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The One Feature that Will Determine the Quality of the Apple Watch

Rob Pegoraro
·Contributing Editor

The Apple Watch has to be smart about filtering out the noise. Photo: Reuters

Apple wants you to think of the Apple Watch as many things: a messaging tool, a fitness tracker, a phone, a fashion item, a boarding pass for your flight, even a key to your hotel room.

But the most accurate description for the $349-and-way-up gadget Apple introduced at an event Monday (read our liveblog, see Apple’s video) is a tad more prosaic: Like other smartwatches, it’s an external display for your phone.

Too Much Information

We might need such a thing because we have too many things going on in our phones already. Incoming e-mails, new text messages, Facebook updates, Twitter replies, app-update alerts… and unless we have our phones in our hands, only a handful of different beeps and buzzes distinguish these different notifications.

(And if the phone is in a purse, forget even that.)

The part of wearing a smartphone that I’ve decided I like is having that always-visible second screen. As Apple CEO Tim Cook said Monday when he introduced the Apple Watch: “It’s not just with you, it’s on you.”

Instead of wondering if the phone vibrating with an important message or just another daily deal ad, each new update flashes on a watch’s screen. You don’t have to do anything next: In the smartwatches I’ve tried, it goes away after a few moments. Or you can open the email to learn more or swipe it off the screen to dismiss it.

In essence, the smartwatch lets you perform digital triage on all of these potential interruptions. It lets you save your phone for things that require actual responses, or at least ones beyond a smartwatch’s text-to-speech capabilities.

The built-in apps on the Apple Watch, like the core suite of apps in Google’s Android Wear, appear to cater to that scenario. Good.

The Apple Watch Must Be Choosy

But after spending a few months with two Android Wear watches, I realized that enough wasn’t nearly enough—that going from constantly checking my phone to constantly checking a watch wasn’t always an upgrade and could be its own form of rudeness.

You can cut down on this info pollution by changing the notification settings on your phone and watch. But those gadgets also should be able to figure out what’s important to you. If they can’t, they just become distractions or, worse, annoyances. 

Look at e-mail. Flagging or starring messages for follow-up has become a standard feature. Apple also lets you mark some correspondents as “VIPs” whose messages surface in their own folder. And you can use filters or third-party services (like my friend Jared Goralnick’s AwayFind) to highlight mail from particular people or with set subjects.

Do any of those signals help to regulate what I’ve seen on the faces of smart watches? Not as much as I’d like.

Too many notifications on an Android Wear watch. (Photo: Rob Pegoraro)

This sort of curation shouldn’t even have to wait on distracted humans, if only the algorithms doing the sorting could refrain from being too dense.

Gmail’s Priority Inbox, for instance, has done a pretty good job of calling out the most important items, but it also once ignored a PayPal notification of a payment from a freelance client. TripIt’s automated scanning of my e-mail, meanwhile, keeps thinking that incidental updates from an airline or Amtrak count as entirely new itineraries.

And if you’re privacy-conscious, you may not want to trust your watch—or, more importantly, the cloud services behind it—with that level of scrutiny.

The Google-Apple Competition Should Be Interesting

I expect that Android Wear watches will follow the path of such Google services as Gmail and Google Now in relying more on Google’s sense of what you want. Those of you nodding your heads in agreement with the previous paragraph probably won’t applaud that development.

Those privacy concerns, combined with Apple’s newfound devotion to privacy, might make the Apple Watch an obvious choice for smartwatch shoppers. But Apple’s software isn’t on the same plane as Google’s in what people are now calling “anticipatory computing.”

The “Today” notifications in iOS and OS X, for instance, only tell me that I have however many events on my calendar starting at whenever o’clock—never mind if two-thirds of them are on my wife’s shared calendar, or if one on my agenda involves a non-refundable ticket.

On the other hand, Apple’s hardware design stands above the crowd of companies making Android Wear and other non-Apple watches. The company has some of the smartest people in the business—if you have 45 minutes or so free, read the New Yorker’s lengthy profile of Jonathan Ive—and you can expect their talents to help future Apple Watch versions grow sleeker and run longer on a charge.

This may be a frustrating situation, but it should also yield a good and worthy competition… if these companies don’t mind borrowing each other’s ideas, and if the rest of us can let go of the notion that in order for Apple to win, Google has to lose and vice versa.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.