It is difficult to reconcile a critical appraisal of the Apple Watch with the product’s commercial success. To examine the most popular watch in the world and find it wanting seems dubious; yet as Apple’s smartwatch kicks off its third year, its history implores ignominy.
The integration of hardware and software is a keystone in Apple’s foundation. Every game-changing product they’ve released over the years has used this as a core advantage over the competition. Yet despite the Cupertino company’s proven track record, the last three years of Apple Watch have demonstrated a consistent struggle to get this right.
Apple has certainly iterated on unsuccessful hardware and software ideas in the past, but never quite so publicly. The Apple Watch feels like a device that was rushed a little too early to market. Apple knew that it had something good, but it didn’t yet know which areas the device would really excel in.
One of the most interesting pieces of this product’s story is that all signs point to Apple having gotten the hardware of the Apple Watch exactly right, at least in terms of its direction. The original Apple Watch was underpowered and lacking some technology that Apple simply couldn’t fit into it at the time, but the idea was there. In subsequent hardware iterations Apple has significantly increased the processing power, added vital new sensors, improved battery life, and shipped LTE. In this time the case design has remained unchanged (other than growing slightly thicker), and the input methods have persisted exactly. It may have taken until the latest Series 3 release for Apple to fulfill its initial vision for the Apple Watch hardware, but that vision has remained unshaken since the beginning.
The same cannot be said for the Apple Watch software.
Apple’s smartwatch operating system has had a rocky first few years. watchOS 1 was fundamentally broken in several ways, and probably should never have shipped. watchOS 2 was an attempt to shore up and replace the poor foundations under the hood, but it left the substandard user interface to fester in production for over a year. With last year’s release of watchOS 3, Apple took its best shot at rethinking cardinal pieces of that interface.
watchOS 3 was a huge improvement over the blunders that came before it. As I wrote in my watchOS 3 review last year, Apple did great work with the update to cut away the excess and hone the OS to something simpler and more straightforward. It was a significant course correction which set a far better trajectory, but it didn’t get us all the way there.
In a lot of ways it feels like watchOS 3 was the true watchOS 1. Where Apple left off with the smartwatch operating system last year was really the point where it should have started. Nothing was complete, but almost every piece felt primed for improvement rather than necessitating reinvention. In the wake of that update, Apple has been at a crossroads. With the foundations of watchOS finally feeling solid, Apple could either continue to drive the platform forward, or leave it on a slow-moving autopilot.
Yesterday marked the release of watchOS 4 — our first opportunity to see the hope kindled by watchOS 3 borne out — and I’m pleased to report that Apple has succeeded in maintaining the platform’s momentum. Every area that this year’s update focuses on has seen fantastic improvements, and I’ve found myself interacting with my Apple Watch more than ever before. My only disappointment is that the scope of watchOS 4 isn’t quite as far-reaching as last year’s update.
The big themes of watchOS 4 are fitness and music, and Apple has done some excellent work in these departments. New activity goals, completely overhauled Workout and Music apps, auto-launch of audio apps, a Now Playing Complication, and more are all excellent upgrades. As always there is still room for improvement, but many of these features are making the leap for the first time from options on my Apple Watch which I mostly ignore to real features which I find consistently useful in my daily life.
There’s a lot to dig into here with the choices made and the new features added. Let’s dive in and find out what Apple has in store for the next year of Apple Watch.