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The Apple Watch's cure for notification overload? More notifications

Smartwatches targeted at fixing people's compulsive reactions to smartphone notifications only make the problem worse.

Apple Watch notifications iPhone
Credit: Apple

Sometimes I just can't be positive about certain things. That I can't rejoice over the Apple Watch selling out makes me feel like misanthrope Melvin Udall, Jack Nicholson's character in the movie As Good as It Gets. In fact, I think Melvin's most memorable line may sum up the Apple Watch: "What if this is as good as it gets?" Melvin, of course, was referring to his life with obsessive compulsive disorder, and I'm referring to a consumer device that requires at least a Panglossian level of optimism to get excited about.

But the Apple Watch will either fix wearables or finally put the category to rest. If the ultimate consumer wearable can't be made useful by the ultimate designer of consumer products, we can close the dresser draw and pull the shades on this product category.

Smartwatches targeted at fixing people's compulsive reactions to smartphone notifications will only make the problem worse. The Verge's Nilay Patel sums it up in a video review of the Apple Watch, a staged business discussion he held with Eater.com editor Sonia Chopra. In exasperation to frequent wrist-worn notification interruptions, Patel says:

"I'm more aware of how many people I'm ignoring than ever before. I'm not sure that I like that."

The video review is worth watching because Patel is one of the few tech editors who enjoys and excels at being in front of the camera, and it's the best of many released in the last few days. 

Apple designers created something beautiful and at the same time flawed because the Apple Watch doesn't apply intelligence to filtering notifications. The Apple Watch has shifted iPhone interruptions a few inches to the user's wrist, freeing the hand from compulsively holding the iPhone. It's unclear if progress can be measured in inches.

Let's walk through the interruption problem. When users pair the new Apple Watch with their iPhone, they are offered the same apps on the new device as they have installed on the phone.  The watch apps are installed by default with notifications turned on to full blast.

After the user has been buzzed and buzzed by the Apple Watch, alerting of yet one more notification, the only choice is to turn off all notifications except those from which the user is willing to accept constant interruptions.

Google has a better approach with Android Wear. Android Wear extends Google Now, Google's intelligent personal assistant and app functionality, to a wearable device. The present implementation feels like a typical version 1.0 release. But it seems clear that Google Now is moving in the direction of applying the company's significant expertise in machine learning and artificial intelligence to learn when the user should be interrupted.

Udall‘s OCD points to the inability of humans to cope with a deluge of interruptions. Shifting users' smartphone notification OCD to their wrists doesn't help. Going forward, there will be more apps, more data, and even more interruptions. The individual app developer doesn't have a window into the context that determines what is an important interruption? Filtering is a platform-level function, and Apple doesn't seem to have even begun to build it.

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