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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.

I suspect about 98 percent of all Android users will tell you they never use their smartwatch's heart rate feature. For this reason alone, Apple has diminished its essential brand promise by including this frivolous, me-too feature as well. It's noise, not utility. It's bloat, not function. (And, no, don't tell me that Apple will offer real-time heart-rate data during workouts. It's an extremely difficult sensor trick to pull off, and if Apple offered it, it would already be a top-line promise.)

I'm cherry-picking two very obvious copycat features, but the Apple Watch is packed with many more, from mail alerts to workout programs to mapping directions to even generous support for third-party apps. Now, sure, you could argue that some smartwatch features are must-haves, that a smartwatch isn't a smartwatch unless these features are present and accounted for. But here's the problem: Smartwatches have not been a resounding success.

So why emulate mediocrity? I think a much stronger Apple Watch would offer simple notifications, Passbook with built-in Apple Pay, HomeKit integration, and a full suite of timekeeping and personal messaging functions. In other words: all Apple, all the time. Addition via subtraction. Give users a relatively small set of exquisitely engineered and incontrovertibly useful features, and then drop the damn mic.

Of course, once you get your Apple Watch, you can choose to use just a short list of features, and ignore the ones that don't appeal to you. You may find that a watch that tells the time, pays for coffee, opens doors, and sends haptic heartbeats to loved ones is all you ever need. Indeed, Apple's small, ostensibly trivial surprise-and-delight tricks (taps, sketches, stickers, and custom animated emojis) might be all the Watch requires to be a resounding success.

But there's still something psychologically deflating about a watch--or any product--that's jam-packed with stuff you never use. You begin to question whether you're getting your full money's worth. It's like dropping $60 for a Las Vegas buffet, getting way too full on $20 of crab legs, and wondering what hell just happened.

We will never hold our computers and smartphones to the stringent requirements we ask of smartwatches. We have to have a computer and phone. But a smartwatch? Probably not. So while you might buy the upcoming Apple Watch, you may not buy its second-gen follow-up if you feel you didn't get your money's worth, or some borderline features just didn't work. And that's not just bad news for Apple. It's bad news for Samsung, LG, Motorola, and all the other mobile companies looking for salvation in an entirely new product category.

The Apple Watch is on deck to validate a struggling concept. Now we can only wait until April 24 to see if it's solved all of its competitors problems, or over-reached by playing its competitors' game.

 

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