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The Apple Watch is flirting with feature-bloat, putting sublime simplicity at risk

Jon Phillips | March 13, 2015
Can a neverending list of features thrive on a 390-pixel display? Not when so many of those features have been borrowed from stumbling smartwatch predecessors.

If I were Tim Cook right now, I wouldn't be worrying about Apple Watch sales potential. Oh, it will sell. The new TV spot is inspiring, and the stainless steel polish on these watches looks fan-frigging-amazing. Add in Apple's trademark surprise-and-delight, and all signs point to long lines on launch day.

No, if I were Tim Cook, I'd be more concerned about people using the Watch than buying the Watch. This thing is packed silly with features, and far too many of them have been borrowed from the catalog of smartwatch failures.

A troubling number of smartwatch owners eventually toss their gadgets aside. The most detailed data on this problem, a July 2014 Endeavor Partners study, tells us that about a third of all smartwatch and fitness band owners abandon their wrist wearables after six months.

Poor battery life certainly contributes to attrition rates. Aside from the Pebble, you need to put nearly all smartwatches in their charging cradles before you go to bed. Forget to do so once, and you blame yourself. Forget to do so twice, and you blame the watch. Forget to do so thrice, and you begin losing interest entirely.

The Apple Watch battery is rated for 18 hours, so users will need to be vigilant about recharging. Trust me: I've been reviewing smartwatches since they became a thing, and once you run out of juice the first time, you're already on the path to giving up. It's a secondary device. It's not essential like your phone. So giving up is easy.

But the Apple Watch faces exposure to an even bigger problem: feature bloat. It's an issue that plagued Samsung's Galaxy Gear, and now, inexplicably, Apple is following Samsung down the same dangerous path.

Just because you can add a feature doesn't mean you should add a feature. Yet on Monday Apple confirmed that the Watch will allow voice calls from your wrist, just like Samsung's Gear, an ambitious but seriously flawed smartwatch pioneer. The Gear's speaker is too weak and tinny to cut through wind and crowd noise. It's a mission-defining parlor trick that breaks your heart.

Have Apple's engineers made good on Samsung's broken promise? We'll know soon enough. But simply copying Samsung's Dick Tracy schtick is alarming. The world's cruel pundits don't really care about Samsung, and none of them will ever remember the Galaxy Gear. But if Apple's voice calls fail us, you'll hear about it on the DailyMail, Saturday Night Live, and your local evening news. 

Then there's the Apple Watch's heart rate glance, which shows your heart's beats-per-minute whenever you initiate a spot check. It's a ubiquitous feature on all Samsung watches, and you'll also find it on every Android Wear watch. But it's also essentially useless, as none of these watches' heart rate sensors can provide accurate real-time readings during the jumping and jostling of physical exercise.


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