Game on in wearables: Apple Watch vs. Android Wear

I’m a watch guy. I have several nice watches that cost more than an Apple watch, and I consider them fashion statements. None of them will be outmoded anywhere near as quickly as a modern ‘smart’ thing, which have lifecycles as short as one year. Yet, I have a smartwatch — a Moto 360. And all of us watch+tech heads have been anticipating what Apple will deliver, as they are the 600-lb gorilla of the tech space. With reviews of actual product out, I’m intrigued at what Apple has brought to the party. With some comprehensive reviews out on (among others) CNet and the Verge, we now have a good idea. In the typical Apple approach, it is heavy on style, closed, and minimal, even simplistic in the interface.

No, wait.

The UI is going to boggle some minds

That last bit is just what apple usually brings — scaled-down interfaces, simple ways to get complex things done, though with less adaptability than you would find in Windows or Android. But not with the A-watch. I’m amazed, really, that they’ve broken up the interface to their wearable into four pathways:

– The crown, which is used to scroll lists, or zoom. Or you can press it to bring up the app launcher (a tool Android Wear forgot).

– A button – press for the Contacts screen (another Wear miss), double-press for Apple Pay.

– Touching and swiping for notifications and app fragments.

– Force touch – pushing harder than normal.

These are not huge hurdles for techies like myself, and I am glad to see some essential pieces built in, like the app launcher and contacts screen. In contrast, Google Wear went for a very (Apple-esque) minimal approach — tell the watch what you want, since you’ll probably have to dictate the message anyway. Instead, Apple is designing in multiple pathways to the watch’s function, a boon to button twiddlers — people used to hitting CTL-ALT-DEL to get to a task scheduler for example. But that’s not the Apple demographic; the Apple crowd are folks that as far as I can tell, don’t want to know how things work, they just want them to work, and simply. (The iPhone doesn’t even have a ‘back’ button!) I think they’ve got more in the A-watch than the target demographic will be comfortable with. Reviewers Nilay Patel of The Verge called the mix “extraordinarily confusing” and in the words of Scott Stein of CNet (emphasis is mine):

there are so many features that I felt a little lost at times. There are so many ways to interact: swiping, touching, pressing harder into the display, a button and a clickable digital crown-wheel. Plus, there’s Siri. Do I swipe, or click, or force touch or speak? Sometimes I didn’t know where an app menu was. Or, I’d find getting back to an app I just had open would require an annoying series of crown clicks, swiping through apps, then opening the app again…The Apple Watch has so many ways to do things and so many places to go that I wonder if it’s gotten too crowded and confusing.

More of this schizophrenia (well, for Apple anyway) is seen in the watch face collection. Locked down, check. Beautiful, check. Simple, check — only 10 watch faces (no ‘good’ digital ones according to the Verge) and no third-party faces until months from now, when they open up the API. But — and it is a big but — they offer extensive customization of the watch faces. That’s good to see; while my Moto app allows me some modifications on the built-in watch faces, the customizations are not nearly as extensive as what Apple is offering. Of course, I can choose from a wide variety of third-party faces, some quite stunning, which reflect a far broader design scope than will come out of Cupertino. Apple delivers the “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper” sort of individual-but-part-of-a-group thing that has succeeded so well: a curated universe where every aspect of design is in pure, Ive-y harmony. But it just got a bit more complicated. To make your Pepper a little different from someone else’s, there is much twiddling to do. Strange.

Key design element: the hot zone, and an oblong future

Weather, time and calendar widget (Android 4.4)

Weather, time and calendar widget

Another complication I would not have expected from Apple, and think a great step forward for them, is the hot zone approach to launching in-context apps from the watch face. This is something Android users have had for years on their handsets — my weather widget for example shows time and date as well as temperature, and if I tap on the date it brings up my calendar, tap on the weather icon a more focused weather app, time brings up the alarm app, etc. So Apple finally brings widgets to the party and cleverly uses the watch face as their main interface widget. This also makes use of the corners of their rectangular display, as most of their watch faces are round.

This begs the question — since Apple is so heavily invested in the oblong to deliver their interface, does that rule out a round Apple watch in the future? I do not see how they will be able to deliver the same richness of interface with the watch ‘app’ if they cut off the corners. Trying to cram all that stuff on a round face will be an ergonomic (and design) problem, make no mistake. And yet, they have clearly made the watch face a key interface element to much of the A-watch’s function.

Apple watch, promo shot from Apple.com, used under fair use, for commentary. Please don't sue me. (c) Apple etc.

Apple watch, promo shot from Apple.com, used under fair use, for commentary. Please don’t sue me. (c) Apple etc.

I think that, by making the most of the oblong design, which by Ive-y fiat or necessity the designers were given to work with, they have both made the best of the oblong and fated themselves to using it in the future. No other reviewer has caught on to this yet, I’m surprised.

It’s not just the watch face as main interface / use the corners thing that appears to relegate Apple watch buyers to an oblong future, the big button on the side also hollers “I’m a little iPhone” too. I suppose they could come out with a design where a round A-watch had a crown, but a ‘pusher’ — as us watch guys would call a button (as opposed to the crown) on a watch — is far easier to operate if above the crown on a round case. Apple’s is below, which works for a squarish design. For a round design, they’d either have to swap places of button and crown (confusing their users) or relegate them to a more awkward pusher location below the crown.

 The Ecosystem, the gauntlet, where leads the future

Well, the ecosystem is on hold for now. Third-party and ‘native’ apps are slated for later this year (Q3?) By putting off third-party developers, Apple has left the door open. Perhaps they can afford to — I hear they’ve hit 1M pre-orders already. But that gives the Wear community almost a years’ head start on app design. Already, we see the aforementioned gaps in Google Wear — no app launcher, no contacts app — filled by third-party developers. I’ve already paid for several watch faces and I love them. The gauntlet is thrown and I wonder if we will see Google take it up and walk through that open door. A Wear interface to the iPhone has been rumored, and that would be an interesting challenge.

There is an A-watch for everyone, because Apple knows what everyone wants.

There is an A-watch for everyone, because Apple knows what everyone wants.

And why would any iPhone user consider an iPhone-compatible Wear piece instead of the A-watch? I can think of a few reasons.

Performance: Apple may fix this soon, but for now, it appears to have a speed problem. I’m surprised, considering how long they’ve been baking this. Perhaps Nilay Patel had a debug build? He stated in his ‘definitive‘ review “Sometimes it’s just unresponsive for a few seconds while it thinks and then it comes back.” The Verge is not shy about its fondness for Apple products, so it is surprising to me the performance is bad enough for seven mentions in his article of the watch’s slowness. Ouch. Fair enough, some Google Wear apps can be slow to load (Tweetings has been suffering from this on my watch) but even with its crusty old OMAP processor, the Moto 360 seems pretty sprightly. Finally, Siri is said to have trouble discriminating your commands in a noisy environment. That is one thing that has amazed me about the Moto 360 — voice command is very reliable even in very noisy locations.

Battery: It is clear from Patel’s article that the A-watch is a one-day wonder. We’ve got Wear pieces that will do three days, the Moto will do two. That’s insurance. Right now, the Apple watch has no insurance — if you forget the charging thingie at night, next day you are back to your Swatch.

Choice: Not just of apps, or watch faces, but hardware. Design choices like a round watch that doesn’t look geeky. As I pointed out above, it sure looks like Apple has committed to an oblong future. Of bands: yes, you can swap the A-watch’s bands but only for — you guessed it — proprietary Apple bands. 5 of them, think of that. Yes you can choose a color on the sport band and various sizes, but basically, you have five choices for band. They missed a march not allowing standard bands to fit. At strappedfortime alone there are hundreds and hundreds of bands but none of them will work with the A-watch. An open design is not the Apple way, a way that causes this old rebel to chafe (and is why I, an old Apple fanatic who cut his teeth programming Macs back in the day, walked away from the brand many years ago).

Cost: For something everyone knows will be outmoded in no more than two years, $700 is a lot to cough up. I’m discounting the Sport model because, due to its looks, I wouldn’t wear it except as a workout piece and it is nowhere near the ability of my TomTom for exercise tracking. (Nor is any Wear watch, either, though Sony is trying.) The TomTom still rules the workout for me. So the A-watch with the black band (here) at $700 is about the cheapest model I’d be seen wearing at work. OTOH, my Moto 360 is gorgeous, sleek enough for work, and cost me all of $250. In two years, I’ll happily put down the Moto for whatever is cool, fast and long-lasting then. If I bought an A-watch, the wife isn’t going to let me off so lightly after coughing up $700 and who knows how much I’d pay for an extra charger for travel.

And that brings up accessories – my charger (below) was $7 — because Moto went with an industry standard, Qi. Apple? Proprietary. And even at the $700 price point, no handy nightstand dock (which came free with my ‘360).

Do you want one anyway?

So, bottom line: The Apple Watch is gorgeous, a pretty bauble, and many people with iPhones will not care about the limitations of style and design, because the A-watch will be a recognizable status symbol. So, many will want it and can afford it and Apple will sell millions. Once in the wild, will the iFaithful take to the odd interface arrangement, meager battery life and slow performance? I will be very interested to see how many are still on wrists in six months’ time. I really hope it ‘works’ because a high-flying disaster would bode ill for the smartwatch industry as a whole.

I mean it. As I swiped my loyalty card from the Moto, the lady in the store yesterday asked if it was the Apple watch. If Apple gives smartwatches a bad name, all smartwatches will get a bad name and it will take years for the format to recover.

Moto at rest, with a few necessities. Yes that is an iPhone dock, for my work phone.

Moto at rest, with a few necessities. Yes that is an iPhone dock, for my work phone.

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About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
This entry was posted in AndroidWear, Reviews, Technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Game on in wearables: Apple Watch vs. Android Wear

  1. How about a smart pocket watch. I think that would ooze class, chain dangling from my waist coat. Plus it already has a button!
    I should patent this at once!
    Keep on waffling,
    Nick

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