Let’s be honest: Smart watches are dumb.

05/09/2015

With the recent release of the Apple watch, there’s a lot of buzz about smart watches being the next big thing. I used to believe that, but now I’m tempted with apostasy. In fact, I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and claim that the Apple Watch is probably the dumbest thing Apple has ever made. And I say that as someone who has 2 Macbooks, 2 iPads, and 4 iPhones within reach of me.

I’ve always been a big watch guy, and a big tech geek. So when the Pebble watch Kickstarter launched in 2012, I was super excited. I had been saying for a long time that I wanted something that extended my smart phone out of my pocket, and on to my wrist. And there it was — so I immediately put down my $115 pledge, and patiently waited for it to be delivered many months later.

What arrived looked like a prototype of a smart watch. It was plastic, and felt cheap. But no matter, I wore it consistently for months. I defended the watch as the ideal wearable over things like Glass, which were always in your field of vision, and had serious fashion issues to deal with. I had actually expected this to be a space that Apple moved into sooner, and figured it made so much sense that the Apple version of what Pebble started would be just around the corner.

Had the Apple watch been released in 2013 I would have been first in line. But what the interim years have shown me is that I don’t actually want a smart watch. At least, not anything that’s on the market right now.

Getting notifications on your wrist sounds like a cool thing. You never miss a message because you couldn’t feel your phones brief vibration in your pocket. And you can control your music with it! Neat, right? But in the real world, it quickly becomes a nuisance.

For example, I spend about 8 hours a day at my desk at work, with my phone on my desk. When someone would comment on a Facebook post, or send me an iMessage, I would get a notification on my desktop monitor, then my phone dings, then my watch buzzes. Maybe my iPad too if it was nearby. I’d pick up my phone to respond, then get a message back, with all my devices buzzing away. What time is it? Have to hit a button on the watch to clear the notification and get back to the clock.

Even when my phone was in my pocket, I found the watch mostly useless. Sure, it would give me a more noticeable notification buzz, and show me what exactly my phone was buzzing about. But 9 times out of 10, I still had to pull my phone out of my pocket to respond. Knowing the content of a text message on my watch is neat, but if I’m pulling my phone out regardless, then it’s just another thing in my way, and another button to push to clear the notification.

I look at my phone often, perhaps too often, to need to be reminded to look at it more.

And therein lies the problem with the Apple Watch. They learned nothing from the devices before them, and failed to design an experience that actually makes my day better. And in one big way, the Apple Watch is a step backward from Pebble: The Apple watch has to be activated to show you the time, while the Pebble always shows the time.

But my biggest gripe with smart watches, and in particular with the Apple Watch, is that they seem to have simply tried to scale down a smart phone into a 42mm screen. They have replicated the functionality with little regard to what actually makes sense for a device that size. Most of the functionality on the Apple Watch can be done on an iPhone, and done better. Why am I browsing stocks on my watch? My phone is a better device. Text messages? Browsing photos? Reading a map? Reading email? Way better on the phone, which you must already have, or your watch wouldn’t work at all.

The first featured app in the Apple Watch store right now? Twitter. Which can’t even display a full 140 character tweet on the screen. How is this better? Why does anyone want this?

Watch! Huh? What is it good for?

You can tell it was a struggle to actually come up with use cases for a watch that made sense as watch-first experiences. Hence the heart beat transmitter, which is simply a cute gimmick that nobody will use more than once. The Apple Watch even fails as a watch. Nobody cares about millisecond time accuracy when they can’t simply glance at it to get that time.

The Apple Pay integration is interesting, but that hasn’t really panned out as something people really want. And again, you can use the phone you already have as well.

So all that’s left is the activity tracking. But if that’s all you want, Withings makes a very nice looking analog watch that tracks all that for you, which never turns off the screen, doesn’t require an iPhone, is water proof, and doesn’t need to be recharged for 8 months. And it costs less.

I was really hoping that after my disillusioning experience with smart watches so far that the Apple Watch would do it properly and restore my faith in wearables. But if even Apple hasn’t been able to make it work, what hope is there?