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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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WWDC Wish List: Apple Watch

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Tim Cook gives an Apple Watch update in 2014.

The Apple Watch has been out for more than a year, and it’s been 21 months since it was announced. In that time, the hardware has remained the same and the software driving it has seen one major update, watchOS 2, announced at WWDC last year.

Up to now, what we’ve really seen is a first take on the Apple Watch; in terms of both hardware and software, today’s Apple Watch isn’t very much different from the one described on stage nearly two years ago. And in the intervening time, the limitations of that original approach have become clear.

As someone who has worn an Apple Watch every day since the day it shipped, I feel confident in saying this:

The Apple Watch’s app model doesn’t work. The large screen of circular app icons is hard to navigate, and most apps aren’t worth the trouble, often because they’re slow and unreliable. Glances are interesting, but often too limited. The sole button is dedicated to a feature—bringing up a wheel of friends so you can send them texts and Digital Touch sketches—that’s not remotely core to the experience of using the device. There aren’t enough watch face options, and the ones that do exist aren’t particularly customizable. Fitness features are erratic and require too much user interaction.

But hey, like I said, this is all a first take. The big question is, what comes next? Have the people who shaped the initial conception of the Apple Watch gotten a good idea of what’s working and what’s not working with the device? And are they willing to chuck out ideas that seemed good at the time, but just haven’t proven to be very good over the long haul? Will they be willing to backtrack on some of the choices they made?

All will be revealed, presumably, when watchOS 3 is announced at WWDC. And my wish for the Apple Watch, above any other, is that watchOS 3 be unflinching at throwing out stuff that just didn’t work in the previous version of watchOS. This is far too early in the life cycle of this product for Apple to be afraid of shaking things up or making big changes; the Apple Watch needs to be better, and watchOS 3 can make that happen by better focusing the product.

The watch isn’t an iPhone, so it doesn’t need apps like the iPhone has apps. It does need support for third-party apps of a sort, but the current app launch screen is unnecessary. A simple list would suffice, combined with launching apps from complications and glances. Perhaps Glances could be upgraded to be more fully functional, reducing the need for “full apps” even more. Bottom line: If there’s anything Apple can do to make Watch apps launch reliably and quickly on the existing Apple Watch hardware, it should make that happen, even at the expense of app functionality. It doesn’t matter how powerful watch apps can theoretically be if nobody ever opens them because they’re unreliable.

I’d like to see at least an option to map the watch’s button to an action other than bringing up a list of favorite friends. More watch faces are also on my wish list, and while I’d like to see third-party watch faces, I’d trade that for Apple-designed faces that are more flexible about how (and when) they display information, including support for complications that appear only in certain contexts.

Fitness tracking should happen automatically, without user interaction; earlier today I took a three-mile walk with my dog, but I forgot to launch the Activity app and tell the watch that I was going on a walk, so it failed to measure that event properly.

I realize that the current Apple Watch hardware is most definitely a first-generation model that’s going to be far slower and less capable than the next one. As such, watchOS 3 is going to be limited in what it’s going to be able to do. But I think it could be dramatically improved with some serious changes to the watchOS software—and I hope Apple feels that way, too.—Jason Snell

Dan’s Take

The biggest problem with the Apple Watch is that it’s sloooooow. The second biggest problem is that it’s sloooooooooooooooow. There’s only so much software can do to fix those problems without a commensurate hardware update, but there are improvements that can be made so that we spend less time waiting for our Apple Watch.

A lot of that has to do with prioritizing the kinds of things we do with our watches, and making those things take fewer steps. Glances were an interesting idea for getting to the heart of information we wanted available, yes, at a glance, but the problem is that they too often display stale data, and the idea simply doesn’t scale. When you have 17 Glances, trying to find just the one you want is an exercise in frustration—and not the kind of exercise that the Apple Watch tracks. There’s no Rage circle to close every day.

Complications are a step in the right direction, especially now that third-party developers can make their own, but we’re still beholden to the Apple-design watch faces. Apple clearly has a vested interest in keeping the watch face attractive, but more often than not, it’s at the cost of utility. There’s nothing wrong with having a watch be attractive and eye-catching, but this is a smartwatch: if we were focused solely on looks, we’d just buy a normal watch. There’s a reason Apple didn’t spend a lot of time emulating dumb cell phones when it developed the iPhone. My hope is that Apple will give developers and users a little more leeway in customizing and creating their own personalized watch faces.

We also need to talk about buttons. The secondary button is most useful when double-clicking it to bring up Apple Pay, but that single-click mode that provides a wheel of contacts? No. Look, I hardly ever initiate contact from my Apple Watch. Either I’m replying to someone who’s sent me a message or, on the rare circumstance where I am going to decide to text someone from my Watch (not call—never call), I’m going to use Siri. Ditch the contacts ring. Cute as drawing little messages or sending your heartbeat was when the Watch first came out, it was a novelty, a gimmick. There’s no staying power there. Repurposing that interface for Glances would hardly be the worst idea, but I’m sure Apple can come up with something even better.

Finally, Siri. The virtual assistant (and its attendant dictation features) makes a lot of sense on the Apple Watch, because you want to minimize the amount of time you’re dealing with the interface. But it’s slow, often stalls out, and seems to have trouble understanding me. I’m hopeful that the theoretical Siri improvements coming to the rest of Apple’s platform will bleed over to the Apple Watch and provide not only better comprehension, but more capabilities for both built-in and third-party apps.

Again, Apple can’t patch all the issues with the Apple Watch with a software update, but what it can do is show that it’s willing to evolve its thinking, and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. That way, when new hardware does eventually come around, users will be primed to jump at a faster, better version of an experience they’ve already come to love.—Dan Moren

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