Andrew Whipple

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WWDC 2k16: Thoughts On watchOS 3

Published 6/17/2016

WWDC, aka Apple's World Wide Developer Conference, happened this week! And with it came a whole bunch of news about a whole bunch of Apple stuff coming down the pipeline. I was originally going to write some quick thoughts on all of it, but it quickly ballooned into a giant monstrosity, so I'm going to split my thoughts up into (hopefully) several articles each talking about one chunk of info Apple shared.

Before we begin, let's all get one thing super-dee-duper clear. I am not a tech journalist, or analyst, or columnist, or any other particularly relevant or qualified -ist. I am not an Apple developer (I mean, I've made a hello worlds and a coffee timer, but that's it.) All I am is a 22-year-old who was arguably more excited to watch the WWDC than his own college graduation (which was on Sunday.) Moral of the story, my opinions, grains of salt, cool.

Anyway, the first thing I want to talk about is the improvements and additions Apple made to the Apple Watch platform, in the form of its new operating system for the fall "watchOS 3"

watchOS 3

I'm a big fan of the smartwatch as a device; for the past nine months I've been wearing some combination of the original Pebble watch and the original Moto 360, and loving the utility it provides in terms of notification triage, information gathering, media controls, and alarms on the wrist (which is the only way to be woken up, I've determined.)

I love both my Pebble and Moto 360, but there' son question that they are limited devices, especially as a member of the Apple ecosystem. They are old devices not meant to hook into my iPhone the same way a first-party device would. So while I love them both, be assured that I want an Apple Watch... I just want it to be good. And as of right now, it doesn't seem to be.

But man, did the watchOS 3 presentation damn near convince me otherwise.

Fundamentally, as I see it there are three big categories of changes to watchOS. Performance, UX, and Accessibility.

Watch Performance

Performance comes about with an acknowledgement that the Apple Watch is sloooooooooow. There was even a demonstration in the Keynote presentation on Monday showing the loading times of a third-party watch app, and it was painful. But Apple is not a company prone to admitting a problem, unless it has a solution in store, so the follow-up to the demonstration was loading times under watchOS 3, and it was instant.

Now of course, what remains to be seen is whether these loading times will bear out in actual daily use. Because this is a demo, and the OS is in beta, and there was no announcement of a hardware upgrade to match the software. This is the thing that gives me pause; I'll admit I'm very very skeptical that Apple can pull off the loading times it's claiming without a commensurate bump in hardware ability.

It may be possible, though. They did explain that a lot of the performance improvement is coming through smart prioritization of background data loading for apps. Aka, your favorite or most recently used apps will get more resources dedicated to them so that they will load faster. As a smartwatch user, I've found that in contrast to another product category in this presentation, in many ways the future of watches is not apps. My Pebble and Moto 360 work great, and are very useful at a few select tasks. Notifications are great, media controls are great, and the occasional app (almost always timers) can be very useful. But by and large, I don't find myself diving into applications that often. On the Moto 360, because of the limitations of running Android Wear on iOS, there simply aren't many apps (and none that aren't built-in and made by Google) available to an iOS user. On the Pebble, there are plenty of apps, and they could be useful... but I never find myself using them. This could be a recognition on the part of Apple that users primarily use a few key apps, and the OS can be clever about spending all of its limited computing resources on those few apps, and it will make for a better experience.

Additionally, Apple has revealed that battery life was the number one priority in the first iteration of the Watch, and that they think they may have been overly conservative with using system resources in general. The read is that Apple cares about making sure the battery lasts throughout the day, and at the moment it does so with plenty of battery to spare, so they can afford to be more proactive about using power for computing and keeping apps in memory. This is a rationale that I'm slightly less stoked about, as having a battery buffer is a nice mental security blanket. But as long as a watch can reliably last a full day of moderate usage, that checks the required boxes. And I'll willingly make a trade of battery peace of mind for usable watch apps.

This performance bump, if it pans out, would probably be enough to get me to buy an Apple Watch when watchOS 3 launches in Fall. In fact, I'm debating getting a watch now and loading the beta on it, since I have two backup watches I love already. The only worries are that Apples claims are overly optimistic, and that it seems likely that there will in fact be an announcement of new Apple Watches at the iPhone event in September. I'm optimistic about new hardware both because it would fit the iOS paradigm of new hardware launching contemporaneously with the now OS, and also because it'll have been over a year and a half since launch come September. I don't think the Watch will ever be on a one-year upgrade cycle like the iPhone, but I could see them syncing up with iPhone this fall and then switching to a two-year cycle. And while the launch of a whole new product category last spring was enough to merit its launch separate from the flagship devices, I'm not sure an upgrade merits the same fanfare. Nor do I think it is so routine as to be buried in a press release like most new Mac announcements. Basically, sitting side-by-side as a the little sibling of the iPhone fits the Watch's stature nicely, so I expect the hardware increase then.

I dunno. We'll see. Early indications suggest that the performance claims are bearing out, which is great news. Regardless, I'm not buying one tonight, so I can think about it.

Watch UX

The second category of UX behaved a lot like Performance did: Apple in so many words admitted that they got the fundamental design of how watch interactions should work wrong. They removed little-used or clumsy features like the Friends screen, Glances, and the honeycomb app screen (though the honeycomb is not gone completely, just buried as a last resort) and replaced them with things that not only are more functional, but are more familiar to iOS users: an app-switcher that is modeled after a combination of the macOS dock and the iOS app switcher, and a control center modeled after the one in iOS.

These improvements are great and necessary, and take care of a big part of the my other reservation with the Apple Watch. Even trying to futz around with it in the Apple Store, I get lost continually. watchOS 2 is just plain confusing from a UX perspective. It doesn't have consistent actions mapped to its gestures or hardware buttons, or if it does, it's for little-used features. It doesn't follow paradigms that are well-established on iOS, which is important since 100% of Apple Watch users by definition must use iOS. Some touch targets are flat-out unusable on the tiny screen. It doesn't use the clear hierarchical structure of either Pebble's or Android's watch OSes, where you know you are either diving into an app, or popping back out of it, with the watch face as home base. In watchOS 2, where things like the Friends view and even the watch face live in the hierarchy of the OS is nebulous and changing depending on the context you access the views from.

watchOS 3 makes sense, streamlines things, and like with Performance improvements, seems to be inspired by actual watch usage patterns, which I commend.

Watch Accessibility

Finally, Accessibility. The big news was announcements about improvements to the fitness apps for wheelchair users, which is awesome. And like mentioned above, this is a classic Apple move to make: the amount of money, time, and promotion given to this feature is likely not commensurate with an improvement in sales. But goddamn it, it's the right thing to do Apple. And so they did it. And they want everyone in the audience to be thinking about it too. They want people like me who get a flash thought in their head along the lines of "why are they spending so much time on this" to reconsider and think "wait, why shouldn't they be spending so much time on this, they just said they made their products functional for a whole group of people for the first time, that's a thing that is really important." Apple has cash to burn, and I'm glad that they choose to burn it in the right places from time to time.

Similarly, Apple announced a new feature called "SOS" that is activated by a three-second long press on the side button. Once activated, SOS will use either its connection with the phone or wifi (if connected to a known network) to call whatever the local emergency services number is where you are, regardless of your own country of origin. So if stupid American me had an Apple Watch while studying abroad in Paris two years ago and got in an accident, it would call 112 automatically and my stupid Americanness wouldn't result in a Darwin-like culling. It also will notify your pre-set emergency contacts that SOS was activated and with a link to your location, and will display your pre-set Medical ID on the watch face.

This feature is cool, and I would absolutely argue also counts as an accessibility feature. The fact is, I'd be willing to bet that most of the male developers in the room at the Keynote at first thought "oh, that's kinda cool, but they're really talking about it a lot." Or maybe they were, like me, enamored with the idea of automatically calling the right number in foreign countries. That's how it played: as something that will be used exceptionally rarely, but when it is used it'll work great, and you'll be glad to have it.

But for women, the feature is less of a "maybe once or twice in your life, while in a foreign country, you'll use this nifty thing." It's a safety feature that could have potential use cases every day. I'm a guy, and I don't want to wax poetic about experiences I haven't had, so instead I'll pass the mic to Katie Notopoulos at Buzzfeed:

For women, safety while walking down the street is something we think about pretty much daily, most times we leave the house. Women have long adopted their own safety measures for walking in public: holding their keys a certain way to use as a weapon, carrying pepper spray, checking the backseat of a car before unlocking it, taking a longer route because the streets are brighter and more crowded. This isn’t an afterthought or a minor convenience; it’s a core user experience of being a woman or person vulnerable to violence.

While certainly emergency calls are made by people of all genders, adding in an emergency alert feature to the wrist feels very obviously designed with women’s safety in mind.

Just like with the wheelchair users example, we have a case of Apple designing things for their users, even when those users don't fit the increasingly inaccurate picture of an Apple user that may fit in our brains.

A few other odds and ends:

  • There's now a Minnie Mouse watch face to match Mickey, and her dress is color coded to match sport bands perfectly (which I LOVE of course I want my watch face to match my band this is a no brainer that should be applied to all watch faces.)
  • A deep breathing workout app called Breathe, which seems cool, and had a Deepak Chopra quote on the screen, which tickled me as a listener to Pete Holmes' "You Made It Weird" podcast.
  • Apple Pay is now usable inside of watch apps, like how it is in the phone. I only really use Apple Pay to refill Starbucks cards, so who knows how useful this'll be (though I'd refill a Starbs Card from the Watch I suppose. Yay future!)

Overall, the watchOS 3 announcements were some of the most exciting things from the week for me. Like I said, I'm firmly pro-smartwatch and very pro-Apple, so I suppose this shouldn't be surprising. Overall, it's exciting as an Apple fan to see them admit fundamental mistakes, with regards to the first outings with the Watch. They could have been filled with hubris and kept down the bad path, but they chose to course-correct, and even poke a little fun at themselves along the way. That's a great sign.

I'll keep y'all posted if I get an Apple Watch I guess?

-Andrew "Buzzy Wrists" W.