Apple’s take on the smartwatch: Elegant evolution

After attending the “Spring Forward” event to get all of the remaining Apple Watch details and then getting some hands-on time with the device, I walked away with mixed emotions.

Apple Watch 42mm on wrist

On the one hand, [company]Apple[/company] debuted a polished product that was very responsive in my use. On the other hand, we learned few additional features or details we didn’t already know from the September Apple Watch introduction.

The Apple Watch pricing was perhaps the biggest new piece of information. A 38 millimeter Apple Watch Sport will cost $349 while a 42 millimeter version is priced $50 more.

Apple Watch Sport Edition

The stainless steel Apple Watch starts at $549 for the smaller model and there is the same $50 premium for the larger size. Depending on your choice of band, you can spend up to $1,049. And the Apple Watch Editions made from gold will start at $10,000.

Apple Watch Edition

Aside from that, we learned a few minor details to fill in gaps. We knew, for example, the Watch would support Apple Pay but today we saw how it works. Third-party apps were shown off as extensions to what you could already do on your phone. We learned that the display of Apple Watch is off until you either raise your wrist or tap on the screen. And we saw how you could take a phone call right from the Apple Watch with its microphone and speaker.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 11.14.51 AM (2)

Here’s the thing: There was no surprise or compelling feature that set the Apple Watch apart from other smartwatches, and I didn’t really see any major advancement of the device category. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. If you liked what you saw in the Apple Watch back in September, you got a little more to like today. If you were unconvinced back then, you’re likely still on the fence.

The situation is, to me, vastly different from another first generation product from Apple. The iPad. When the iPad arrived, it truly stood out and put Apple out in front of the tablet market. Yes, there were tablets available in the past, but none compelled the mass market uptake that iPad did.

I’m not so sure the same will hold true for the Apple Watch, at least in its first iteration.

Oh, I still expect Apple to sell millions of watches. Just not tens of millions for some time to come. Those looking for the convenience factor of not having to reach for their iPhone 100 times a day will strongly consider it. How much they will pay for that convenience is another question. I hemmed and hawed over a $249 Android Wear watch in December, for example, even with a $50 holiday discount. Spending hundreds more isn’t something I’d personally consider, but that’s just me.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 10.56.57 AM (2)

As far as early comparisons between the Apple Watch and Android Wear, the functionality is much the same. There are some unique features on both, but at their core, both do similar things — notifications, health tracking and small app functionality — as they extend apps and data from a connected phone. The interfaces are different though, and overall, in my limited hands-on time, the Apple Watch appears more responsive than any Android Wear device I’ve used: fast, slick animations and quick transitions between screens.

Forrester analyst James McQuivey seems to feel the same, backing up my impressions in an email:

“Competitors will also be relieved that Apple didn’t really surprise anyone with its features. Samsung and Motorola don’t have to worry that Apple has leapfrogged them in many functional ways — the Moto 360, for example, already does most of what Apple showed today, though sometimes the user has to go looking for those features.”

Apple’s take on the smartwatch is what you’d expect then: Designed in a way that Apple feels is elegant and intuitive, just like its iPhone and iPad products. Apple Watch isn’t quite a smartwatch revolution but more of Apple’s stamp on the product category.

Apple Watch Tim cook

Perhaps the biggest difference between Apple Watch and competing products is the fashion and luxury tie-in between the different bands — which looked very nice — and gold casings. Turning a phone accessory into a luxury item purchase might be the real advancement here, and that might get people to shell out $549 or far more for a smartwatch.

Live blog: The Apple Watch “Spring Forward” event

Announced in September, the Apple Watch is nearly here; expected to ship in April. There are still many remaining questions about the wearable and Apple is likely to answer them all at its “Spring Forward” event in San Francisco at 10am PT, Monday, March 9.

I’ll be on the scene, live-blogging the event right here, sharing more about the device’s features and pricing as the product story unfolds. It’s also possible we see other new, or updated products, such as a 12-inch MacBook Air. Tune in right here for all of the details as the event unfolds and don’t hesitate to leave your [company]Apple[/company] Watch questions in the comments; I’m sure to get some hands-on time with the newest watch that doesn’t have hands to get you some answers.

Update: Here’s what Apple announced.

The Apple Watch will tell you if your train is running late

Apple and its developers are announcing a lot of apps being retooled for its new smart watch, launching next week, but one particular app caught my eye. Crowdsoured public transit app Moovit says it will have an Apple Watch-optimized version of its app ready when the wearable goes on sale whenever that date happens to be.

There are several smartphone apps that will help you navigate the complex train, bus and metro networks of any big city, but the only problem with them is they’re in your smartphone. When you’re rushing to catch a train, or on a crowded sidewalk trying to find the closest bus stop, the last thing you want to do is whip out your device. Putting basic, yet pertinent information you need to navigate a crowded cityscape on your wrist is an ideal use case for a wearable. Moovit says an Android Wear version of the app will also be released in [company]Google[/company] Play sometime in the second quarter.

Moovit Apple Watch 1

 

The [company]Apple[/company] Watch app will give you a tiny map showing the nearest public transit stops so if you’re in an unfamiliar area, you’ll know where to head to catch your bus or train. Tap on one of those icons, and you’ll get arrival times for every train or bus that stops there. While actually planning a trip might be easier on your phone than on the Watch’s limited display, once you have an itinerary entered, Moovit will show you the trip details. For example, Moovit will show you directions to a transit stop and your expected time arrival at your destination.

Also, if you have favorite itineraries programmed into Moovit – for instance, your daily commute to work – the Watch will display the next arrival and departure times of the buses and trains you typically take. Finally, the app will ship alerts to your watch face on service disruptions for those same oft-used transit lines.

Moovit Apple Watch 2

 

This would have been an awfully handy thing to have this week at Mobile World Congress where accessing the Barcelona metro system is a must unless you like 2-hour cab lines. A simple glance at my wrist would have told me where I needed to go to catch my train, and how long I had before it arrived. Instead, I stood around at crowded intersections looking like a rube as I tried to access Google Maps on my phone. ETA information also would have been quite helpful since I often found myself arriving either 30 minutes early or 30 minutes late to appointments.

Moovit, which is often described as the Waze of public transit, has been on a bit of a tear lately. The Israeli company recently raised a $50 million Series C round, and it has expanded into 500 cities in 50 countries while racking up 15 million users contributing transit data to its database.

 

Preview 27 different Apple Watch apps in your browser

Apps that run on Apple Watch will likely be a major focus of Apple’s upcoming event on March 9, but if you can’t wait that long, check out App Advice’s new website, WatchAware, which is collecting Apple Watch mockups and putting them on a single page.

The site has 27 Apple Watch previews. Although the page feels interactive, most of the time, it’s just playing a canned video inside of a Apple Watch mockup when your mouse skims over the image. It’s not an emulator. But it does offer the suggestion of what an app could feel like when it’s running on an actual Apple Watch.

WatchAware screengrab

Although most developers don’t have access to Apple Watch yet, Apple has released a set of developer’s tools called WatchKit, as well as human interaction guidelines. So these apps likely already resemble the form they’ll take when Apple Watch is released. They appear to hew to the best practices Apple itself is suggesting, complete with separate interactions for glances, notifications and full-blown apps.

Some of the apps featured were announced last fall when Apple revealed the Apple Watch. Those previews are using Apple-provided imagery. Other previews have been contributed by third-party developers, including FeedWrangler, Deliveries, Todoist, and, yes, a fart app.

Apple's Maps preview on Apple Watch

Apple’s Maps preview on Apple Watch

If Apple Watch ends up being a hit, I suspect many of the interactions users will employ on a daily basis have yet to be invented. The first iPhone didn’t have a pull-to-refresh interaction, for instance. One day, this batch of previews could be an interesting time capsule: What we thought Apple Watch apps would look like before we actually had them on our wrists.

Check it out here.

Pebble Time Steel launches alongside new smart watch straps

Pebble said it would have a few surprises in store after it launched its new Pebble Time watch on Kickstarter last week. On Tuesday, Pebble shared two of them: A new Pebble Time Steel edition available in multiple finishes with longer battery life and support for watchbands with electronics and sensors built into them.

pebble time steel gold

The introduction of Pebble Time Steel itself isn’t a huge surprise; the company offers its current watch in a Steel model. What is a little confounding is the timing of Pebble Time Steel. The answer may be in the availability: the metal version won’t arrive until July, which is after the plastic model ships.

Pebble says the new Steel edition has CNC-finished 316L stainless steel case and a larger battery; you can expect up to 10 days of run time on a charge. Finishes for the watch include Gunmetal Black, Silver Stainless and Gold, while bands will be made of leather or stainless steel.

The starting retail price of Pebble Time Steel is $299 but Kickstarter backers will save $50. Those (like me) who backed the Pebble Time can upgrade to a Steel model and not lose their place in line for delivery, but again, the newer model won’t ship until July.

strap-components

Pebble’s new smart straps are an interesting approach to cramming sensors in a watch. Why do that when you can build them into the wristband and have the data read by the watch? It’s a clever idea, provided the bands don’t get too bulky. Pebble has outlined how the smart bands will work on its developer blog, hoping to drum up some interest as it begins to broaden its smartwatch ecosystem.

Amid new watches, Android Wear crosses 1M downloads

The number of Android Wear downloads has crossed the into the one to five million range on Google Play, suggesting that around one million people are wearing smartwatches powered by Google software.

android wear downloads march 2015

Last month, estimates of 720,000 Android Wear smartwatches shipping in 2014 were reported, causing some to consider Google’s watch ambitions to be a flop. At the time, Android Wear downloads were in the 500,000 to 1,000,000 range.

I noted then there were several reasons not to be surprised or disappointed by the Android Wear numbers; only a few watches were even available for much of the measured time period and that the platform was still young yet. Simply put: It’s going to take time for [company]Google[/company] to mature the software and for hardware makers to make more attractive watches.

Watch-Urbane

This week, two companies are doing just that. LG is showing off its Watch Urbane while Huawei has debuted its fashionable Huawei Watch made with stainless steel case and sapphire crystal. These join the handful of previously available watches, some of which have had less than inspiring designs while others such as the Moto 360 have stood out with solid looks. Motorola is adding customized options for its watch later this month.

huawei watch official

Given that there are now a million Android Wear downloads, it’s reasonable to assume one of three things with earlier estimates. One, the 720,000 shipments in 2014 was accurate and there was nearly a 50 percent jump in Android Wear sales over the past two months. Two, the shipment estimate was low to begin with. Or three, the most likely scenario to me, is a combination of both: Estimates were low and a meaningful number people did buy an Android Wear watch in either January or February.

Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know for sure. While Google can easily tell how many Android phones with its services are bought through phone activations, you don’t activate an Android Wear watch; it’s an extension of an Android phone. The best proxy we have to determine Android Wear sales is the number of downloads for its companion app, which are now one million or more.

The next cross-over point for the Android Wear app happens once it’s downloaded more than 5 million times. If the software and hardware keep improving, I think there’s a chance we see that this year; perhaps in the late second or third quarter, depending on the platform’s maturity, device design and pricing. And as they say, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” so I anticipate next week’s Apple Watch exepcted launch will raise overall consumer awareness of smartwatches, which could help Android Wear sales.

Mobile recap: Pebble Time; Pixel 2 coming; Apple Watch questions

After selling one million of its original Pebble watches, the company is zigging when the competition is zagging. Pebble Time is the next product in the line, and while it adds new features and a new interface, the watch isn’t likely to be confused with either an Android Wear or Apple Watch.

pebble time timeline

That’s because Pebble Time is a gently improved watch that doesn’t sacrificing the original product’s of core strengths. It still has an e-paper display and should run for a week on a charge, for example. Pebble Time will also still work with both [company]Apple[/company] iOS and [company]Google[/company] Android handsets; there’s been some chatter and evidence of Windows Phone support, but it’s still not coming from Pebble.

So what’s new and better with Pebble Time? The device is a little wider but thinner and has a color e-paper screen. It also has a microphone for responding to notifications or dictating quick notes. And the software uses a timeline to help you manage your days, even though all of the old Pebble apps and watchfaces will still be available. Clearly, this package resounded well: Pebble Time has already surpassed its original then-record funding amount on Kickstarter and has raised nearly $11.5 million at time of writing.

While we have all of the details on Pebble Time, we don’t have the same for the Apple Watch. That’s likely to change soon, however: Apple is holding a press event on March 9, where it’s expected to launch the watch with shipping to follow in April.

Apple Watch launch event

Even though I attended the September event that introduced us to Apple Watch last year, I’m waiting for Apple to show off some additional features that will make the device a compelling purchase. I see much potential in Apple Watch but not yet a “killer feature” or must-have application. Google Now on the wrist is that feature for some with Android Wear; Siri isn’t there yet but perhaps she’ll get an upgrade soon.

Two-Pixels

One device that is getting an upgrade is Google’s Chromebook Pixel. Google confirmed that a new model is coming soon, although no details have been provided yet. I outlined my thoughts this week: Expect few if any changes on the outside of the Chromebook Pixel 2; instead, look for a new fifth-generation Intel chip and some radio upgrades. Hopefully, we see a price drop as well, although I’m leery that will happen.

Huawei leaks its own Android Wear watch early in Barcelona

Look at the list of Android Wear partners and you won’t see Huawei there. Maybe the list needs an update. And while we’re at it, the folks who manage signage at Barcelona’s airport might want to check their schedule: They have advertisements appearing that show the new Huawei Watch.

Huawei hasn’t officially announced the product yet, so the ads, spotted by Android Central on their way to the Mobile World Congress event, were made public a bit early.

huawei-watch-airport-sign

The ad shows an elegant looking, round watch with relatively small bezels compared to current smartwatches. The ad specifically notes that the Huawei Watch is powered by Android Wear, so it uses [company]Google[/company]’s platform and works with Android phones.

Based on the mini billboard, expect the Huawei Watch to launch in three styles: Gold with brown band, black with a matching sport band and a shiny silver or metal case with fancy mesh band. Without much of a retail presence in the U.S., we may not see the Huawei Watch sold here although Huawei does sell phones directly through an online website.

Three big questions before the Apple Watch event

Apple is holding a press event on March 9, presumably to show off and start orders for the Apple Watch it introduced back in September. I’m all but certain here on the event topic based on the previously stated April shipment date for Apple’s first smartwatch; launching it in March for pre-orders with an April delivery simply makes sense to me.

Apple Watch Event

I’ll be attending and live-blogging the event. Until then, I’m still trying to sort out answers to a several key questions about the device itself. My colleague Kif Leswing posed six open questions after Tim Cook first showed us the Apple Watch. Several of those still apply, and I have a few others after seeing the Watch for myself last year and because I’ve been using smartwatches for the past few years.

How much will the different variants cost?

Obviously, all will be revealed when the product officially launches. We know that the point of entry is $349 for the Apple Watch in stainless steel and sapphire crystal. But what about the Apple Watch Sport and Apple Watch Edition models?

As someone who tends to buy smartwatches for an active lifestyle — I own a Motorola MotoACTV and a Sony Smartwatch 3; both are focused on exercise and sport with their own GPS radio — I’m going to go against the grain here and suggest that the Apple Watch Sport model will cost less than $349.

Apple Watch launch event

Why? It forgoes stainless steel for aluminum, uses strengthened Ion-X glass instead of expensive sapphire and comes with a simple fluoroelastomer band instead of one made with pricey metal or leather.

If I recall correctly in September, Cook said the starting price of the Apple Watch edition (not Apple Watch Sport) would be $349. Many assume this is the lowest price for the entire line. But if the watch is made with less expensive materials — the band and case, for example — I’m thinking the Sport model may have a lower price, part of an under-promise and over-delivery strategy that could surprise and surpass expectations.

My guess on cost is $279 or $299. If I misheard Cook, then of course, all bets are off but even Apple’s official press release from September omits the word “Sport” from the pricing: “Apple Watch will be available in early 2015 starting at $349 (US).”  It could be confusion over semantics but as I read it — and recall from the September event — the price applied to the standard smartwatch edition.

Apple Watch

As far as the Apple Watch Edition for the luxury crowd, I can only wonder. I’ve read several well-written thoughts in the past week suggesting that the rose gold model could cost as much as $10,000. That might well be right considering the cost of luxury watches. I’ve spent nearly $1,000 on a mechanical, stainless steel analog watch in the past but similar models made with precious metals could easily inflate the price by a factor of ten.

What’s the killer app or compelling reason to purchase an Apple Watch?

Let me preface this by saying that, even if the Apple Watch only does what Cook showed off in September, I’m sure Apple will sell millions this year. But let’s take a deeper dive, because I didn’t leave September’s Apple Watch introduction event feeling as if this was a must-have product.

We saw glanceable notifications from an iPhone. That’s nice, but as I said last week, those are simply “table stakes” for this market. So is the time, of course. Favoriting a picture on your iPhone pushes the image to your Apple Watch. I’m not too jazzed about that; most people would rather see or show that picture on the larger screen of the iPhone they’re going to have with them. Tapping out little doodles or showing my heartbeat on someone else’s Apple Watch isn’t a market mover, either. I can’t help but think there’s more functionality we haven’t heard about yet.

Apple Watch

What feature(s) is going to get people to shell out money for a watch that’s a companion to their phone?

Siri is built into the Apple Watch; an upgrade to Siri with more contextual, proactive information would go a long way here. You can control an Apple TV with Apple Watch, just as you can with an iOS device. Most everything we’ve seen so far on the watch replicates what you can do with the iPhone; my take is that Apple has saved a few big features that will make people say, “I have to have that.”

How long is this thing supposed to last?

I don’t mean how long will it last on a charge; Cook already said we’ll likely be charging the Apple Watch nightly. More importantly, how long will the technology last and work with future software updates? Apple is pretty good at supporting a few cycles’ worth of legacy devices. So if you buy an Apple Watch in 2015, I suspect you won’t start “missing out” on advanced features until 2018.

Apple Watch

That’s a reasonable expectation if you’re spending $350 or so; if you want to upgrade in three years, it’s not going to break the bank. For those with more expensive Apple Watch editions, though, it’s a different story. Apple’s S1 system board and chip appear modular in design, but I’d want to know if the innards could be swapped from a watch costing thousands of dollars before I committed to the purchase.

Perhaps if you have that kind of money to spend on a watch, you don’t care as much about the upgrade path. I can’t speak to that because I don’t have that kind of cash. Even the less expensive models raise the question, though, because as chip cycles continue, components get smaller and we can fit more sensors in devices.

Not long to wait for answers

Those are my three biggest questions now and we have only 10 days or so before we find out the answers. In the meantime, since September, we’ve learned that fully native apps will come later to the Apple Watch, just as they did with the original iPhone. Tim Cook recently mentioned showering with an Apple Watch, so some level of water resistance is plausible. And as noted previously, the Apple Watch will ship in April to the first customers who find the timepiece a compelling purchase.

This may be why the Pebble isn’t supported on Windows Phone

Earlier this week, I noted an internal Microsoft Windows Phone app that works with the Pebble smartwatch. Now a detailed report from Windows Central adds more background about the reason for the app and why Pebble itself isn’t working on adding Windows Phone support to its smartwatch.

As you might expect, the core issue isn’t a technical one, as Windows Phone 8.1 supports Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy. Instead, it appears to be a political problem even though Pebble itself may not want to devote effort to Windows Phone and it’s relatively low marketshare.

pebble notifications wp

Microsoft reportedly worked hard with Pebble to show how its smartphones could support the watch, even building a full app — likely the internal one we spotted this week — to help move the relationship forward. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be much of a relationship because Pebble’s founder and CEO, Eric Migicovsky isn’t interested in one. From the Windows Central report:

“Despite Microsoft’s attempts to win over Pebble, Migicovsky is reportedly not a fan of the company nor their mobile operating system. The young entrepreneur reportedly nixed any partnership.

Growing up in a world where Google and Apple have dominated the mobile scene, this perception that Microsoft is old and out of touch is seemingly more frequent these days. Particularly with those under 30 (see Snapchat’sEvan Spiegel for a similar attitude). Even Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was unable to persuade him personally.”

After Windows Central published its post, Migicovsky took to Twitter refuting it, saying he has’t spent much time with Microsoft’s CEO and that the rest of the story is also inaccurate:

In a related development, the Pebble team participated in a Reddit “ask me anything” session on Wednesday to discuss the new Pebble Time watch and the company acknowledged third-party Windows Phone app support, reiterating it does not have a Windows Phone app of it own. There wasn’t any mention of even considering it, even though various other feature requests got a general “we’ll think about it” answer.

If the Windows Central report is even partially correct, it’s a shame because it sounds as if Microsoft was willing to do all of the app development on Pebble’s behalf for its watch. And why not, when it would make Microsoft’s handsets a little more appealing, particularly to those who also own or want a Pebble.

pebble action

In that case, Pebble itself has nothing to lose, but of course the devil’s in the details: Perhaps there’s more to this story than just a CEO’s alleged dislike of a company. My hope is that whatever issues remain, they’re worked out. At the end of the day, it’s consumer choice that’s suffering here in both the phone and smartwatch products.