Apple Watch on borrowed time

It is nearly six months since Apple shipped its first  WATCH models to consumers, and three weeks since watchOS 2.0 was finally released: a good time to take stock of where the product is heading.

Although early sales appear to have been very encouraging, and Apple has recently augmented the higher end with its Hermès models, as a product the Watch is stagnating. Given the range of new functionality added in watchOS 2.0, this might appear surprising.

Before April 2015, there were two good reasons for people to spend quite a lot of money on a device (other than pure jewellery) which they wore on their wrist: it was either a watch, or a heart monitor or related system to enhance their exercise. The Watch promised to do both, and much more besides.

Among the ‘more besides’, functioning as an iPhone peripheral was probably the most important for early adopters, and something that the Watch does exceedingly well. It saves you from having to keep your iPhone about your person at all times, and spares you rummaging to find it when there is an incoming call/message/alert. But this is only compelling for a small proportion of iPhone users.

Integrating timekeeping and exercise monitoring should have been the Watch’s great success. Its heart rate sensors are very well designed and engineered, and should have killed the competition.

There have been two major snags to this: it was only with watchOS 2.0 that the sensors worked properly and were accessible to third-party apps, and unfortunately several of those who should be best producing those apps have already invested in other heart rate monitoring systems.

So at present, watchOS 2.0 has had very limited impact on what a Watch will do. Mine now dutifully records heart rate periodically during the day – something that it almost stopped doing under watchOS 1.0.1 – but all I can do is browse a tedious set of nested XML-style records. Hardly any apps allow you to use your Watch in the same way that you can use other exercise monitors.

When the iPad first came out, most journalists and commentators declared that it was in need of “a killer app”. Of course, just like the iPhone before it, it was not an app but a purpose which was required. For the iPad it was predominantly the consumption of content, and connection to social media, etc.

Even though I have worn my Watch daily since it was delivered back in May, and find it very useful, there is nothing which it does – yet – which would make it truly compelling to any significant market sector. It does lots of clever things rather well: its stopwatch is superb, many users find Siri on the Watch is wonderful, and its rich suite of messages and reminders is excellent. But these are all nice options, hardly killer apps.

So  WATCH looks like it might go the way of the Newton, another wonderful product which was shipped prematurely and appealed to too small a market sector for its survival. There is, though, one very big difference: the Newton was a consumptively costly project which threatened a much smaller Apple. Apart from the system-on-a-chip (SOC) development, Apple appears to have contained the Watch’s development costs very strictly. The extraordinary delay in shipping watchOS 2.0 was more typical of an underfunded startup than a behemoth cash-rich corporation.

What is more worrying is that it is another symptom of designomania: the morbid conviction that if you design anything well, crowds will flock to buy it. When the most visible (and bug-free) change in a major new release of operating system is the default system font, you have to wonder just what is driving Apple’s product development.