Today is the first day you can order your own Apple Watch, which will ship on April 24. But do you want one? After all, it's not clear yet what the Apple Watch can do, other than tell time, provide notifications, share heartbeats, and track some activity metrics. And early reviews are not exactly glowing, which is unusual given Apple's habit of seeding many of the first wave of review units to "friendly" reviewers.
The Apple Watch is by no means the first smartwatch; the Pebble was the first modern smartwatch, and Android versions have been out for more than a year. Neither platform has gotten much uptake, but they provide lessons for what the Apple Watch should do better and offer guidance as to whether you'd even want an Apple Watch.
With that in mind, I've been using a Samsung Gear Live Android smartwatch for the last three weeks, with first a Galaxy Note 4 smartphone, then a Galaxy S6 smartphone. The Gear Live is a standard Android Wear device, so it works like any other Android Wear device.
Overall, I found the Android smartwatch to be a frustrating device and not very useful. But it has flashes of promise. From that experience, I've come up with three sets of lessons for what the Apple Watch should not do -- and what Android smartwatches should fix.
Lesson 1: Notifications are mostly annoying
The Android smartwatch worldview is mainly about notifications. That makes sense for Google since Android Wear pulls notifications from Google Now, the service that comes with all Android devices to send both content and ads masquerading as content to your screen -- and now your Android smartwatch. You also get notifications from your other Android apps, if they have notifications enabled.
Social posts, weather, commute times, nearby restaurants, texts, appointments, emails, "take a walk" reminders, and incoming phone calls can appear on your smartwatch in a never-ending stream.
It's alert overload, and after the novelty wears off after the second day, the constant interruptions from the smartwatch simply becomes annoying.
After a week's usage, it became painfully clear to me that interruptions and attention-getters on a smartwatch, even those small status bars at the bottom of the screen, are much more intrusive than their smartphone, tablet, and computer counterparts.
What's missing is a way to easily tailor those notifications so that you get only the interruptions you really want. In Android, there's no app for that.
Instead, you can enable or disable all Google Now cards in the Android Wear app, as well as enable or disable calendar notices, in the Android Wear app. But you can't control or remove other individual cards' alerts from Android Wear.
You can edit which Google Now cards you get through an awkward process in the Google app, but that affects both the smartwatch and your smartphone. You can also block some -- but not all -- apps from the smartwatch itself after opening the notification onscreen and swiping a few times to the right to get the Block option.
Still, even when I shut off the irrelevant notification sources -- basically leaving on only the email and calendar apps -- I found the notifications to be annoying. That's because I couldn't filter them within apps. I get a ton of junkmail from the PR community, plus the usual spam that our corporate filters miss, and I don't need to see those emails on my wrist. For that level of interruption, I want to hear from colleagues, friends, and family only.
Likewise, I don't need my watch to remind me of someone's upcoming birthday or a holiday -- what am I going to do with that calendar info at that moment?
As a result, an Android Wear smartwatch quickly becomes an annoyance engine. It became really hard to put the Gear Live smartwatch back on each morning.
Specific lesson: Notifications need to be filterable, and not only by which apps you allow to alert you. When it comes to alerts, less is more.
Implication for the Apple Watch: Apple will need to provide such notification customization in a cohesive way for its Apple Watch. The notifications settings in iOS 8, fortunately, already do much of this, so Apple has a base from which to start. Let's hope Apple uses it.
Lesson 2: Notifications need to be appropriately actionable
Android Wear supports some voice commands, it lets you read emails and text, it can show your heart rate, it can show each step in your driving directions, and it lets you accept or dismiss calls.
Being able to see what a message is about -- when it's from someone whose messages I care about -- was somewhat useful, as it let me know if I needed to take my smartphone out of my pocket immediately to respond or if I could deal with the message later. Ditto for when someone called.
Knowing your heart rate is nice, especially if fitness is one of your rationales for buying a smartwatch. Same goes for "take a walk" reminders when you've been sitting for more than an hour -- that is, if you'll actually use that data and respond to those reminders.
But little else was usefully actionable in the Android Wear environment. Being able to dismiss calls was convenient, but letting a call go to voicemail is not that hard, so it's a trivial function.
More frustrating was that Android Wear lets you answer a call from your smartwatch -- frustrating because it's not your smartwatch that answers the call but your smartphone that answers the call -- and it's in your pocket or purse. This feature feels like a sucker punch.
I thought the on-watch driving directions would be useful, but instead they're dangerous. They come very late in your driving, such as when you enter an intersection. That's a bad time to be told to turn. There's also no map to give you context for the directions.
Also, the on-watch notifications are fleeting, so you have to keep a close eye on your watch once it buzzes and quickly read the tiny text before it disappears. Given that you're likely at an intersection when the alert comes, the chances of there being a car or pedestrian to plow into is quite high.
It's much more sensible to affix your smartphone to your dashboard or mirror it to your in-car infotainment system, so you can better keep your eye on the road as you follow its directions.
Plus, the alerts for the next turn come much earlier on the smartphone than they do on the smartwatch, so you actually have time to adjust your speed, road position, and so on. It was eerie to hear the Galaxy S6 smartphone alert me to the upcoming turns well before the Gear Live smartwatch did. Too bad the S6 was in my pocket, which muffled the sound and hid the map.
Finally, the voice commands available to Android Wear are very few, and stupidly limited. For example, you can say, "Now, Google. Agenda," to see today's calendar, but not "Now, Google. Agenda for tomorrow" or a variation thereof to see the next day's calendar. Instead, "Now, Google. Agenda for tomorrow" opens a tiny browser window with details on a film named "Agenda for Tomorrow." How dumb is that?
Most "Now, Google" queries result in a Web page of search results, which is not that useful on a smartwatch. Yes, you can send those results to your Android smartphone, but at that point it's easier to use your smartphone in the first place.
Specific lessons: If the only useful response to a smartwatch action is to open up an app or service on the smartphone, don't put it on the smartwatch in the first place. Instead, make the smartwatch app useful in its own right, even if it depends on or can do more with a smartphone for computation, communication, and storage.
And don't design apps to dangerously distract users.
Implication for the Apple Watch: The Apple Watch actually can conduct a phone conversation, Dick Tracy-style, eliminating the issue Android Wear has in answering calls. The Safari browser has been conspicuously missing from Apple Watch demos, so it may not follow Android Wear's silly path.
But the need for apps to be natively useful on a smartwatch must be true not only of Apple but of third parties. Some app makers -- such as Twitter and Target -- have already released Apple Watch-ready iPhone apps. If they get it wrong, they could take the shine off the Apple Watch's aspirations.
Early reviews suggest the initial Apple Watch apps are anything but easy to use, so Apple may also fail the utility test.