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The Apple Watch is being held back by Siri

The Apple Watch is being held back by Siri


The best smartwatch should be even better

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Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Apple is set to unveil the new Apple Watch Series 6 this week. It’s also rumored to be creating a new, lower-cost version of the Apple Watch instead of just dropping the price on an older model. The new Series 6 is rumored to add other health features like blood oxygen monitoring, while watchOS 7 will bring sleep tracking and yet more fitness options.

The Apple Watch is, without a doubt, a health device first. I’m curious to see how Apple navigates announcing a feature like blood oxygen monitoring — something that has been on everybody’s mind during the pandemic.

Apple has done a very good job being clear on what the Apple Watch is and is not. It is a nice health monitoring device that can serve as an early warning system for certain conditions. It is not a medical device and shouldn’t be used as your only health device if you are at risk for the things the Apple Watch looks for. Apple has never (and I believe never will) dissembled about the difference — but right now it’s more important than ever that consumers understand that difference.

Anyway, I’m glad the Apple Watch finally found its place. For the first couple years there, it wasn’t entirely clear what it was for and it was even less clear that Apple had a good answer. Instead, it had several answers. And as this year’s Apple Watch refresh approaches I’ve been thinking about one of the answers that hasn’t come to pass: ambient computing.

My friend Walt Mossberg’s final column for The Verge was titled “The Disappearing Computer” and it was about that idea, ambient computing. Back in 2017 we didn’t have a clear definition for it (and truthfully, it’s difficult to pin one down now), but Walt had a good working model for some of the signs that it has arrived:

The technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.

We’ll leave the mind reading to Elon Musk for now. As for the rest, it’s not that far from what the Apple Watch can do today. The Apple Watch is explicitly a computer designed to be on your body all the time, to blend into the background and become invisible, and to get your voice commands.

The Apple Watch, not the HomePod, ought to be Apple’s primary device for ambient computing. It is better suited to that task than the devices any other company sells right now. Smart speakers from Amazon and Google sit in your home, but they haven’t found an ambient computing foothold outside your home. Sure, you might have the Google Assistant on your phone or in your headphones, but it’s still too phone-centric.

By now you’ve probably already guessed the fly in this ointment: Siri. Apple’s digital assistant simply can’t be the platform that’s necessary to unlock ambient computing. Alexa and the Google Assistant aren’t quite ready either, to be fair, but they’re both much further along that path than Siri is.

The person presumably tasked with closing that gap is John Giannandrea, who led up search and artificial intelligence at Google until Apple snapped him up in 2018. Giannandrea recently spoke with Ars Technica and revealed he created the team that applied machine learning to the iPad’s Apple Pencil recognition algorithms so it could have lower latency and better recognize handwriting — something Google was already doing with Chrome OS and Samsung just started doing with the Galaxy Note.

On the iPad, it works: both latency and handwriting recognition are much better than I’ve seen before. The “scribble mode” in iPadOS 14 isn’t quite up to the task of replacing a keyboard entirely, but it’s great for short bits of text.

I bring it up not to draw a line from this application of ML to generalized ambient computing, but to point out that there is a lot that can be done with the ML and AI tools already in everybody’s tech workbench. They just need to be applied in new and clever ways. Using ML to improve handwriting and latency on the iPad isn’t a sea change, but instead, it’s a step in the right direction.

Stepping in the right direction is what Siri needs right now. Even on the new beta for watchOS 7, I still can’t ask Siri to do something basic like set multiple timers. It’s actually ridiculous! If you set a second timer, the first one invisibly gets canceled without any indication it’s gone. It’s the thing that keeps the Echo dot in my kitchen.

Harping on multiple timers in Siri — and harping on Siri in general — can be seen as making too much of small complaints. But on the flip side, Apple is well aware of this complaint and has been for some time, yet hasn’t fixed it.

That’s troubling, frankly. Apple could — and does — add great new capabilities to Siri on a regular basis. But nobody will ever discover those capabilities if Siri duffs the basics on an equally regular basis. And it still does.

The first Apple Watch was like the first beta of Siri: a mess. The Apple Watch never had a moment where it was “fixed,” but instead was fixed slowly over time via relentless iteration and improvement. In theory, the same should apply to Siri, but it hasn’t happened at the same pace.

Even though Siri isn’t where it ought to be, the Apple Watch is still the best smartwatch on the market by a wide margin. But if Siri could do more, the Apple Watch could be something more. The era of ambient computing is still coming. Will Siri be ready?

Towards the end of his interview with Ars, Giannandrea talked about hiring new talent for his team. “I guess the biggest problem I have is that many of our most ambitious products are the ones we can’t talk about and so it’s a bit of a sales challenge to tell somebody, ‘Come and work on the most ambitious thing ever but I can’t tell you what it is.’”

That sounds great, but my advice is to start talking sooner rather than later. And the “talk” I’d like to see is actually action: new features for Siri that arrive via the same relentless improvement of the things people are trying to use Siri for today. And hey, maybe start with timers.

A rare Monday newsletter today in part because I had been thinking about the Apple Watch and in part because last night was a wild night of tech news! Nvidia announced it will buy Arm and Oracle is reportedly not buying TikTok but becoming a “trusted tech partner.”

Apple News

┏ What to expect from Apple’s ‘Time Flies’ event: Apple Watch Series 6, a redesigned iPad Air, and more. Jay Peters rounds up the most likely suspects. High likelihood: new Apple Watches and new iPad Air. Medium: Apple’s new services bundle. Low: everything else.

┏ Apple Music for Android contains mentions of rumored ‘Apple One’ services bundle.

┏ Apple’s new App Store guidelines carve out loopholes for xCloud, Stadia, and other apps that Apple had blocked. These aren’t so much loopholes as they are narrow tunnels filled with spikes and poisonous tentacles. I see these more as clarifications of what Apple’s existing policy is than any meaningful change of stance.

┏ Microsoft snubs Apple’s olive branch to cloud gaming: ‘a bad experience for customers’.

Tech news

┏ Nvidia is acquiring Arm for $40 billion. Kim Lyons on a blockbuster deal:

Arm will operate as a division of Nvidia and will remain headquartered in the UK, and, will “continue to operate its open-licensing model, while maintaining its global customer neutrality,” the company said. But the deal is still likely to face intense regulatory scrutiny.

┏ Oracle reportedly wins deal for TikTok’s US operations as ‘trusted tech partner’. Hopefully by the time you’re reading this, we’ll have more details, but there was way too much sound and fury leading up to this and it seems like a much smaller deal than what everybody has been expecting.

the company has been selected as a “trusted tech partner” instead. This is different from an outright sale, and appears to suggest Oracle will be helping run TikTok’s US operations with its own cloud technologies.

┏ Microsoft says it’s not acquiring TikTok after ByteDance rejects offer. Microsoft’s statement here is very terse, to the point where it’s hard not to think some sort of shenanigans happened leading up to it.

┏ Samsung announces September 23rd event, likely for Galaxy S20 ‘Fan Edition’. Chris Welch:

Most recently, the unannounced phone was found on Verizon’s website by Android Police. Leaks and rumors have suggested it will retain some hardware specs of the standard S20 — like a 120Hz display and Snapdragon 865 processor — but will make downgrades elsewhere (like a 1080p resolution) to help drive down the price below the flagship. As for exactly what that price will be, we’re not yet sure.

┏ Facebook reinvents Facebook with the launch of Campus for college students. Ashley Carman:

Campus might be one way Facebook tries to keep students and younger people on the original Facebook app and engaged for longer. At the same time, it’s building off behavior Facebook says it’s already seen on the platform.

┏ Bose announces $279 QuietComfort Earbuds and $179 Sport Earbuds. Here they are. Chris Welch has the details, the most interesting of which is that Bose is cramming in 11 levels of noise cancellation into these tiny earbuds. I’d have been happy with on or off.

┏ Bose introduces three new pairs of Frames audio sunglasses for $249. You know I gotta admit I am surprised Bose keeps making these — they must sell pretty well!

Gaming news

┏ Sony announces PS5 event for Wednesday September 16th. We should finally get a price.

┏ Your move, PS5. Sean Hollister:

But there’s no reason for Sony to hold back now that Microsoft has revealed its hand. The question is how low Sony should go, how low it can afford to go, because as strong as the PS4 has been and as weak as Xbox once seemed, $299 is an incredible starting price that seems impossible to meet or beat.

┏ A closer look at Nvidia’s new RTX 3080.

┏ A first look at Microsoft’s new Xbox Series X console. Microsoft sent Tom Warren a couple dummy units of its upcoming Xbox consoles. Yep, it’s pretty big.

┏ Microsoft’s new Xbox Series S is surprisingly small in size and price. Of the two boxes, the Series S is the more fascinating because it really is quite small. I expected I’d be a no brainer for me to get a Series X, but now I’m torn.

┏ Welcome to the next generation of gaming. The Xbox and Playstation are exciting, but even if you’re not into PC gaming you should keep an eye on the impending reviews of Nvidia’s new high-powered graphics card. If it lives up to Nvidia’s claims it could be the driver of a whole new generation of other PC components — starting with monitors.


┏ Microsoft Surface Duo review: double troubles. My review of the Surface Duo, along with a video I’m really proud of. Microsoft is not off to a great start here, I have to be honest. But even though it has tripped up on software bugs and camera problems, it is running in the right direction.

┏ Asus ROG Zephyrus Duo 15 review: a gaming laptop that doesn’t need two screens. Turns out making a dual-screen gaming PC is just as hard as making a dual-screen phone. Monica Chin reviews:

For example, if you run Tomb Raider in full-screen mode and try to click on a Discord chat downstairs, it minimizes the game. You can fix this problem by using windowed mode, but tinkering with the ScreenPad still tabs you out.

More from The Verge

┏ Subscribe to Antivirus: a weekly newsletter on COVID-19 research. This new newsletter from our science editor Mary Beth Griggs is a must-subscribe:

This month we’re officially launching a newsletter version of Antivirus, a column that we’ve been quietly rolling out on the site every Saturday morning. It’s all about the unflagging efforts scientists are making to understand the coronavirus — and figure out how to stop it.

┏ Why ‘Cancel Netflix’ is trending. Julia Alexander with the definitive story explaining what the heck is going on with this horrible mess of conspiracy theory and social media.