New Apple Watch strikes fine balance between new features and continuity

Apple did a good job sprucing up its smart watch without alienating fans who bought the original model

New Apple Watch strikes fine balance between new features and continuity

Apple yesterday announced a whole raft of useful improvements in the Apple Watch Series 2, but the biggest thing it got right may have been what it didn’t change. And while the company addressed many of the issues surrounding its smartwatch, one key limitation remains.

First, let’s look at what Apple did to improve the Apple Watch:

  • Made it water resistant to 50 meters, so you can swim and sweat and shower in it (don’t try this with one of the fancy leather bands)
  • Upgraded the CPU to run 50 percent faster and the GPU to run much 100 percent faster
  • Upgraded the display to be twice as bright, critical for use in direct sunlight
  • Added new Siri integrations so you don’t have to mess with the tiny screen and fussy buttons as much
  • Built in GPS, so runners and hikers can use it without being tethered to an iPhone.
  • Introduced a Nike version that appears designed specifically for runners.

+ Also on Network World: 4 things the perfect smartwatch must have +

That’s a pretty good list, but Apple also moved to make the most popular software available on the Apple Watch. Later this year, the Pokemon Go phenomenon will be available for the Apple Watch, making it easier than ever to catch the pesky critters no matter where you go. It’s not clear how the game’s augmented reality aspects will translate to a tiny screen on your wrist, but the game’s emphasis on movement in the real world should work well on the Apple Watch, and the company also announced that the game would be able to share data with your fitness apps.

Less is more. More or less.

Ultimately, though, Apple made a very smart move not to significantly redesign the case of the Watch. Sure, it offered some new colors and finish materials, and discontinued the ludicrously expensive gold version, but casual observers won’t immediately be able to tell which version someone is wearing.

That’s surprisingly important.

Unlike smartphones, which pretty much established their own category, smartwatches are adapted from a category where style, elegance, and status—not merely the latest model—are important to many buyers. Dramatically redesigning the appearance of the Apple Watch would have instantly turned the older models into outdated, outmoded devices, telling all the world that the wearer is no longer up to date.

Rolex doesn’t do that, and neither should Apple—at least until it absolutely has to. When the technology becomes available to make a thinner, sleeker device, Apple will have no choice but to do so. But it would behoove the company to continue offering smartwatches in the original Apple Watch form factor for as long as possible. After all, you don’t want to dis early adopters, who are typically your best customers.

What Apple didn’t do

Unfortunately, Apple didn’t fix one longstanding issue with its smartwatch: battery life. The company claims the new models will get 18 hours of battery life, same as the original. And it’s not clear whether or not the faster chips, built-in GPS and brighter screen will take any toll on battery life in the real world.

Either way, though, you still have to charge the Apple Watch every night. That’s a significant hassle compared to dumb watches, and even compared to more basic smartwatches and fitness trackers. Critically, nightly charging makes sleep tracking awkward and impractical.

Will it be enough?

Still, I think Apple got this first big update of the Apple Watch mostly right by upgrading the inner workings and tweaking the design and form factor. The only question is whether that will be enough to revive the Apple Watch’s sagging fortunes.

According to IDC this week, Apple watch sales dipped almost 60 percent in the second quarter of 2016, compared to the previous year. Sales of simple fitness bands, meanwhile, surged almost 50 percent in the quarter.

+ Also on Network World: Why the Apple Watch is the most disappointing tech product of 2015 +

The shift could be due to buyers waiting for a new model of the Apple Watch, or it could reflect disappointment in what advanced smartwatches can do and resistance to their relatively high prices. (The Series 2 starts at $100 more than the Series 1 did.)  If the Apple Watch Series 2 can reverse this trend, it will go down as one of the most successful tech upgrades ever.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Must read: 10 new UI features coming to Windows 10