I’ve spent the last week using the Apple Watch, Series 3 with cellular and my experience has been quite good. Now running WatchOS 4.0 with a long list of new features, and utilizing faster silicon, it is easily one of my favorite pieces of new technology this year. I’ve used every version of the product and watched as Apple iterated on the hardware and software, and sharpened the device’s very reason for being. Which leads to this question: Was Apple better off shipping an imperfect product back in April 2015, or should it have waited until 2017 to ship this more fully-realized product?
Series 0: Underpowered and Overtaxed
The first Apple watch was a marvel of miniaturization, but a bit of a rough ride for early adopters with too-high expectations. The first-generation silicon inside often struggled to run some of Apple’s first-party apps, let alone the third party software that developers rushed to build in anticipation of Apple’s recreating the success of the original App Store. The watch was always going to be an accessory to the iPhone and not a replacement, but that first product was entirely too dependent on that wireless umbilical and watch apps themselves literally had to run on the phone. That said, Apple consistently pointed to strong consumer satisfaction with the product, and in the end, the biggest detractors were likely tech reviewers and disgruntled app developers.
At WWDC in 2015, Apple announced WatchOS 2.0, which gave developers the ability to run native apps on the watch itself and to access more of the hardware (including the Taptic Engine). This would prove to be key to a better experience, but it also meant developers who had built for the first version of the OS had to port over those early apps to run on the new platform. This was easy for some, harder for others depending on the app’s underlying architecture.
In September 2016 Apple rolled out the Series 2 and re-released the first watch as the newly-christened Series 1 with upgraded silicon. The performance was demonstrably better, and as the company moved to WatchOS 3.0, the capabilities of the product continued to improve. While the user experience continued to improve, many developers had all but abandoned their existing Apple Watch apps or plans to bring new apps to the platform. But Apple’s first-party apps continued to improve regarding functionality and performance, and my experience with the Series 2 was almost entirely positive. Over time I came to find its fitness tracking capabilities and its messaging features hugely beneficial. So much so, in fact, that I put my favorite mechanical watch in a drawer–likely for good.
Series 3 with Cellular: Indispensable
Which brings us to the current version of the watch I’m testing, the Series 3 with cellular. Unlike many early reviews, I had zero issues attaching the watch to my current data plan with Verizon. (And yes, $10 per month for data I’ve already purchased is too much.) I’ve also not encountered the captive WiFi issue, although it’s likely to come up when I travel next week. Overall, I find the new features in WatchOS 4 to be as good or better than advertised, and I’m eagerly consuming the myriad of new data points available through the updated heart-rate tracking features.
The LTE watch has 16GB of storage, which has allowed me to download numerous music albums for listening on the go, and that experience has worked without issue when using the AirPods. Siri on the Series 3 feels like a more fully-formed digital assistant here, both in terms of her upgraded ability to speak, as well as the number of useful capabilities she can now accomplish.
But without a doubt, the most compelling feature on this new watch is the cellular connectivity. Whether it’s leaving the phone locked in the car at the gym, hitting the trail with the dog, or just walking around the neighborhood with my family, the ability to leave it behind while remaining connected results in a feeling of liberation that’s downright addictive. I ran into no technical issues while sending texts and making calls directly on the watch.
When Apple’s Jeff Williams introduced the Series 3 with cellular, he said “This has been our vision from the very beginning. We believe built-in cellular makes Series 3 the ultimate expression of Apple Watch.” So if that’s true, should Apple have waited?
I don’t think so. While it was unusual to watch Apple struggle to find its footing with the first product, the company clearly learned a great deal by shipping. The product we have today likely wouldn’t exist if it didn’t ship back in 2015. As the current WiFi issue illustrates, there is only so much you can achieve behind closed doors, and eventually you must put the product into customers’ hands.
IDC estimates that Apple has shipped about 30 million watches to date. Apple itself noted during the keynote that it had moved pass Rolex to become the highest-revenue watch maker in the world. The watch isn’t going to replace the iPhone, in terms of revenues for Apple or in terms of usage for customers. But it clearly represents the next chapter in Apple’s constantly evolving story of bringing together hardware, software, and services. In fact, I’d personally written off the Apple Music service for my own personal use (I’m an audio geek who prefers the higher-bitrate Tidal). But now I plan to re-up with Apple Music when it becomes available for streaming to the watch. And I suspect I won’t be the only one to do so.
The big question now is whether app developers will return to the WatchOS platform. I suspect that many will be skeptical of the opportunity, and rightly so. This is one of the challenges associated with shipping hardware early and asking people and companies to risk their time and money to build for a new platform. Apple’s big challenge going forward will be convincing these developers to give WatchOS another spin. As others have noted, I suspect many of these next-generation WatchOS apps will exist primarily to bring new services to consumers.