clicking on the Watch should take me not to the Watch apps Home screen first but to the corresponding Watch interface. So if I had been looking at Maps, I get access to a Maps interface on the Watch, since that's my last registered intent.

The word on the street is that Apple will be announcing a major Watch software update tomorrow; I'm hoping it looks something like this.