The biggest problem with the Apple Watch is about to get even worse

The Apple Watch 2 is already the subject of much speculation as the first edition of Apple’s wearable is still steadily flying off shelves, and rumor has it that consumers will see a new iteration in 2016. However, the features on the upcoming iteration haven’t been universally celebrated, and in fact, some users aren’t even certain about the features offered on the maiden version. 
When it comes to technology, sometimes less is more, and wearables pose some interesting conundrums when it comes to illustrating how one person’s must-have device is another person’s nightmare.

At Wired, Brian Barrett recently pleaded with Apple to keep a camera out of the Apple Watch 2, although his request is a little late. The ship has clearly sailed on the inclusion of a camera, with the company indicating that it plans to integrate Facetime into the next version of the watch, along with a suite of additional software—including options to make it less dependent on the iPhone, in response to one of the most frequently cited complaints about the watch.

Not every device can be for everyone, but the Apple Watch has some significant flaws when it comes to assumptions about the lifestyles of users, and those could become a liability. If Apple can’t think about a broad spectrum of potential wearers, it might sink its latest darling.
The Healthkit functions are perhaps some of the most obvious. The company assumes that anyone buying the watch is also heavily invested in monitoring their health, but only from the very specific perspective of weight loss.

Wearables pose some interesting conundrums when it comes to illustrating how one person’s must-have device is another person’s nightmare.

While displays like activity, heart rate, and other indicators aren’t automatically shown on the face of the watch, Healthkit puts a heavy emphasis on forcing users to think about the device’s definition of “health.” Notably, critics in the exercise and fitness world have pointed out that the watch has a heavy emphasis on cardio, with limited allowances for strength training and other forms of exercise; a well-balanced exercise regimen can’t rely on cardio alone.

The world, however, isn’t a place where health is one size fits all—for a person with chronic fatigue syndrome, for example, too much exercise can be a problem, and nagging reminders to move around can be frustrating. A wheelchair user might not necessarily stand or be mobile during the day, but that doesn’t mean she’s unhealthy. And a fat person who feels comfortable with her body might not be interested in constant feedback about burning calories and weight loss.

Health nanny functionality dovetails with social attitudes about health in general: There’s only one right way to be healthy, and everyone has an obligation to meet arbitrary standards of health. However, not everyone wants a phone that acts as a constant spy on their activities, and that’s just one aspect of the flaws of the Apple Watch.

Barrett’s column notes one of the most serious issues with the potential addition of a camera to the watch’s features: upskirt photos and other surreptitious nonconsensual photography. The issue of invasive photography has become a growing one in a world where cameras can be embedded in smaller and small devices, making it difficult for people to notice when they’re victims and making prosecution of offenders challenging. A watch is even more ideally suited to taking an unwanted snap without attracting attention.

Barrett writes:

Surely you know Samsung already put a camera in a watch, and you know this made said watch very good at taking ‘creepshots,’ photographs of unwitting people, usually taken at intimate angles. Google Glass, which put a camera in a place where people may not know they’re being filmed or photographed, rightly suffered the same stigma. Does this sound like a camera you may or may not be undertaking? If so, please reconsider!

The thought of continually having to watch ourselves in public is already one we have to deal with. A cellphone in someone’s hand, for example, might be evidence that someone’s texting a friend about meeting up for lunch or a sign that he’s shooting an illicit photograph. With their smaller size and shortcuts to camera functionality, wearables could represent an even bigger threat to privacy—even if at the same time they provided a means to record encounters with police or other incidents.

The watch is also changing the way we interact with each other, as notes Marissa Stephenson at Men’s Health, who took a look at the watch when it first debuted. She noted that the classic sign of “I’m bored” is glancing at one’s watch—“oh my, look at the time” is universal speech for “I really wish I wasn’t talking to you anymore.” Unfortunately, the Apple Watch’s repeated reminders, big and small, spur people to glance at their watches constantly.

I found myself in work meetings getting the buzz-buzz-buzz of incoming data, but avoiding looking down to check the updates because I didn’t want to seem distracted or rude. At drinks with my former boss, I felt the buzz on my wrist, and instinctively checked my watch. Put-off, she asked, “Do you have somewhere to be?” Maybe one day, if the Watch becomes as ubiquitous as the iPhone, people will automatically understand what the new version of a glance to the wrist means (and accept it, to a point, as we all do now with cell phones). But even then, there’s a problem. Where we can establish spoken or unspoken social rules for our cells—“Let’s have a no-phones dinner”—we’ll never expect people to remove and put away their smart watches.

While these reminders can be tweaked in the watch settings, there’s a learning curve when it comes to understanding the full functionality of the watch and to establishing which reminders are most helpful. Meanwhile, incoming notifications jar users repeatedly, distracting them from interactions with the people around them; either they’re constantly glancing at their watches, or they’re feeling the pull of a tide of incoming notifications while they try to pay attention.

The same criticism has been leveled at mobile phones, but with the Apple Watch, there’s an added layer of complexity because of the watch’s size and accessibility. Hauling out a phone to respond to a text is obvious, while a watch may feel more discreet and less intrusive, at least to the user who wants to text a friend over dinner. However, the net effect can be the same: a sense of alienation and distance, as people wonder whether the people around them would prefer to be somewhere else.

For the class of user that the Apple Watch is aimed at, many of these features are highly desirable—the prospect of seeing texts at a glance or setting reminders to exercise is a pleasant concept. But it makes the watch less accessible to a general audience, setting early adopters willing and able to pay hundreds of dollars for a wearable apart from others who might want the blended functionality of a smartwatch, but without the excess. The proposed “upgrades” for the second edition could abstract potential consumers even further from the concept, reinforcing a world of haves and have nots.

The net effect can be the same: a sense of alienation and distance, as people wonder whether the people around them would prefer to be somewhere else.

One option for addressing the role of unwanted features could be as simple as continuing to produce different trim levels for the watch, with simpler editions available to those who want them. However, Apple’s historic tendency to phase out low-cost, simplistic versions of their products means that users might want to start hoarding their basic models now, because there will come a day when it won’t be possible to get a smartwatch without an array of excessive features. “It does too much,” observed Steve Kovach in a review at Business Insider, cutting to the core of the problem with Apple’s entry into the market.

Mark Sullivan articulated this concern at Venturebeat in a piece discussing why he gave up his watch after a month of wear: “I don’t think the notifications made my life that much easier, and I see the Watch’s other functions (with the possible exception of Apple Pay) as secondary bells and whistles that I can get on less expensive devices.”

In fact, there may come a day when users of both iPhones and Apple Watches won’t even be able to use basic functions without submitting to a humiliating nanny experience. According to patents filed in 2013, Apple is developing non-dismissable prompts that would force users to input their weight, information about their blood pressure, and more.

It’s a troubling sign of a Silicon Valley nanny state: Apple has no particular reason to need to collect this data beyond a clear intent to package and sell it, and users might have very good reasons for not wanting to give it up. Apple stands to profit from selling data collected by Healthkit and related suites of software, and users may get tired of being the product.

Some users actively resent being “encouraged” to think about Apple’s vision of health—for example, a daily weigh in prompt would be actively dangerous for people recovering from eating disorders. If Apple doesn’t consider the broader needs of the market and potential users, it may find itself with an expensive novelty item that’s only popular with a small number of people. And the result of that would be a very limited return on investment. 

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with regular appearances in the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via PauliCarmody/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.