The Apple Watch is flirting with feature-bloat, putting sublime simplicity at risk

Jon Phillips
13 March, 2015
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Apple Watch, features, macworld australiaIf I were Tim Cook right now, I wouldn’t be worrying about Apple Watch sales potential. Oh, it will sell. The new TV spot is inspiring, and the stainless steel polish on these watches looks fan-frigging-amazing. Add in Apple’s trademark surprise-and-delight, and all signs point to long lines on launch day.

No, if I were Tim Cook, I’d be more concerned about people using the Watch than buying the Watch. This thing is packed silly with features, and far too many of them have been borrowed from the catalogue of smartwatch failures.

A troubling number of smartwatch owners eventually toss their gadgets aside. The most detailed data on this problem, a July 2014 Endeavor Partners study, tells us that about a third of all smartwatch and fitness band owners abandon their wrist wearables after six months.

Poor battery life certainly contributes to attrition rates. Aside from the Pebble, you need to put nearly all smartwatches in their charging cradles before you go to bed. Forget to do so once, and you blame yourself. Forget to do so twice, and you blame the watch. Forget to do so thrice, and you begin losing interest entirely.

The Apple Watch battery is rated for 18 hours, so users will need to be vigilant about recharging. Trust me: I’ve been reviewing smartwatches since they became a thing, and once you run out of juice the first time, you’re already on the path to giving up. It’s a secondary device. It’s not essential like your phone. So giving up is easy.

But the Apple Watch faces exposure to an even bigger problem: feature bloat. It’s an issue that plagued Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, and now, inexplicably, Apple is following Samsung down the same dangerous path.

Just because you can add a feature doesn’t mean you should add a feature. Yet on Tuesday Apple confirmed that the Watch will allow voice calls from your wrist, just like Samsung’s Gear, an ambitious but seriously flawed smartwatch pioneer. The Gear’s speaker is too weak and tinny to cut through wind and crowd noise. It’s a mission-defining parlor trick that breaks your heart.

Have Apple’s engineers made good on Samsung’s broken promise? We’ll know soon enough. But simply copying Samsung’s Dick Tracy schtick is alarming. The world’s cruel pundits don’t really care about Samsung, and none of them will ever remember the Galaxy Gear. But if Apple’s voice calls fail us, you’ll hear about it on your local evening news.

Then there’s the Apple Watch’s heart rate glance, which shows your heart’s beats-per-minute whenever you initiate a spot check. It’s a ubiquitous feature on all Samsung watches, and you’ll also find it on every Android Wear watch. But it’s also essentially useless, as none of these watches’ heart rate sensors can provide accurate real-time readings during the jumping and jostling of physical exercise.

I suspect about 98 percent of all Android users will tell you they never use their smartwatch’s heart rate feature. For this reason alone, Apple has diminished its essential brand promise by including this frivolous, me-too feature as well. It’s noise, not utility. It’s bloat, not function. (And, no, don’t tell me that Apple will offer real-time heart-rate data during workouts. It’s an extremely difficult sensor trick to pull off, and if Apple offered it, it would already be a top-line promise.)

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I’m cherry-picking two very obvious copycat features, but the Apple Watch is packed with many more, from mail alerts to workout programs to mapping directions to even generous support for third-party apps. Now, sure, you could argue that some smartwatch features are must-haves, that a smartwatch isn’t a smartwatch unless these features are present and accounted for. But here’s the problem: Smartwatches have not been a resounding success.

So why emulate mediocrity? I think a much stronger Apple Watch would offer simple notifications, Passbook with built-in Apple Pay, HomeKit integration and a full suite of timekeeping and personal messaging functions. In other words: all Apple, all the time. Addition via subtraction. Give users a relatively small set of exquisitely engineered and incontrovertibly useful features, and then drop the damn mic.

Of course, once you get your Apple Watch, you can choose to use just a short list of features, and ignore the ones that don’t appeal to you. You may find that a watch that tells the time, pays for coffee, opens doors and sends haptic heartbeats to loved ones is all you ever need. Indeed, Apple’s small, ostensibly trivial surprise-and-delight tricks (taps, sketches, stickers and custom animated emojis) might be all the Watch requires to be a resounding success.

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But there’s still something psychologically deflating about a watch – or any product – that’s jam-packed with stuff you never use. You begin to question whether you’re getting your full money’s worth. It’s like dropping $60 for a Las Vegas buffet, getting way too full on $20 of crab legs, and wondering what hell just happened.

We will never hold our computers and smartphones to the stringent requirements we ask of smartwatches. We have to have a computer and phone. But a smartwatch? Probably not. So while you might buy the upcoming Apple Watch, you may not buy its second-gen follow-up if you feel you didn’t get your money’s worth, or some borderline features just didn’t work. And that’s not just bad news for Apple. It’s bad news for Samsung, LG, Motorola and all the other mobile companies looking for salvation in an entirely new product category.

The Apple Watch is on deck to validate a struggling concept. Now we can only wait until 24 April to see if it’s solved all of its competitors problems, or over-reached by playing its competitors’ game.

One Comment

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  1. Rocwurst says:

    Jon, give us a break. We all know that unlike Samsung and the rest of the competition, Apple has actually taken their time over the last 3 years making sure all these features actually work, unlike Samsung whose devices are the veritable definition of pointless, unworkable feature-bloat.

    There are plenty of articles that have harped on about all the features that Apple tried out for the Apple Watch and dropped as they failed to work in the real world.

    If Apple goes and releases are feature-poor device with no 3rd party apps, Apple would be in FAR more danger of being deemed irrelevant in the smart watch market.

    Give them credit for taking the time to make it functional, beautiful, compelling and of lasting utility.

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