Apple Watch

The Apple Watch still hasn’t solved its identity crisis, if new leaks are to be believed. While the company isn’t expected to unveil a new smartwatch until tomorrow’s presentation, a leaked product shot has already indicated that Apple still isn’t sure what to do when giving a user extra screen space on their wrist. Rather than make tough choices about what to do with the (admittedly small) amount of real estate, the company seems to have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink.

Despite some skepticism at the outset, the humble smartwatch has gradually secured its position as a core Apple product. The gadget, first introduced in 2015, has since sold over 46 million units. Stats from IDC show it was the best-selling wearable of 2017, while 67 percent of single Uber users claimed they would find someone more attractive if they were wearing such a gadget.

The Apple Watch has offered information on its screen since day one. A hard press on the watch face activates editing mode, where users can tap on a predefined space and twirl the dial to choose out a “complication.” This is a horological word common in the watchmaking industry, referring to additional extras like date or day displays, rather than a term coined by Apple. watchOS 2, released in September 2015, introduced support for third-party complications so developers could add information to the watch face like the charging level of an electric car. Last year’s watchOS 4 release introduced a Siri face that intelligently updates based on time, location and routines to show relevant information at a glance, using artificial intelligence to guess why you might need to look at your wrist.

With the upcoming Apple Watch, the company looks set to take complications to another level:

This new watch face is an avalanche of information, flinging absolutely everything possible at the screen in a bid to create something useful. The image seems to contain a staggering nine complications: countdown timer, temperature, UV rating, sunset time, current date, activity rings, current world position, and music playback status. This would eclipse even the Modular watch face, Apple’s sparse design dedicated to showing five large complications alongside a digital representation of the time. The new design is overwhelmingly dense with details.

Worst of all, especially for a wrist-worn accessory, it’s ugly. The watch screen only activates when the wrist is raised or a button is pressed, but Apple has focused from the start on ensuring the watch is a desirable accessory for the wrist. Unlike the plasticky Fitbits of yesteryear, Apple has always offered a series of stylish straps like the link bracelet and leather buckle. These ideas haven’t always worked — note how the $10,000 18-carat gold Apple Watch Edition quietly left shelves after the second generation launched — but Apple has been clear from the start that the watch is designed for wearing all the time, and so should look nice.

The problem is that the new face, while likely optional, seems to solve the wrong questions about the watch. It’s already easy enough to slide through different watch faces from the edge of the screen, meaning users could set up multiple faces with alternative complications if they wanted to quickly access information. The main question is why someone would wear the watch and commit themselves to charging an extra gadget every night, and adding more information doesn’t solve that problem.

The Apple Watch home screen.
The Apple Watch home screen.

This isn’t to say that there is no reason to wear an Apple Watch. The new versions offer GPS tracking for leaving the phone at home during runs, LTE connectivity for answering calls, and the rumored new model may offer electrocardiographic support for better cardiovascular training. Its support for notifications is a nice little addition, and it remains a cool alternative to wearing an analog watch. But few will argue that holdouts will be lured in by a watch that seems to offer a mess of confusing features.

watchOS 5, unveiled at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June and set for a launch this fall, will probably be the new model’s main selling point. The face will now include more information like heart rate and sports scores, without sacrificing usability in the process. Showing the right information at the right time is a clear area where a computer-powered smartwatch can pull ahead of a regular watch. Expanding intelligent information displays — as opposed to just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks — seems like a much better way of playing to the Apple Watch’s strengths.