The Apple Watch doesn't offer anything new in the way of fitness features, but it looks good.
The Apple Watch doesn't offer anything new in the way of fitness features, but it looks good. (Photo: Apple)

Why the Apple Watch Will Be the Ultimate Fitness Wearable

The power of the crowd will have more to do with the success of the device than the features it will have when it debuts.

The Apple Watch doesn't offer anything new in the way of fitness features, but it looks good.
Michael Frank

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The Apple Watch, available for pre-order April 10, will be a hit for one simple reason: It’s gorgeous. 

I continue to argue that people, even active, fitness-focused people, don’t want to wear clunky, ugly devices. We’re attracted to beauty in mates, in pets, in nature, and yes, even in what we buy. That’s one reason I’m such a fan of the Withings Activité and Activité Pop watches: they transition from the gym to the pub seamlessly. 

But they’re still not Apple. The Watch follows a line of illustrious products—from the iMac to the iPhone to the iPad—that have married design and function. Outré looks sell, even if the rest of the device’s features match—rather than surpass—the competition.

That’s right. When it comes to fitness features, the debut Watch isn’t offering anything new.  

It will use an arsenal of gyros and accelerometers to measure activity, and it can prompt you to move around if you’re being too sedentary, just like devices from Garmin and others can do. And like other wearables currently on the market (think the Mio Link or Fitbit Surge HR), the Watch also has a wrist-based heart-rate monitor that uses LEDs and photo sensors to detect pulse. This technology has improved in the last two years, but I’ve found the best models still need to be worn tight (almost uncomfortably so), to avoid a shaky connection and inaccurate data. Perhaps Apple will prove (as Microsoft did with its Band) that better math will result in more accurate heart-rate tracking, but the technology isn’t new.  

Monitoring heart rate is crucial for a few reasons. For one, it allows the Watch’s onboard activity ring to track metrics like calories burned and let wearers set fitness goals. They’ll also recieve suggested goals over time as the Watch gets to know the wearer, just the way “a good personal trainer would,” according to Jay Blahnik, Apple’s director of Physical Fitness. We presume this is in part because, according to Blahnik, the Watch will also be able to “measure intensity” via a custom sensor. Nobody at Apple has described this in greater detail, nor did the company elucidate how this works in Monday’s press event. Our best guess is that Apple’s proactively merging accelerometer data with heart-rate tracking, enabling the Watch to determine when you’re getting a whole-body workout (like CrossFit), and when you’re going for a run. These details should help set both suggested goals and recovery time, calories burned, and more. 

Ultimately, Apple says they’ll be able to provide prescriptive fitness advice. But to do that, the device needs to be able to interpret data accurately, not just collect it. By monitoring active heart rate over time (many weeks of workouts), resting heart rate while sleeping, and the wearer’s fitness goals (a marathon in three months), the Watch should be able to come up with custom workouts, which will probably be further harnessed via third-party apps.   

But there’s currently a gap between regular trackers (which poke you when you’ve been inactive) and machines that can learn and teach. We don’t expect Apple to necessarily get that magic right out of the gate. No one else has. 

But here’s the distinction that’s given Apple an advantage before—the watch is just a platform. The iPhone didn’t change the phone industry just because it looked and performed better than other options (although that helped). Rather, Apple ensured that third-party app makers could explore unique and creative software ideas for the device. 

App developers have told us privately that it’s easier to work on Apple apps because of the single platform—the iPhone. Compare that to Android, where developers have to create products to work on a huge range of hardware. That’s why so many apps debut for Apple phones first, and then later migrate to Android.

So we expect fitness app producers are already scrambling to roll out new tools for the Watch, with the idea that if they get to use key health metrics, they can write code to interpret your fitness data for your particular sport. And, in a perfect world, because Apple’s Health App already enables you to feed from other trackers (say, a Garmin or Magellan cycling head unit), there’ll be increased interplay between apps on the watch and on the phone. 

For instance, Strava announced Monday that it’s going to deliver a version of its app specifically for the Watch that will include time and distance, but also haptic notifications when you’re approaching ride or run segments stored in the Strava database. Strava’s Apple Watch announcement is especially germane to cyclists, who shouldn’t be eyeballing their phones mid-ride anyway. A glance at a wrist is safer.

Granted, there’s other hardware on the market that uses third-party apps. Take Pebble, which probably offers the best suite of fitness app integration. If you’re running Snocru on the Pebble, that’s what you’re seeing. You’re not beaming info to Snocru and only seeing the info after the fact on your phone. 

More fitness-focused brands, such as Garmin and Suunto, work with third-party apps, too, but in Garmin’s case, they’re still in the early stages of integration. With Suunto (at least that we’ve seen so far), the apps are subservient to the platform—there’s no whole-scale real-estate takeover of your watch face. Sure, Suunto lets you immediately upload tracked workouts to Strava, but the integration happens after the fact, not during your work out, as Strava’s Apple Watch integration already highlights.

Now for our misgivings about the Watch.  

First, battery life. Cook mentioned he recharges his watch every night, and said today the watch’s battery lasts 18 hours. So your Badwater Ultra might be a test of both your endurance and your watch’s.

Also, the Apple Watch’s key functions all happen through Bluetooth/WiFi and its connection with an iPhone or a network. So you can go for a run with just the Watch and it will store basic heart-rate data, but—unlike with a wearable like Wahoo’s TickrX—you won’t have onboard GPS if you leave the phone at home. (Note that this is the case with Pebble, too, and with other advanced fitness trackers.)  

There’s also the relatively high price, which starts at $349. The Moto 360 is $250. The Withings Activité is $450, while the new Activité Pop will only be $150, although it doesn’t have a built-in heart-rate monitor.

The Watch is going to be a luxury item, and it’s going to take time for it to become a breakthrough fitness device. But our bet is that once you own one, you’ll continue to wear it, and that alone should provide fitness insights that other “wearables” won’t yield—because they’re not comfortable or good-looking enough for 24/7 use. 

And over time we’re counting on incredible fitness apps debuting for the Watch, ones that will yield a broader health picture for millions of wearers. That part—millions of wearers—is really the key. Because enough fitness-focused users will drive innovation that makes or breaks the Watch as the ultimate wearable. 

Lead Photo: Apple