I've had the Apple watch for just over a week now, and in this post, I'd like to share my experience and my thoughts about the future. I've examined many aspects of the functionality of the device, but also its potential for playing a role in health. It appears to be a device that polarises opinions, before it has even hit the market. I've met people who ordered one, not because they like it, or because they want some kind of 'smartwatch', but simply because it is a new product from Apple. Others have told me they would never purchase such a watch, because of the cost, and also they don't see a use for it given they already have an iPhone.
There have been multiple attempts at 'smartwatches' to win over consumers. I use the term, 'smartwatch' very loosely, simply to group these wearables together. I'll be sharing more in this post about why these watches are still not particularly smart. Last summer, Android Wear launched, and I wrote about my initial experience and thoughts on health & social care. Android Wear hasn't been as successful as Google had hoped. I've actually been using a number of 'smartwatches', and for me, the closest existing rival to the Apple watch is the Samsung Gear S, which released late 2014, and didn't sell very well (I only know one person on Earth who has also purchased one). It overlaps in functionality with the Apple watch, with two big differences. It has its own SIM card inside the watch, with its own phone number, and it only works with an Android phone. I've been using the Gear S since November 2014, and the user experience is very different. Whilst the Samsung seemed to have just tried to miniaturise a computer/phone into a watch, It is clear to me that Apple have put considerably more thought into the design of the watch. A clear example of this difference in design thinking is the fact that the Gear S offers both a QWERTY keyboard on the watch such as when you write a text message, and also a web browser. Just because it is technically possible to do something on a device as small as a watch, doesn't mean it should be included as a feature. Thankfully, Apple have not added those two features.
Some people say to me if the Apple watch is not replacing the iPhone, then what's the point? Why use an app on a tiny screen on your wrist when you could just use the same app on your iPhone? A perfectly sensible question to ask. To answer, I'll give you a real life example of why having the Apple watch made me feel safer as I navigated the streets of a foreign city at night. I flew from London to Milan on Tuesday evening, and after dinner in the city, I wanted to walk back to my hotel. I didn't know the route, so I used my Apple watch. I opened the Maps app, dictated the name of the hotel (which the watch recognised despite me being on a busy street), and chose the walking (vs driving) option for navigation. Why did the Apple watch make me feel safer walking back to my hotel at night? Well, you can keep your iPhone in your pocket, and you don't even need to glance at your Apple for instructions on when to turn left or right. You just walk normally, except that when you do have to turn left or right, the watch 'taps' your wrist in different ways. To anyone observing you, they wouldn't know you had an expensive phone and watch. Bear in mind that GPS is not always accurate, especially in cities with tall buildings. On one walk in London, the watch tapped to indicate that I turn right, into a clothing store. The street I actually had to turn right into was 50 yards up ahead. However, I'm not sure if the driving mode on the watch would be safe. Would you really want to navigate using your watch whilst you drive?
One of the standard notifications is to alert you once an hour to stand up and move. Sounds like a useful concept given how many of us work in jobs that keep us sitting in a chair all day long. These notifications are simple, not smart, as they appear at the strangest of times. You'd think the notifications could have made use of data from sensors in your watch to be more relevant and timely.
Using the Gear S has changed how I use my Android phone. I typically keep my phone on silent, and use the Gear S to notify me of emails/calls etc. I find it particularly useful if I'm charging my phone at home or in the office, and I want to wander away from the phone, without missing any notifications. All these devices need to be paired with your phone via Bluetooth in order to work. Since the Gear S has its own SIM card, as soon it loses the Bluetooth connection with my phone, it forwards calls from the phone to the Gear S. So, if I left the phone at home to visit the gym, and someone rang my phone's number, the call would be forwarded to the Gear S. Since the Gear S has a speaker you can answer the call (or alternatively, you can connect the Gear S with bluetooth earphones, which is a lot better). Incidentally, I found the speaker on the Apple watch is competent, but not as loud as the speaker on the Gear S.
When the Apple watch loses the Bluetooth connection with the iPhone because you've walked out of the house, the watch isn't completely useless. You can use it to track your workouts and it will continue to monitor your activity (move, stand & exercise). You can listen to music that's stored on the watch, and use Apple Pay to buy stuff (Apple Pay only available in the USA right now). Oh, and you can still use it as a watch to tell the time, set alarms and use the stopwatch feature! If you're at home or in the office and you wander around so that the Bluetooth connection is lost between your iPhone and the Apple watch, if your iPhone is also connected to a wifi network, you can also use Siri on the watch & send and receive iMessages.
When it comes to learning to use the Apple watch, it should be intuitive, given Apple's previous products. Tell me something, if the Apple watch was intuitive, why would the user guide be nearly 100 pages long? (For comparison, the manual for the Gear S is also of a similar length!)
For example, the Apple watch features something called 'Force Touch', which can distinguish between you tapping the screen and pressing the screen. Pressing the screen brings up new menus or options within apps. For example when you open up the Maps app, in order to search for a destination, you have to press firmly on the screen, and two options then appear, "Search" & "Contacts." If you were unaware of "Force Touch" or had not read the User Guide, you might be bamboozled. When the Apple watch has a bunch of notifications you wish to clear, you have to press firmly on the screen for a "Clear All" option to appear. On the Gear S, when browsing the notifications, you simply swipe up to see the "Clear All" option. It seems the user interface on the Apple watch leaves many users confused, leading to 9to5mac creating a quick start user guide. Whilst browsing and choosing the apps on the Apple watch, I sometimes find myself starting the wrong app, because the screen and the icons are so small. In that respect, I do prefer the larger screen and traditional menu of the Gear S. For clarity, I purchased the larger of the two Apple watches, 42mm, rather than the 38mm. I do wonder how difficult or easy it would be for someone with Arthritis to use the Apple watch (or any wearable device with a touch screen)?
When it comes to health, one of the first apps I tried was one called Sickweather. It uses crowdsourced data for forecasting and mapping sickness. It is the same notification that would appear on the iPhone, but if you have the watch, it will appear there instead. Now it might seem of limited or no value to many, but for some people, it is useful. After I put out the tweet showing how the cough alert looked, it led to an interaction on Twitter with a guy called Jarrod, who has Cystic Fibrosis, and said the app would be useful for him. Sickweather has a Sickweather score that is only available on the Apple watch.
I also tried an app called DocNow that provides instant access to doctors 24/7 from the Apple watch. A tap on the watch will initiate a HD video call with a doctor via the iPhone. Unfortunately, being in England, it didn't work for me when I tried it. That's being resolved I believe.
There are also a number of apps on the watch for Medication reminders. Medication reminders on a watch are not new, I tested the MediSafe version for Android Wear last year. For the Apple watch, I tested an app from WebMD, and one good thing I noticed was it even includes a picture of the medication you are supposed to take. In the WebMD app on the iPhone, you can even use your own picture, if your pills look different from the stock image. It all sounds great, doesn't it? However, once I shared via Twitter, I got valuable feedback. Is the screen size too small for older people and/or people with poor eyesight? So, rather than on a watch, perhaps medication reminders for older people taking multiple medications are better delivered via a personal companion robot? (more on that in a future post as I have some updates in that arena)
Another interesting app I tested was Deadline. This is an app that asks you questions about your lifestyle, and family history as well as reading some of your health data from the iPhone to then determine your life expectancy. It displays it on the watch as a tip on how to improve your life expectancy. The science behind this app is probably unvalidated, but as a concept, but it does make me wonder. In the future, If the science was accurate, and the app was validated, how comfortable would you feel with tailored health advice via your watch that was based upon the state of your health there and then? Would it be too intrusive if your watch nudged you to eat a salad instead of a burger?
Within the Bluetooth menu on the watch, I found that it shows two types of devices it can connect to, devices & health devices. I understand that it is possible to pair the watch to an external heart rate monitor, if you wanted to use that to monitor your heart rate rather than the sensor within the watch itself (I plan to test this connectivity). It is not clear what other health devices you could connect to the watch, but its a feature worth keeping track of.
The watch comes with a sensor that will normally record your heart rate every 10 minutes, and store that data in the health app on the iPhone. That sensor could also act as a pulse oximeter, allowing measurement of oxygen content of your blood. However, this feature has not been activated yet.
Now if you choose the Workout app, and select one of the workouts (such as Outdoor walk or Indoor Cycle), it will track your heart rate continuously. I did try that out with an Outdoor walk, and I also compared how the Gear S was measuring my heart rate compared with the Apple watch. Bear in mind that the positioning of both devices may have affected the results, and I'll have to repeat the test, with the devices in different positions, on different arms.
How do steps/distance walked compare against other devices? Well, this picture illustrates the challenge with these consumer devices. For the picture, the Apple watch & Gear S were worn on my left hand, and the Microsoft Band was worn on my right hand. Same walk, different devices, different results. Note, I entered my age, gender, height and weight were entered exactly the same in the app for each device. Why does the Apple watch show more steps walked than the Microsoft band, but a longer distance? Why does the Gear S show more steps & more distance but fewer calories than the Apple watch? BTW, since the Apple Watch doesn't track sleep, I'm using the Microsoft band to track my sleep. Will we ever have one device that can serve every purpose or do we have multiple wearables?
I was curious about the data from my watch being recorded in the Health app on my iPhone, and I found something quite puzzling. The Outdoor walk I had selected on the watch, had captured my heart rate continuously but something didn't make sense.
The app shows 6 entries for 8.21am, two of them for 128bpm, two more for 127bmp, one at 78bpm, and one at 69bpm. The date stamp only shows the hour and minute not the second. How will it be possible to make sense of this data in any analysis if I have 6 different heart readings at 8.21am? (Update: 18th May - I got a response from Apple about this issue. They told me the watch will measure HR multiple times in a minute, but that the data in the health app is only in hours and minutes.)
Now that my heart rate is being captured with the watch, could that data ever be used with other personal data to tailor advertising messages to me? I'm outside Starbucks, having not slept well, woken up late, missed by usual bus to work, and voila, my watch gets a coupon offering me a discount off coffee within the next 10 minutes at THAT particular Starbucks. Would that be creepy or cool? I envisioned this scenario after reading a brilliant post by Aaron Friedman, on the future of search engines, which he says is all about context. Delivering information to your watch at the right place and the right time was the plan behind Google's Android Wear. A great idea, but their implementation last year was not optimal. Additionally, many of the first Android Wear watches didn't look very fashionable either. Their new strategy for Android Wear in response to the Apple watch may win them more consumers, but I'm not convinced.
I have been examining the role of the Apple watch in health primarily from a consumer perspective. What about people working in healthcare? Is the watch helpful for them? Well, Doximity, a professional network for physicians in the USA thinks so. An article about their app for the watch highlights, "They think the Apple Watch can enable medical professionals to share information easily, securely, and quickly — and perhaps most importantly, hands-free."
There is a hospital in the USA, Ochsner Health System, that is trialling the use of the Apple watch with patients with high blood pressure. Then you've got one of the biggest hospitals in Los Angeles, Cedars-Sinai has now added support for Apple's HealthKit, allowing data from a patient's phone to be added to their medical record. That's where I see the biggest advantage of the Apple watch over any other makers of smartwatches.
- Interface - Whilst not perfect, and probably too complex, once you get the hang of it, the Apple watch is a more polished user experience than its current rivals
- Integration - Whilst I capture health information with the Gear S, it doesn't really go anywhere from the Samsung S-health app. This is where Apple really shines.
- Ecosystem - With around 3,500 apps already available for the Apple watch (including many popular iPhone apps), and around 1,000 apps for the Samsung Gear watches, once again, Apple are ahead. I downloaded very few apps for the Gear S, as I didn't find many good ones.
Since I've mentioned apps, thanks to Tyler Martin for reminding me to mention some of the issues I faced with installing & using apps on the Apple watch. Maybe it is because the ecosystem is so new, but the apps can be buggy. You expect a tiny device like a watch to respond swiftly, it is not like a computer with a hard drive. Yet, there are times, when the watch does take a relatively long time to install/open apps, or the app crashes whilst you're using it. Those are the moments when you feel like you've purchased a product that is still a work in progress. I would hope these bugs get ironed out as more people start using these apps and report issues to the developers. The source of these problems may be that developers have had to create apps for the watch without actually having access to the watch prior to launch. Maybe those consumers waiting for Apple Watch 2.0 or 3.0 are the sensible ones?
One thing I was reminded of this week was that we might have the latest technology such as an Apple watch, but the infrastructure around us was designed for a different era. For example, I travelled from London to Milan and Paris this week with British Airways. As a result, I was able to use their mobile boarding pass on my Apple watch. I checked-in online using the BA app on my iPhone, and then retrieved my boarding pass, which I added to Passbook. The passes in Passbook on your iPhone get transferred to Passbook on your Apple watch, so you could even board a plane using your Apple watch alone, if your phone was off or left at home. There are two parts to the boarding pass on the watch, one is the text information about your flight and the other part is the QR code which airport machines will scan. On the iPhone, you'd see both parts at once, on the watch, due to the small screen, you have to swipe up to see the QR code.
Instead of waiting by the screens in departures at Heathrow airport, I wandered around the airport at my leisure, and got a notification on my watch when the gate for my flight was announced. However, when I was at the gate, and was asked for my boarding pass, I had to take the watch off my wrist so the boarding pass could be scanned. The machine which scans boarding passes had been designed to scan paper boarding passes, and so didn't have a gap large enough to accommodate someone's arm wearing a watch. Where I wished I had a paper boarding pass was at Milan airport, where on departure, passport control wanted to see my boarding pass. The officer was in a kiosk fronted by a glass screen, and I had to take off my watch and slide it across the counter. However, when I did that, the screen of the watch went off, and as I leaned over the counter to tap the screen for the boarding pass to reappear, a bunch of notifications pinged to the watch, which then confused the officer in the kiosk. I had to then clear all the notifications from the watch, open Passbook on the watch, and bring up the boarding pass again.
When you Apple watch notifies you, it uses the new 'Taptic engine' to tap your wrist rather than the traditional vibration I get on devices such as the Gear S and Microsoft Band. I found these taps to be too weak. After reading the User Guide, I found within the watch, a menu that offered 'Prominent Haptic', which I switched on. It is better than before, but I still prefer the more noticeable vibration from the Gear S and Microsoft Band.
There are some features of the Apple watch which seem rather frivolous. One of them is that you can press both buttons on the side of the watch, and a screenshot of the watch's display is then added to your iPhone's photo library.
You're probably wondering about battery life. Well, Apple claim 18 hours, and I did get close to that on the second day. After 16 hours, the battery was down to 14%. Another day, after 12 hours it was down to 12%. When it comes to charging the Apple watch, it's a magnetic dock that has a 2 metre long USB cable. You can't use your iPhone charging cable to charge the watch. I understand it's an engineering challenge that means currently every wearable has its own charging connector or charging dock. It's annoying, another cable to carry around. Don't lose it, a replacement isn't cheap at £29.
There are countless other reviews based upon a week's usage of the Apple watch. One week's usage won't always reveal the flaws, especially design defects. I'll give you a very real example. My Gear S has a charging dock that clips onto the watch, and you plug the micro USB charging cable into the charging dock. After 4 months of usage, the charging dock no longer clips onto the watch, meaning I can't charge it (unless I keep the dock in place with an elastic band). The exact same thing also happened after a few months with my Samsung Gear Fit. I went to the Samsung store in London yesterday, who told me that my warranty wouldn't cover this problem, as it was a cosmetic fault. I would have to purchase a new charging dock, which they didn't have in stock, as they don't sell many Gear S devices. I'm not the only one, as Gear S owners in the USA have the same problem, and a received a similar response from Samsung USA. Knowing how the Apple watch performs over a longer period of time is critical, as well as observing how Apple will respond to problems as they occur.
Charging docks, special adaptors, and unique cables all make living with wearable technology, more challenging than it needs to be. Just yesterday I came across a company called Humavox in Israel working on wireless charging which would include wearables. I really hope they succeed in making wearables easier to live with. In the meantime, one advantage of the Gear S is the charging dock also doubles as a supplementary battery, so if you are away from home and low on battery, you can just clip on the charging dock. Nothing like that with the Apple watch, apart from an aftermarket 'Reserve strap' coming out later this year. It promises to charge your watch as you wear it, but costs $249. An expensive fix for an already expensive watch.
The Apple watch is a good first attempt, and if Apple invest in refining the product, it may become a successful product line for them in the long term. Like many of its rivals, it is primarily an extension of the smartphone, another screen, on our wrist. Look around you, and most people aren't wearing a 'smartwatch.' Samsung has launched so many models, yet none of them have really gone mainstream. Apple may not succeed immediately with this first version of their watch, but simply because they are Apple, they may shift the culture and make consumers more interested in purchasing (and regularly using) a 'smartwatch' of some kind, even if it's not made by Apple.
How much value will the Apple watch add to to our daily lives? Will it make a difference only to the young, or will it benefit the old too? Apart from making life more convenient, will it actually play a role in improving our health, or saving us money? It is too early to answer those questions as it has only just hit the market, but those are key questions to answer.
I'd personally want to get my questions about the accuracy of my heart rate data answered, especially if data from my watch could one day be added to my medical records. Even the differences in steps/distance walked/calories burned between the Apple, Samsung & Microsoft devices make me think twice about unvalidated data ending up in the system of my doctor or insurer.
Genuine advances are needed in battery life, how much information is the Apple watch not able to capture about my health because it has to be charged whilst I sleep? If I'm travelling, I don't want to interrupt my routine to find somewhere to charge my watch.
Today, based upon my experience so far, I believe the Apple watch is the best 'smartwatch' available. It has got fewer flaws than other devices, such as the Gear S, but it still has got flaws that Apple needs to deal with. I have to admit I didn't really like it at first, but as I learnt how to use the features, it grew on me. Now tomorrow, it could be someone else, or a new form of technology, not even necessarily in form of a watch. Some people tell me they view the Apple watch as technology that is already redundant, good for loyal Apple customers, but not a genuine innovation in this arena.
You've got the Pebble Time watch with the concept of 'smart straps', which could allow new possibilities. Then there is the Bluetooth 4.2 specification which just got finalised in Dec 2014, featuring low power IP connectivity. What would that mean for future devices? Bluetooth smart sensors that could connect directly to the internet, without having to be paired to a smartphone or tablet.
Yi Tuntian, a former Microsoft official in China claims that wearables will replace mobile phones soon. I find that claim hard to believe.
How about the new chip developed in Taiwan, which integrates sensors for tracking health as well as data transmission and processing. This chip is so small so that "people could wake up in the morning to the voice of a microcomputer in a headset informing them of the state of their health and things to look out for in their lifestyle."
It may be the case that the Apple watch ends up being of significant value for particular applications in healthcare & clinical trials for those who can afford it, but does not have long term success as a general smartwatch with the average consumer. Here in the UK, with the NHS hunting down the back of the sofa looking for extra pennies, experimenting with the Apple watch may be a pipe dream at best.
I did find a wonderful story of how the Apple watch has changed someone's life, in just 5 days. Molly Watt, a 20 year old woman in England who has Usher Syndrome Type 2a. She was born deaf and has only a very small tunnel of vision in her right eye. In her blog, she describes how the different taps for turning left and right that helped me feel safer walking in Milan at night, allowed her to feel more confident when walking down the street, without relying upon hearing or sight. We might not see much benefit from Apple Pay on the watch for mobile payments, but could this feature be tremendously useful to someone with learning difficulties?
Without giving it a try and without generating evidence, it would premature to dismiss the Apple watch completely. As these consumer technologies evolve at an increasing rate, what actually is evidence, and how do we collect it?
You may see wearables as just a fad, a passing phase, and you'd never wear any of these devices. Well, what if you had to wear a device on your wrist, just to get insured? Nope, it is not science fiction, it iss the view of Swiss Re, a reinsurance giant whose executives believe it will be impossible to get life insurance in 5 to 10 years without a wearable device.
A really fascinating article from Taiwan discusses the profitability of smartwatches in healthcare, and mentions, "Service platforms that integrate medical care organizations with insurance companies will produce the greatest value."
Fitness is touted as one of the immediate applications for the Apple watch, yet Gregory Ferenstein's review suggests you won't gain much from the Apple watch in the fitness arena over and above simply using an iPhone.
Or maybe we are misguided in pursuing the idea of 'smartwatches' entirely? Below is a great talk given by Gadi Amit recently at WIRED Health talking about the concept of wearable tech under our skin, and he states, "The biggest issue that I see… is the idea that if we load more and more functionality on our wrists, things will get better. In many cases, it does not."
I'm not surprised that Apple have sold so many watches, as they have a well oiled marketing machine. How many of today's purchasers will still be using the watch in 12 months time, or will it go the way of Google Glass? And how many people would be willing to upgrade to a newer version of the watch in 12-18 months? These are the hard metrics that we need to pay attention to, once the initial enthusiasm dissipates.
In my opinion, the single biggest improvement Apple could make is finding a way to extend the battery life, and also offer wireless charging. I'd happily have fewer features in exchange for not having to charge it every day. Come to think of it, current engineering limitations on battery life impacts the use of many portable devices, whether it is wearable tech, phones, tablets or laptops. We need a breakthrough in battery technology.
So, will people wearing an Apple watch been treated with the same disdain as those who wore Google Glass? Users of Google Glass got branded, "Glassholes" and so will users of the Apple watch get branded, "Glanceholes?"
The Apple watch is dead. Long live the Apple watch.
[Disclosure: I have no commercial ties to any of the individuals or organisations mentioned in the post]