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11 areas that must be addressed before the Apple Watch can be considered core essential for newsrooms

If you’re an Apple fan — or just a consumer of technology news — you’ve perhaps noticed the gloom-and-doom headlines about the dramatic decrease in Apple Watch sales.

Much has been written in the last few weeks about whether the Apple Watch is a success or failure. Some tech pundits have already declared it a dud. Others are pleading for the masses to demonstrate just a wee more patience before penning their own Apple Watch obituaries.

While I’ve not yet arrived at the same conclusion as some insiders proclaiming that the Apple Watch actually represents the future of technology, I do believe the device and associated software and peripherals provide a variety of interesting potentials within the news media space.

As part of my RJI Fellowship exploring short- and long-term implications of wearables — specifically the Apple Watch — within digital storytelling, I‘ve begun identifying a handful of key challenges I believe Apple must address if at some point the device is to move from novelty to necessity for newsrooms.

Form factor

A lot of people I speak with, particularly younger folks, don’t wear wristwatches and have little interest in shifting gears now, even as the so-called smartwatch revolution takes shape.

My own teenage son and his friends strongly prefer “empty wrist” lifestyles. When I asked my 16-year-old about this, he replied, “What do I need a watch for? I always have my iPhone with me.”

Unfortunately, dad had no killer comeback this time.

Related: Will millennial men wear an Apple Watch? Hints from an eBay deals survey

While many don’t believe Apple has nearly the same uphill battle with wearable-adoption as Google did with Glass and getting technology consumers to sport cutting-edge tech on their face, the Apple Watch does face some cultural and generational challenges in pursuit of the wrist.

Will the tech giant (and the rest of the smartwatch movement) be able to sway segments of the non-wristwatch community over to the other side through groundbreaking features and applications with future version releases? What about younger journalists entering newsrooms over the next decade and the inherent behaviors they’ll bring? Will the potential concept of providing them a smartwatch to support their work inspire or overwhelm?

Set up is complicated

We’ve been spoiled for a long time now. The Watch is the first new device from Apple in more than two decades that basic users aren’t able to just turn on and turn loose immediately.

Many of the early reviews draw attention to the unintuitive initial experience of using the device, which is uncharacteristic of Apple, especially considering their “it just works” marketing campaign of the last several years.

A basic setup guide from The Verge is called “How to set up the Apple Watch in 16 steps.” The first paragraph warns the reader that the how-to “isn’t 100 percent comprehensive.” Get ready for a long afternoon of tinkering.

The battery life of the Apple Watch, though in line with most of its competitors, still leaves much to be desired at roughly one day.

Battery life

The battery life of the Apple Watch, though in line with most of its competitors (except the Pebble, which boasts a five- to seven-day lifespan), still leaves much to be desired at roughly one day. The duration of the Apple Watch’s battery life has been a hotly debated issue since pre-launch. While some people claim they still have 30 to 40 percent battery life at the end of the typical day, others have complained that it runs out too quickly when in constant use.

Recharging your watch from the road is just plain challenging. Because the devices are still new and catching on, borrowing a charging cable from a friendly neighbor isn’t nearly as simple as when dangerously low on iPhone juice.

And if you remembered to bring your special charging cable, it’s currently an awkward move to find a safe resting spot for the device in the car or other places you might be stationary for a few minutes at a time.

The Apple Watch experience is taken offline when recharging, primarily because one can’t wear the device while it’s connected to the charging cable and some tethered electrical power supply. This is different for many journalists who are used to 100 percent full-functionality from their devices even while on the go. Mobile battery chargers have become the norm for mobile journalists. Would a mobile battery pack work for the Apple Watch? Probably not. But significantly stretching the battery capacity inside the device will go a long way.

Bugs

As the case with most version-one tech, the user experience is far from perfect. Bugs are largely to blame. In the couple of months I’ve owned my Apple Watch, I’ve been burned by a bothersome bug: The device gets stuck in Airplane Mode. During the first few times, I reset the device. Most recently, I’ve had to “erase and restore to default” as a last resort.

Other common Apple Watch bugs that have been reported include hard freezes/crashing/lockups, faux-charging notifications, malfunctioning digital crown and lost iPhone connection glitch.

We can likely expect bug fixes for these issues and others from Apple. But with so much close attention being paid to the year-one storylines of the new product category (sales, demand, technology reviews, user acceptance, reputation), one might assume frustrated Apple Watch owners are more critical to the product’s early success than in other previous Apple device launches. 

User interface, unintuitive, screen size

The learning curve for users exists because the software tries to do too much at once, and smartwatches offer extremely limited interface real estate.

The learning curve for users exists because the software tries to do too much at once, and smartwatches offer extremely limited interface real estate.

Your iPhone is the user interface, mostly. Sure, the Watch displays notifications and other bite-sized information bursts, and some minimal navigation interaction. But the iPhone is the key control center for managing your features and overall experience.

Navigation on the Watch is tough. I assumed over prolonged time and use that interactions with the device would become more natural. To this point we aren’t there.

For example, remembering to swipe down to see my backlog of notifications or swipe to see my pinned “Glances” widgets is complicated because this only works while in the watch face menu. It doesn’t work in any other app or the app launcher menu, where with the iPhone swiping up or down is pervasive. Bottom line: Watch controls are confusing.

Force Touch has been a killer feature from day one. I can’t wait for it to come to other Apple devices such as the iPhone. However, normal touchscreen manipulation with the tiny Apple Watch screen is challenging — really challenging.

The Apple Watch is currently available in two case sizes: 38mm and 42mm. I own the 42mm, which again, is still pretty small and difficult to navigate.

Admittedly this is going to be a Herculean problem for Apple to solve. As a user, I desire an effective, comfortable control interface but I don’t want an iPhone strapped to my wrist. So what is the desirable sweet spot? It’s likely somewhere in the middle.

Hmmm. This should be interesting. 

Newsgathering functionality

Let’s examine how journalists utilize smartphones today for newsgathering and multimedia purposes:

  • Voice/data
  • Photography
  • Video recording
  • Audio recording
  • Live streaming
  • Editing content
  • Transmitting content
  • Social media
  • Creating visual graphics
  • Sensor data

Currently the Apple Watch is largely unable to deliver in these areas: Users can take the first few seconds of a phone call through an accompanying smartphone, and Twitter and Instagram work in limited ways.

How might some of these core smartphone functions be integrated into future iterations of the Apple Watch? Which of these watch features would prove potentially useful to journalists, thus offsetting typical heavy reliance on smartphones?

How might some of these core smartphone functions be integrated into future iterations of the Apple Watch? Which of these watch features would prove potentially useful to journalists?

What would a camera inside or attached to the device look like and would it be easy to operate? According to recent reports, among the new features Apple is planning with the forthcoming second-generation Apple Watch is a front-facing FaceTime video camera.

Related: Video chatting sounds futuristic but frustrating

The new FaceTime camera will reportedly be built into the Apple Watch’s top bezel and enable users to make and receive calls on their wrists. (Cue up the Dick Tracy jokes.) While this rumored FaceTime camera may work just fine as a live video chat service, I’m not convinced it’s the best solution for a stand-alone camera feature. (Cue up the sprained-wrist-when-shooting-at-awkward-camera-angles jokes.) 

App ecosystem

The Apple Watch ecosystem can be described as meager at best.

The newness and limited initial availability of Watch apps grows frustrating rather quickly: There are more than 1 million mobile apps available in the iTunes store versus only 3,500 in the Apple Watch store. 

The vast majority of Watch apps are the result of developers who extended their existing iOS applications to include Watch support. According to App Annie, less than 30 percent of Watch apps were built just for the device. Most of my Watch app engagement has come off as iPhone app-lite experiences. I haven’t yet discovered a compelling “killer app” for the Apple Watch.

Right now Apple Watch apps are extremely rudimentary due to the limitations of the software. But Apple’s latest watchOS update, which is set to be released this fall, will change everything.

WatchOS 2 gives developers access to essential components, which will set Apple Watch apps apart from their smartphone counterparts by using sensors, watch-face complications, and the glanceable nature unique to the Watch. This next version of the operating system also allows Apple Watch apps to run natively, freeing them from dependence on the smartphone, which will optimize their performance and allow users to do more things without relying on their phones.

For now, I’ve had to settle for watered down app experiences on my wrist consisting of ESPN, The New York Times, CNN, BBC News, Bleacher Report, Flipboard, Pandora, Shazam, Slack, Evernote, Twitter, Instagram, SPG and Fandango. Here’s to hoping these mobile experiences for the smartwatch drastically evolve in the near future.

Too much reliance on Siri

With the Watch’s tiny display size prohibiting an onscreen keyboard, Siri is one of the primary ways to interact with the Apple Watch, so Apple is clearly putting significant effort into making it work well.   

Many of the early knocks on the Watch have been with the clunkiness of interacting with Siri. Going forward, look for Apple to make strides by adding more functionality to the digital assistant -- improving reliability in executing requests — significantly enhancing the overall user experience.

It would also help the cause quite a bit if Siri could interact with the user, rather than just answering responses on the screen.

I vividly remember about a decade ago when many of my news colleagues were overcome with pangs of anxiety and withdrawals over the inevitable transition from physical keyboard-enabled Blackberry devices to radically different touchscreens of iPhone and Android smartphones. Eventually most got over it — painful as it was. 

I believe the potential leap from touchscreen keyboards to no keyboards, with a ton of support from Siri, will be an even steeper mountain for many to climb. 

Going beyond notifications

As I mentioned earlier, Apple Watch applications still leave a lot to be desired. The one common thread between the vast majority of Watch apps today is they’re adept at delivering slick notifications efficiently and effectively to the wrist.

Simply raising my wrist to scan timely bursts of information — instead of the passé move of pulling out my smartphone — still feels absolutely liberating, even after two months of everyday use.

Simply raising my wrist to scan timely bursts of information — instead of the passé move of pulling out my smartphone — still feels absolutely liberating, even after two months of everyday use.

However, in order for Apple Watch mobile apps to truly evolve into something compelling and indelible, the apps — particularly news and information oriented ones — must provide more experiences than just scant bulletins.

Developers are advised by Apple not to use a launch screen. According to the app development specifications, “Interactions on Apple Watch are meant to be quick, so people expect to view their content right away.”

Ahead of the watchOS 2 release, look for these app experiences to evolve as developers now have access to the smartwatch’s sensors and controls like the Taptic Engine, Digital Crown and more — meaning we’ll get native apps opposed to ones that are simply ported over.

Optimization of story structure for a tiny screen

As content creators and producers have learned time and time again, the key ingredients and proven formulas that make for strongly packaged news content do not always transcend from platform to platform.

Recently, while catching up on Twitter on my iPad, I stumbled onto a New York Times story that examined new details in the New York prison escape. It was a fascinating look into the months of planning and preparation that went into the infamous June 6 prison break.

After beginning the lengthy read on my iPad, I needed to run out for a dinner appointment, hoping to continue the read in transit. I instinctively turned to my wrist to pull up the article on my Watch app, however the in-depth read didn’t translate well on the tiny screen.

Disappointing. But I’m optimistic as developer access and guidelines loosen, media organizations will place greater focus on resources and investment of wearables/smartwatches, and bold experimentations emerge across the industry, more compelling app experiences will come into view.

Integration opportunities

Where do we go from here? Consumer technologies have never been hotter, with zero indication of cooling down. Wearables and smartwatches are just one sector of a rapidly evolving tech movement.

What role will the Apple Watch and other smartwatches play in the big picture of consumer technology? How will the strengths, features, capabilities and overall audience/user interactions of the Watch complement other platforms? How will inventive integrations take shape as experiences for combining aspects of the Apple Watch with other connected devices (current and future) are implemented?

How will my Apple Watch integrate with my smart TV? With my connected automobile? Or with the mind-blowing breakthrough devices I’ll probably fall in love with at the next International Consumer Electronics Show (CES)?  

Some of these challenges will be addressed in a few months when watchOS 2 rolls out. Here’s a smart list of some of the bigger features to expect with the operating system upgrade.

In the meantime, look for additional analysis and discussion on this topic at RJIonline.org and my RJI fellowship blog.

 

Victor Hernandez  
   
Nonresidential fellow



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