Why Watch a Watch

By now you’ve all met Apple Watch, at least on screen. If you’re like most of the people I’ve seen commenting on Twitter, you probably have strong opinions on its price, the fact it needs the iPhone’s presence, and even the validity of using a smart watch at all.

Opinions are great, everyone’s entitled to them, and the people who don’t want to buy one are just as right as those who do. In fact, one of the things that bothered me the most about the Internet chatter before the Apple event on Monday was the ridiculousness of people getting mad at anyone whose guesses on Apple Watch pricing was different than their own. I didn’t really care either way about pricing; in fact, I’m surprisingly light on strong opinions about Apple Watch in general right now. In some ways it looks great; in other ways, I think there are some problems with its story at the moment.

Still, I really disliked some of the reaction I saw during and after the event regarding the Christy Turlington Burns segment. First there was the supermodel snark, even when it was clear she was there as a marathoner, which does directly relate to the Apple Watch and how it is being positioned as a fitness and health device. More annoying, though, were the gripes that using an Apple Watch while running is stupid because you already have to have your iPhone with you anyway. One tweet in particular said “it’s already on your arm!”

I guess some of these people have never gone outdoors for a run or a bike ride, because it takes very little experience to discover how difficult and inconvenient it is to run and use an iPhone, even if (and actually especially if) it’s strapped to your arm. Using a watch on your wrist that you don’t have to pull out of a pocket or try to manipulate on your upper arm could easily be the difference between stopping completely in frustration and taking a second to easily do something and continue on in stride without losing your rhythm.

There’s a reason people shouldn’t spend too much on their first serious bike or get too emotionally invested in a particular pair of running shoes before using them: you just don’t know what’s going to work for you personally until you have done the activity long enough to understand both the activity itself and your personal preferences and needs while performing it. You don’t know what you don’t know yet. I feel like that’s the case with some of these writers who don’t understand why a watch would be more useful than trying to use the iPhone while in motion.

I have tried to do something as simple as tap on a podcast episode to start it playing while running with the iPhone in an armband, and it’s really annoying and pretty much a leg-stopper. Double that if your armband or case blocks the Touch ID sensor and you don’t feel like disabling and re-enabling Touch ID and passcode lock every time you exercise. With Apple Watch, you don’t have to disable Touch ID, and you still have all your information instantaneously. I will tell you as someone who has run for fitness and for group events that it will absolutely make a difference.

And forget about easily referring to a map or segment times with an iPhone strapped to your arm. It’s easier if you can pull it out of a pocket, but it’s annoying, and it’s also easy to drop the iPhone too. The whole point of exercise is that you’re moving your limbs, preferably at some decent speed. A watch will be strapped to your wrist, a part of your arm you can easily reach, glance at, and control compared to your upper arm.

This is equally true for cyclists. There are several existing handlebar mounted displays that use the smartphone as the brains and just output stats and other info for the rider in a convenient, battery saving, waterproof form factor. In other words, it acts exactly like the Apple Watch does: as a display to the apps running on the iPhone, reading the gps and other sensors. This isn’t obscure, Tour de France stuff. It’s common and popular with even the lowest level cyclists. I have one, and the ability to keep the iPhone in my jersey pocket with the display off and not risk dropping it is really nice.

And actually, a lot of cyclists do simply mount sport watches on their handlebars and use those to connect to their bike sensors and log their ride data. It’s far superior to having a huge iPhone mounted on the handlebars or top tube, or having to pull it out of a pocket and turn the display on. It also saves iPhone battery life like crazy if it’s a smartwatch or cycle computer display that uses the iPhone as the brains, because the iPhone can remain in the jersey pocket with the screen powered off. Using a small external display instead of the iPhone’s big retina screen allows hours more of ride time. I know, because I’ve tried it both ways.

Oh, by the way, in case everyone’s forgotten, it doesn’t hurt that the Apple Watch has a heart rate monitor built in. If it works reliably, I’d rather wear that than a chest strap monitor, personally.

The Apple Watch is being marketed heavily for its athletic uses, among others. It should therefore be fairly obvious that some of its functionality will be more useful to people who are (surprise!) actual athletes. I think if you’re getting paid for a living to thoughtfully consider the pluses and minuses of a product, it’s important to understand the world outside of your office.