Apple’s new Watch software, watchOS 3, isn’t just new software, it’s an admission that Apple had it all wrong when it came to interactions on the first-generation Apple Watch. It’s less of a revamp and more of a rescue of the Watch, an attempt to deconstruct the old software and to focus on the stuff that people actually care about.
It’s a rare thing for Apple to admit that it was wrong on something product-related, even subtly. But that’s what it did onstage yesterday during the company’s annual developer's conference: Kevin Lynch, a vice president of technology at Apple, actually used the previous version of Apple Watch software as a benchmark for how fast the new software is. Collectively, the crowd of 6,000 watched while Lynch opened a third-party soccer app on an Apple Watch running last year’s watchOS 2 software; the app took nearly seven seconds to load.
The next attempt, on an Apple Watch running the new software, was a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moment. The message was clear, and if it wasn’t, Apple bullet-pointed it for us: both native apps and third-party apps will load much faster on watchOS 3, since favorite apps will be kept on the device’s memory. But Apple first had to admit that the current software has been painfully slow. (So slow, in fact, that it once inspired The Verge's Nilay Patel to write an essay about life being too short for slow computers.)
The new software, which doesn’t fully launch until the fall, includes a bunch of new features and functions that are at once super obvious and incredibly thoughtful. Apple Pay will work in third-party apps, such as Lyft, on the Watch. There’s an SOS function, for making emergency calls. There will be shorter shortcuts to text message responses, and a new scribble-to-text function — which is not new, but new to Apple Watch.
Other changes were around health and fitness, since that’s one of the most popular use cases for the Watch. There will be a watch face made up entirely of Apple’s colorful activity-tracking rings, and another that offers a shortcut to the Workout app. People can share their activity data with other Watch wearers, so there’s finally a social component. And the Watch will soon track activity levels for wheelchair users. "Time to stand!" becomes "Time to roll!"
But the bigger changes are around the user interface. (This is where Apple really tried to reinvent the wheel with the Watch's original interface, when the wheel was probably just fine.) Rather than having to press firmly on the watch face to change faces, you can now just swipe, edge to edge, to change a watch face. Apple is ditching the idea of app "glances" on the Watch in favor of something more familiar to iPhone users: an app dock, accessible by pressing the physical side button. Press the button, swipe through recent apps, and launch and interact with them from there. And now, when you swipe up from the bottom of the Watch’s face, you’ll see a mini control center — something, again, that is familiar to iPhone users.
Apple tried to change the paradigm with Apple Watch; now it's going back to something more familiar
Based on what was shown in the demo, it looks... simpler. In this case, "shallow" has a positive connotation: it’s a smartwatch that requires fewer swipes and taps and less wait time just to get an app going. Why wasn’t it like this before? I do not know.
Maybe even more interestingly, the Watch’s Digital Crown was only briefly mentioned during yesterday’s demo of watchOS 3, when Apple said developers will be able to build apps that use it. So: "glances" are gone, and the Digital Crown wasn't showcased as a primary method of interaction. Even voice control took a backseat, although it was shown in still photos. What this all says to me is that Apple is no longer trying to totally change the paradigm of user-computer interaction with the Apple Watch. If anything, it’s stripping it down to something more familiar.
When the company announced the iPod, the brand-new click wheel came along with it. When it announced the iPhone, multi-touch touchscreens changed our interactions. And at the time it announced the Watch, the Digital Crown was front and center, as a new way to navigate menu options or a cluster of apps on a tiny display. Turns out that touch works pretty okay after all — provided that the user interface is designed well.
But here's the thing: Apple’s admission isn’t a bad thing. If anything the new software, which is being rolled out a year after the Watch’s initial launch in 2015, shows that Apple still believes in its wearable computing device. Even if new Watch hardware is soon on the way (which we can’t confirm at this point), Apple is promising that the new watchOS 3 software will run 100 percent as well on the current Watch.
It’s still not a perfect smartwatch — if such a thing exists — but the demo of watchOS 3 offers a better explanation for why you might want to use an Apple Watch. It’s not just a third draft; it’s a total rewrite, and something insightful might finally emerge.