Apple is said to have ordered six million watches to be manufactured for the next quarter. So, what's the deal? Here are the things you can do with an Apple watch, assuming that you have $350 (or much more if you want a solid gold one.)
The first challenge is understanding how to make the various functions work, which will really be challenging since the screen is so small and there are only two tiny buttons on the side. Of course you can visit the Genius Bar at your local Apple store but the curse of grade inflation is found even here. The last two times I tried this, with a simple request for Apple cell phone and Outlook synching, either I caught them on a bad day or the availability of geniuses has declined dramatically. The Apple geniuses were modestly incompetent despite being nice people and sporting red Apple t-shirts.
The watch has 17 very small circles on it, arranged in a repeating three/four pattern on its rectangular face. One of them appears to be an actual watch face but it is really so tiny that some might have to carry a magnifying glass to tell the time. I have a magnifier app on my phone, so I could use that. Or I could just look at my phone, which tells me the time in a readable font.
What any of the rest of these circles do isn't clear; they have different colors and even smaller inner images inside of them: concentric circles, a running stick figure, a music note, an envelope, a triangle, a gear and so forth. Maybe some of these are obvious, like the running figure. But if you aren't already in the Apple fraternity, if you don't know the secret handshake, then you won't know that the colored circles within circles is the photo album.
The available descriptive material is scanty. It is said that you can:
- Tell what time it is, although you will have to precisely tap the little clock face to expand it.
- Talk to the assistant Siri and have her do things. What things no one yet knows. I have this on my Apple 4s iPhone, and it's pretty close to worthless. But perhaps squeezing her down into a watch will make her more compliant and helpful. I don't know which circle she is, one with an Aladdin's lamp would be nice but it's not there.
- Monitor your fitness metrics. The watch will record and display for you information about whether you are sitting, standing or walking. Most people do not need to look at a watch to determine this. There is also a way to monitor your heart beat -- why? To determine that you are currently alive? The capabilities do not include listing your weight, which is the metric most people need monitored. I don't think you can stand on the watch without damage, and I don't see a "scale" sort of symbol among the little circles. It is not likely to monitor your blood sugar, which all diabetics need, since no one has yet cracked the code on doing this without either physical contact with your blood, or use of a very strong light source. Doing this useful thing, we are told, would have required FDA approval of the Apple Watch as a medical device, so they didn't bother.
- Use Apple Pay, which is to be a substitute for using credit cards. You will hold the watch up to a machine and something will happen between watch and payment terminal. If this works, it would be useful, I am really tired of carrying around a bunch of credit cards. You can also do this with your iPhone.
- The watch can distinguish between a "tap" and a "press" on the little screen icons. What this does we are not told. And it will tap you on the wrist when you have a message. Initially this will startle the bejesus out of you. It will be the first function disabled, since how will you sleep if your watch is forever poking you any time you have an email from Go Daddy?
The watch integrates with iPhone models 5 and above, but not with 4 and below, so me and my only two year old iPhone are out of luck.
That's it. There is nothing on the Apple site which spells out what all the 17 icons are for. Nor in the 12 page spread in the current Vogue. But that's really not the problem. The problem is that you cannot make, with today's best technology, a useful appliance the size of a watch, with a battery that fits inside it, which does lots of things worth doing. What are those things?
Telling time is a start. At least the watch does that, bragging that it keeps time down to plus or minus 50 milliseconds. I cannot count the number of instances when I have needed to know that it was now 1:37 and 30 seconds and 268 milliseconds.
It looks like you can make a phone call using your watch, but only so long as it is hooked up to your iPhone. But if you have your iPhone, you can already make a phone call without pushing a watch button and speaking into your wrist. Right?
Listening to music? Only via your iPhone.
Doing email? Screen's way too small. Note that on the iPhone 6 the screen is bigger, not smaller. Could there be a message here? One that's big enough to read?
There is much chatter about the two buttons on the side of the phone. The big round one does one thing, and that is magnify the screen images, like the plus/minus buttons on Google maps, which is necessary since everything is otherwise too small to read. The flat button does one thing, which is call up pictures of your friends, we assume from your contacts, but it's not clear. Then you touch one and it calls that person -- using your phone. And these two mechanical buttons are not innovations but instead steps backward. And they account for another surprising thing -- the version called Sport Watch is not waterproof. Really!?! The new Pebble watch at least claims to be water resistant.
The constraints of screen size and battery size and thus life are truly significant. And the cool things, like the Apple pay system, can certainly be done just as easily on a cell phone. That's already where we put our airline boarding passes and our coupons for 10 percent off from Home Depot anyway. Thus much of the watch's "functions" are things that the watch can facilitate, but only if you have the correct app and only if your synched phone is with you to do the heavy lifting. It's a watch with a changeable face, several things that are phone extensions, and the ability to poke you. A cute and expensive toy.
The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously remarked, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And that's what we have gotten from Apple in the past. If the Apple Watch really were magic, there are several things it should do:
- Translate all languages perfectly and instantaneously. We already have Google translate which is pretty good, and I would settle for French, Chinese, Spanish, and German. Further iterations could add other languages.
- Be waterproof. 10 watches at Wal-Mart can accomplish this feat.
- Be readable. How about rotating through functionalities rather than trying to feature all of them?
And while Apple, we'd like the watch to let us fly like Superman, be invisible, and have X-ray vision.