The awkward days of the Apple Watch are over – The Verge

We failed to anticipate how checking your Watch in the middle of a conversation would become just as rude as checking your phone, even and especially when it’s not intended to signal anything other than a knee jerk interest in what time it happens to be at that moment.
— Read on www.theverge.com/2019/9/13/20863385/apple-watch-series-5-new-always-on-display-awkward

This is very true, but I’ve found it’s less awkward if I exaggerate the gesture of looking at my Apple Watch, and scroll the crown slightly. Someone signalling “I’m checking a notification, which might be genuinely important” seems less rude than “I’m checking the time because I’m probably bored of this conversation”.

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Four years of ambient computing

It’s been four years since the Apple Watch was released, and I’ve worn a variant of the miniature device pretty much every day of my life for most of this time. You see them everywhere now, but in 2015, wearing a smart watch was a novel idea. I’ve always been interested in gadgets, owning my first “smartwatch”, as Casio Databank, when I was in secondary school. I remember the sum of £40 seeming like a huge amount when I bought the Casio watch, and to be fair, for a 12 year old in 1997, it was.  I would marvel with amazement that a Casio Databank watch could store and entire 50 names and phone numbers, schedule alarms way off into the future, and knew how many days were in each month (no need to manually skip over the date for shorter months). The idea of walking around with all that information and potential on my wrist was both mysterious and exciting. How exactly did such a small device know to sound an alarm at precisely the time I’d chosen? Where exactly did all those names and number go when I entered them? I studied computer science and got a job as a software developer and so now it’s much less of a mystery to me how it all works, but my curiosity for these kind of smart devices never went away.  

A UNIX Box on every wrist

Maybe it’s just because I’m now in my early thirties and relatively old, but it seems to me quite fantastical that the smart watches, especially the Apple Watch, are now mainstream. That it’s actually considered normal for someone to walk around with an always-on, UNIX-based computer strapped to their wrist – a computer far more powerful than any of the computers I grew up with back in the late nineties and early 2000s. 

I find this especially interesting because these days, other consumer hardwire such as smartphones and laptops (or tablets) just aren’t that interesting. Phones don’t really do anything new anymore. Nicer screens, easier ways to log in, slightly better cameras – incremental updates that make the experience a little bit nicer. Smart watches on the other hand are vastly more compelling from a geek’s point of view.

First, there is room for a variety of styles: some of the designs released by LG and Fossil look genuinely beautiful, though Apple Watch is in a league of its own on that front.

Secondly, there is plenty of potential for new sensor input on the wrist. At the moment we have heart rate, accelerometer, and now ECG sensors with the latest Apple Watch, and there is so much more potential for a device that’s always on, and always being worn. Will the smart watch eventually displace the smartphone, just as the wrist watch displaced the pocket watch? I don’t think it will be as clear cut but I think they will eventually surpass mobile phone usage for many tasks. I certainly find that I need my phone less when wearing a smart watch – I just prefer to use it for certain tasks, mainly idling time reading the news or Facebook, or using the camera – the former is something I want to cut down on anyway.

Yes, I'm pretty proud of that time!

Despite my initial skepticism, I’m now hooked on the Apple Watch.  My home is strangely devoid of clocks. Apart from various computing devices, and my microwave, I have no clocks that I can easily glance at (partly due to finding ticking annoying!).  Apart from making daylight saving days less of an event, it does mean I rely on a watch or smartphone to keep me on track during the morning. Outside of just telling the time, I’ve found the Apple Watch useful for using Siri to do things like set timers and reminders. This means I have no need for a dedicated smart assistant like Amazon Echo, a smart watch beats a stationary cylinder in many respects because it’s always with me. It’s now second nature to dictate reminders into my wrist. Those reminders can always be location based (“At work”, “when I leave my car” etc.), unlike an Echo or equivalent.  Admittedly, I’m not going to listen to music on the watch’s speaker, and the inability to easily control Sonos via the watch is disappointing (there are 3rd party apps, but they’re pretty clunky). Apart from this, I do occasionally reply to text messages and emails I receive while at home, more often though I’ll initiate a text via the watch using Siri to dictate.  Initially I thought I’d use the remote control ability for Apple TV more than I do, partly because there’s no volume control for the TV on the watch, nor the ability to send Siri input to the TV (for example to search for something), and so I end up usually needing the Apple TV remote anyway.

Wearing a fitness tracker like the Apple Watch has also helped motivate me to keep active. I was an occasional runner before I owned an Apple Watch, but since, I’ve really progressed in part due to the ability to easily measure my pace and exertion using the GPS and heart rate sensor. The built in activity app is pretty minimal, and so I find exporting to Strava useful to get some more useful insights into my progress. The ability to go for a run with just a watch and some headphones, and still have access to music, podcasts and statistics while I run is truly amazing.

The downside of wearing a computer all the time is that it can be difficult to switch off.  Whether it’s BBC News or Strava, companies and apps are desperate for our attention, and the watch can make it easier for them to grab it from us.  I’ll address this in a future post, but I feel the Apple Watch’s fitness goals and achievements are focused on gaining “streaks” and never missing a day. I’d love to see Apple admit that once in a while, disconnecting is also good for your health and reward users for doing so.

Overall though, I’ll admit I’m hooked.

Better software, not a bigger screen, is what the iPad needs

The iPad Pro

 

The iPad Pro is now available, with its much larger screen. Admittedly I haven't had a chance to try one yet, and having only purchased a new iPad last year, I probably wouldn't consider such a purchase so soon anyway. But as someone who does try and do real work on an iPad, (I enjoy stepping away from my desk from time to time to focus in on something, and the iPad is perfect for this.), I am not frustrated by the iPad's lack of screen real estate (though I've no doubt more is better, it usually is) but by its limited software.

This 'limited software' is not always the fault of Apple, developers purposely try and simplify their iPad releases in an effort to route out the bloat that dogs their desktop equivalents. This is mostly a good thing, as someone who runs complex software projects for a living, I am always a proponent of the KISS philosophy (Keep It Simple, Stupid). However, there haven been numerous times when I've had to walk back to my desk and grab my laptop because something just isn't possible on an iPad.

Take Microsoft Excel. The desktop version may be a horrible, bloated and full of legacy code (it seems to have its own rules on when to wipe your clipboard unexpectedly), but to its credit, it does make a lot of complex, routine tasks very quick and easy. If I have a list of stuff and I want to remove duplicates, it's one click. If I have a CSV file (or values separated by another delimiter), converting this to columns is only 2 or 3 clicks. None of this functionality exists in the iPad version. Microsoft OneNote on the iPad doesn't have Outlook integration (the ability to pull in meeting details), and while Microsoft have recently added support for audio recording to OneNote, it's modal – meaning I can't take notes while I am recording – which is one of my favourite features of the desktop version, because it synchronises your note with the timestamp of the audio recording, meaning you can quickly seek to important parts of a meeting when you're trying to remember what was going on. Again, back to my laptop.

I don't want to pick on Microsoft, they make some of the highest quality iPad software out there, and I know all too well that quality, time to market and the number of features are all opposing interests, and Microsoft has made the decision to go for quality over features. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact it's the best decision they could have made in my view, but it doesn't change the fact that the iPad just can't do these seemingly simple things a laptop can. Adobe and Apple both have examples too. I was sent a wireframe that had been hand-drawn and had been scanned and emailed directly from a networked printer/scanner. I wanted to annotate the resulting PDF. On the Mac I would use Preview, on Windows I'd use Adobe's Reader application. Preview on iOS doesn't support annotation, so I used the Adobe Reader app for iOS. It did support annotation, but due to the way the image had been scanned in, it was upside down. Surprisingly, there was no way to rotate the PDF. Back to my laptop, again. Yes with a little help from Google, I'm sure I could find an app that lets me rotate a PDF, but will it also support all the other things the Adobe app does? The bottom line is, it's not feasible to go on an app hunt every time one of the simplified versions of an app comes up short. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 he made a big deal out of the fact other smartphones only showed you the 'baby web' and the iPhone didn't – we have the same situation on iOS now, we get baby applications.

Then there is the inability to have more than one document open at once. I can now have Twitter and Pages open at the same time, but not two Pages documents. Even just a way to quickly switch between documents would be nice. At the moment I have to close the first document, find the other one (navigate a long list of files and folders), load it (and wait while it loads), and then repeat the process when I want to return to the original document. Writing one document when referring to another is not an uncommon computing task, and yes there are workarounds like exporting one of them as a PDF and opening it in a separate application, but this isn't very clean, and what if I want to edit both documents?

I don't want to take way from the iPad what is is great at; web browsing, writing this blog post, simple spreadsheets, reading books, playing games, managing email, task lists – the list goes on. While I'm sure the iPad Pro is a beautiful device, and if money was no object Id buy one today, I don't think having a bigger screen is going to turn it into a laptop replacement. I would love to be able to work solely on an iPad, but until the software improves, I can't see this happening, no matter how big the screen is.