May 28, 2015 • 29 minutes
On this week’s Clockwise, Dan Moren and I are joined by Andy Ihnatko and Anže Tomić to give our quick reactions to the Google I/O keynote, including Google Photos, a focus on bug fixes, contextual machine intelligence, and searching for the next billion Internet users.
May 28, 2015 7:58 AM PT
After much dithering, I ended up taking my Apple Watch to Portugal and the UK.
In the end, despite all my concerns, it boiled down to one simple argument: I’m a technology writer. My job is to use tech, and it would be a disservice if I turned down an opportunity to see how well the Apple Watch worked while traveling, and while traveling overseas.
And I’m glad I did.
Thief of Time
My biggest concern in taking the Apple Watch with me was that it might be a target for theft. Tourists are often easy pickings, and a shiny watch seemed like it might be an invitation.1
That worry, fortunately, was overblown. Though tourists do get approached a lot in Portugal, as in other countries, being careful with your belongings and keeping a close eye on them is generally sufficient.
But more to the point, not a single person on my trip commented on the Apple Watch. Despite my generally wearing short-sleeved shirts, which left the Watch clearly visible, I’ve concluded that most people’s brains simply register something worn on the wrist as a watch, and don’t bother giving it much further attention. (I’d also guess that as the Apple Watch isn’t on sale in Portugal—a country which doesn’t have any Apple Stores—there just isn’t much awareness of it as a product.)
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Apple Watch wasn’t really any more of an opportunity theft than your average nice wristwatch. In fact, it’s arguably less attractive in many cases, given that mine is not made from gold, and is far less valuable—and, to be honest, once parted with me, less usable—than an expensive luxury watch.
Once I realized that, I pretty much stopped worrying about it. Granted, it also helped that I wasn’t fiddling with the Watch itself that much, which probably drew less attention to it. Which brings me to my second point.
I rationalized my original decision not to bring the Watch with me because I figured that if I were using an international plan from AT&T, I would be sipping data very conservatively, making the Watch just less useful.2 That ended up not being the case, as I went the local SIM route. (A topic I’ll save for another post.)
Having to not worry about data was great, for obvious reasons, and it let me use the Watch more or less as I would at home. But I still noticed that, especially as I wasn’t in a working environment, I generally allowed most of the Apple Watch features to fall by the wayside as I enjoyed my company and surroundings. That said, there are a few standout features that made the Apple Watch a great traveling companion.
Maps: Makes sense, right? You’re in a foreign country, you’re going to need to find your way around a lot. But, along the same lines as my earlier concerns, pulling out an iPhone and looking around in befuddlement is a pretty easy way to get tagged as a tourist. Simply glancing at your watch, however? Far less conspicuous—even if it sometimes looks (accurately) like you’re an idiot who’s having trouble deciphering analog time.
In particular, I really like that if I load up directions on my iPhone, but don’t start navigation, it preloads them on my Watch, where I can then tap Start at my leisure.
However, one thing I still have not gotten the hang of is identifying the distinct left- and right-turn haptic cues. I almost always ended up taking a quick glance at the Watch to see which way it wanted me to turn next. And while I appreciate the default Apple Watch Maps screens that prompt you with your next turn and how far away it is, I much preferred to swipe left and get the mini map option, for two reasons: First, because much of Lisbon, where I spent most of my trip, is not a grid-layout city, which means a preponderance of intersections where taking a “right” turn could mean any of several options. (Portugal also loves rotaries3, which Maps and the Watch handle with mixed results.) Secondly, because I ran into a couple occasions—especially in London—where my iPhone would lose my location, and the subsequent direction wouldn’t immediately pop up.
As a result, I did find myself from time to time retreating to the Maps app on the phone, largely to get an actual map overview of where I was. Plus, using the phone also gave me the option of using Google Maps, which on occasion disagreed with Apple Maps over the locations of certain things.4 Not to mention Apple Maps’s terrible and egregious lack of public transit information.
Activity: Marco Arment wrote a good piece about how the Apple Watch has driven him to be more active; that wasn’t a problem for me while traveling, but I still found myself really aiming to close those loops. I also really love David Smith’s Pedometer++ app and its attendant Apple Watch app—it’s become the only third-party Glance that I’ve kept installed.
However, I’ve concluded that the Exercise ring is pure and utter voodoo. Some days I beat the pulp out of my 30-minute target; other days, including one where I logged 854 calories burned and 18,722 steps/9 miles walked, the Watch told me I’d only exercised for 17 minutes. So maybe I just walked really slowly? I suspect that the Exercise figure depends on information from the heart rate sensor, which I’ve gotten inconsistent readings off. (Maybe my Watch isn’t snug enough?) But this lack of exercise is killing me, Apple. Killing me. Literally.
Watch: Surprisingly enough, one of the best features of the Apple Watch while traveling was just having it as a watch. I haven’t worn a wristwatch regularly for years, and having the time at a glance was really handy when I was constantly budgeting for time, trying to figure out my schedule, and make trains and flights.
I kept my standard Utility face for the trip, but swapped the Weather complication into the bottom spot, so it gave me the conditions along with the temperature (and because I figured I didn’t need to see my calendar events while on vacation); in the top right corner, I put a World Clock complication so I could quickly see the time back home. I liked the Weather at the bottom so much that I’m keeping it there for now, though I’ve replaced the World Clock with a timer complication for now.
I’ve played around with a decent number of third-party Apple Watch apps in the last month, but I found while traveling that I didn’t really use many of them. In large part, that’s because most fall into one of two categories: 1) Apps whose experience really isn’t suited to the Watch, especially when it’s just as easy to take out your phone and turn to the generally more usable iOS app (Yelp, Trip Advisor). And 2) Apps that I want to use on the Watch, but which generally just load so damn slowly that I can often take out my phone and open the app there before it’s finished loading on the Watch (almost all of them, really).
I do want to call out one app in particular that I found indispensable while traveling, on both the iPhone and Apple Watch, and that’s Citymapper. While it doesn’t currently support Lisbon’s metro system, it was super handy in my trips around London; I love the ability to save trips for offline viewing, send a trip to my Apple Watch, and quickly navigate to bookmarked locations. It became my go-to app from the moment I landed at London Stansted to the minute I arrived at Heathrow on the way home. When Apple eventually launches its own public transit information, I hope it’ll be half as good.
Battery life was totally fine on the Apple Watch, but yes, my iPhone’s juice does run out a whole lot quicker. I rarely got much below 50-percent charge on the Watch by the time I plugged it in at night, but the phone was regularly down to the teens. (Thank goodness for that portable battery pack.)
I was really hoping to use Passbook for my flights, but as a U.S. citizen, none of the airlines I flew would allow me to get electronic boarding passes. Alas.
Nor did I make use of Apple Pay. I tried once, on my 48-hour London stopover, to use my iPhone to buy a few groceries at a Tesco self-checkout machine, but while the Apple Pay prompt initially popped up on my phone, it never managed to complete the transaction.
I was a little worried about the Watch’s durability, but it handled sunscreen, a few accidental whacks against protruding surfaces, airport hand dryers, and more without any issues.
Highlighting the difference between home and abroad, I went into my usual coffee shop today, my first morning back, and both the guys behind the counter lit up when they noticed I had an Apple Watch.
Also, several months back my girlfriend and I went to see noted gentleman thief/security consultant Apollo Robbins. If you’ve never seen him exercise his skills at stealing watches, among other objects—including the glasses right off people’s faces—then you are in for a treat. However, it’s enough to make you paranoid any time a stranger comes up to you. ↩
I also didn’t want to pack another charging cord, but honestly, the Apple Watch’s coils up very neatly, and if you forego the plug itself, it’s actually plenty compact. ↩
Or roundabouts, or traffic circles, or whatever you want to call them. ↩
Nothing like trucking to the top of a super steep hill—so steep it has its own funicular!—to find a supermarket that Apple Maps insists is there, but is in fact just a rundown city block. *shakes fist* ↩
May 26, 2015 2:03 PM PT
Henry Ford famously wrote, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”
And so it was, for years, for buyers of Apple products. They were beige or gray or white or black, but each model had a look and that was that.
Then some clever people1 decided that it might make sense to offer products in a variety of colors, so we got iMacs and iPods where you could choose your own color.
In recent years, Apple has added choice to iPad and iPhone purchases—first space gray, then gold—and just extended those color choices to the new MacBook. It’s great! I love space gray. It’s my favorite space color.
I have never fretted more over a purchase than when I bought my Apple Watch. There are 38 different models, 32 if you don’t count the 18-karat gold Edition models. And of course, watch bands are interchangeable—so you can stick a leather classic buckle on an Apple Watch Sport if you don’t mind the mismatch of stainless steel lugs with anodized aluminum body. More choices!
I wanted a leather band. But did I want to spend $300 more to get it? Did I want the space gray Apple Watch Sport with the black sport band, or would it be too dark? What about a lighter Sport model with a bright band? Could I cheap out and get a Sport model, then add a leather band later?3
There were so many options to make the Apple Watch feel personal to me, and yet the buying process really stressed me out. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity—and while Henry Ford’s successors have introduced colored cars, every time I’ve bought a new car I’ve had to choose from an extremely constrained set of options.
This is all a long way of saying that I wonder if Apple Watch sales have been suppressed, even a little bit, by the large number of buying options. And when the Apple Watch begins being sold in Apple retail stores soon, how will Apple Store employees manage that experience? The last thing they’ll want to do is overwhelm their customers with options.
In any event, now that I’ve got my Apple Watch, I’m happy with the fact that it came after some careful shopping and difficult decision-making. But if Apple had told me that the watch was going to come in any color I wanted as long as it was silver with a blue band, it would’ve been an easier experience.
Let’s call them Steve and Jony. ↩
I’m actually wearing this combination now, and I don’t mind it at all. Loving the leather band. But I realize this decision will horrify some people. ↩
May 26, 2015 • 1 hour, 34 minutes
This week on Upgrade, Myke Hurley and I discuss Jonathan Ive’s new title and what it means for Apple’s Chief Design Officer and the company as a whole. Then, in advance of Google I/O, we talk about how and why we use Google’s services on our Apple devices.
May 25, 2015 8:12 AM PT
[Derek Walter is a freelance writer who contributes to several sites, primarily about the intersection of technology and society.]
Google Calendar was the last straw.
There it was - another Google app that was once exclusive to Android waiting for me to download from the App Store. It would join Gmail, Chrome, Drive, Play Music, and Hangouts on my home screen, making my iPhone look similar to its Android counterpart.
Despite my affinity for Android, there has at times been an internal struggle (admittedly a very first-world one) about loyalty to Google’s OS. Sure, all those customization options, widgets, and home screen launchers are cool. But waiting for Android updates isn’t (only 10 percent of Android devices are running the latest build, Lollipop 5.0). And if you’re a Mac user like me, you can’t beat the convenience of iMessage and Find my Friends, services that of course don’t play with Android.
Google has supported Apple’s operating system from the beginning, even continuing to do so after Apple parted ways with the built-in YouTube and Maps applications. So seeing Calendar come to iOS wasn’t a huge surprise.
Additionally, Google just recently brought its Google News app to the Apple Watch. It’s not particularly impressive, but it’s likely a first step into the shallow end of the Apple Watch pool. I expect Google to eventually take a deep dive with its other services, especially key ones like Gmail and Google Now.
So why would an Android user be willing to embrace the iPhone? There’s now little reason to use Android to get the best of Google. Piece by piece Google has transported apps and services that once ran only on Android over to the iPhone. Even Android’s best feature, Google Now, is on iOS - though it’s admittedly buried inside the Google search app and doesn’t perform all the tricks it does on Android.
But the other apps do rather well at playing nicely with Google Services. The Gmail app lets you import files from Drive. Drive interacts with the excellent Sheets, Docs, and Slides apps. You can open a link in Chrome or an address in Google Maps with Google’s other apps. It’s essentially a shadow operating system that allows you to use Google services on iOS and ignore those from Apple or other competitors. There are 50 Google apps in total, comprising everything from Blogger to Google Voice.
Even with all those services, such an arrangement certainly won’t be for all Android fans. If you like trying out different home screen launchers or prefer to use Google Wallet as your tap-to-pay choice, you’re out of luck. You’re also stuck with Siri as your digital assistant on the iPhone, while Android users can just speak, “OK Google” from their home screen. Though in true Android fashion, fragmentation prevents all devices from having this feature.
Android also lets you set new default applications for various services, so you can make Outlook your email app instead of Gmail—something iOS doesn’t do. Chrome purists would also point out that Chrome for iOS isn’t based on the same rendering engine as Chrome on Android due to Apple’s browser restrictions.
But if those issues aren’t as important to you, then you can transform the iPhone into a pretty good phone running atop Google’s services. You get the superb build quality of the iPhone, Apple’s support, and the Google services you like, all on one device. If you’re OK with a few of the tradeoffs, it’s a rather compelling package.
And as we approach Google I/O this week, we’ll get a better idea about how much Google’s commitment to iOS will continue. There are rumors of a new Google Photos application, which more than likely will wind up on the iPhone by replacing the photo backup and sharing tools that are currently hidden inside the Google+ app.
There’s also buzz that Google is working on making Android Wear compliant with the iPhone in much the same way that a Pebble Watch can talk to iOS apps. This is another way to have your cake and eat it too. Android Wear may not have the app selection that Apple Watch has, but it’s great at prioritizing notifications that flow from Google Now. You could get all those Google-centric alerts you care about but still have those great apps that tend to come first, or sometimes only, to iOS.
It’s a clever strategy by Google, which makes its money through its various applications instead of hardware sales. It picks up revenue through users clicking advertisements in search and with subscriptions from services like Google Play Music and Google Drive. Ultimately Google doesn’t care as much if you’re using Android or iOS—the goal is to get you in its ecosystem, regardless of device.
That philosophy has produced an impressive app portfolio of Google apps for the iPhone. One that the company remains committed to growing, even as it extends the capabilities and reach of Android.
Whatever new services Google rolls out down the road, you can bet they will at some point find a place in the App Store, nestled among 50 of their fellow Google apps. So no matter which device you use, there’s always going to be a way to stick close to Google’s cloud.
May 23, 2015 • 1 hour, 38 minutes
This week on The Incomparable, John Siracusa enrolled me (as well as my compatriots Erika Ensign and Tony Sindelar) in Anime 102 and assigned the 1995 film “Ghost in the Shell”. It’s a cyberpunky action story about cyborgs and the meaning of life, and it’s full of guns, car chases, ninjas, weird outfits, and exposition. Also, one of the students didn’t do all the reading. (It was me.)