Remember how I seemed pretty cool to the whole Apple Watch thing? As certain as I was that this new piece of technology would be expertly designed, well-constructed, and very user-friendly, I could not figure out what function it would serve that my iPhone wasn’t already doing. After all, the wonderful thing about a smartphone is that it is the computer you always have with you. Reaching for it, I reasoned, will always be easy.
Or so I thought before going on a bike ride today.
Last Saturday, I had planned to ride to the Panera Bread in Northvale, New Jersey with the cycle club.1 But, bitterly cold temperatures, icy roads, and the closure of the George Washington Bridge pedestrian/bicycle path kept me off the bike for the entire weekend. Feeling restless, I rode to my various jobs this entire week, which I had not been able to do since mid-December, and, today, I scheduled a makeup ride to Northvale to eat that long-awaited soup–and–half-sandwich combo.
A “Bicycle for the Mind” for the Bicycle
It was on today’s ride through Bergen and Rockland counties that I recognized the utility of a smartwatch. I could care less about monitoring my heart rate, my speed/cadence, and elevation gain during a ride. At one time, that mattered to me, but in the last few years, I don’t consider it as important. No, as someone who likes to explore new routes and brewery tap rooms, it’s really important to not end up horribly lost. An Apple Watch would actually be really helpful as a navigation aid because, even on group rides, we often have to stop to find directions.
Decades ago, Steve Jobs called the computer a “bicycle for our minds” because he saw it as a tool that can elevate the human mind above its natural ability. Similarly, applications elevate the computer from a machine to a tool. What made iPhone different from all other smartphones and PDAs before it were all the apps developed for it. Although I never had a smartphone before getting an iPhone 3G in 2008, I did have a series of Palm PDAs. Those were useful personal organizers and decent notetakers. However, each one was really limited—not because it had a crummy screen or required a stylus to use, but because it simply didn’t do very much. Today, I have about 200 apps loaded on my iPhone, including task managers, an array of readers and writing apps, and apps for dozens of other functions. I may not regularly use all 200+ apps, but having them gives my iPhone purpose, especially compared to the PDAs and smartphones of yore.
For the past two cycling seasons, I’ve been using a Garmin Edge 200 on my long bike rides. I can track my speed, my distance pedaled, the time of day, and if I load my course before heading out on the road, which I almost always do, I can follow a route. I know I could use my iPhone with some app, such as Strava or Ride with GPS, to function like my Garmin, but there are a lot of drawbacks to this. On a warm day, the battery can power my Garmin for over 12 hours; the battery inside my iPhone might not. If I get caught in a rainstorm, my Garmin is water-resistant, whereas soaking my iPhone would be devastating. And, the plastic-and-rubber Garmin sits on my handlebars taking various shocks and shakes from our bumpy potholed roads: I’m not certain my glass-and-metal iPhone would fare as well.
The Garmin is only useful because of the various websites that communicate with the device. The stock Garmin Connect is fine for beginners, but the third-party apps are much, much better. For example, Strava is for those who obsess over every esoteric metric imaginable, and Ride with GPS is for those who love to plan routes, as I do. In due time, I can see the latter two making apps for the Apple Watch, just as they do for iPhone and other smartphones. Their smartwatch apps could communicate with an iPhone, securely stored in a Ziploc bag and safely tucked away in a jersey pockets. In fact, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that both of these companies have at least considered developing for the Apple Watch. Sorry, Garmin.
Free to Escape
The great thing about going on a long bike ride is to escape life for a few hours, which is why I rode a lot during the latter half of 2014. Though I keep my phone stashed away in my pocket during a ride, I can still hear it dinging and feel it buzzing whenever I get a new message, phone call, or some other notification. Today, I heard a series of alerts as I pedaled through the relatively quiet suburban streets of Bergen County, New Jersey. I tried to put those distractions out of my mind, but as a product of the digital age, I simply could not. As soon as I encountered a red traffic signal, I hurriedly pulled out my phone to check who had been messaging and calling me. Fortunately, none of the callers had anything pressing to tell me, but right there, I recognized the value of having a smartwatch. Instead of kvetching about "who could be trying to reach me right now," I could have just glanced at my watch, saw that it was a doting relative, and continued on my way.
Part of me is bothered that I have cannot have a few hours on a bike without being interrupted, but I realized today that a smartwatch is a piece of technology that allows me to do what I want without being disconnected. Twenty years ago, when mobile phones started to become a thing, one of my mentors said that she would never carry a cell phone because she wanted to preserve the freedom from always being reachable. It was a sensible argument at the time. A few years later, after I got some Nokia candy-bar phone, I realized that the mobile phone didn’t tether me to work or other obligations, as I had feared. Instead, it allowed me to do whatever I wanted—and to go wherever I wanted. I didn’t have to sit by the phone waiting for someone to call me or, worse even, to keep calling my answering machine at home checking for any incoming messages.2 With a cell phone, I gained a new freedom from my landline telephone.
Maybe that’s what this new piece of technology—the Apple Watch with its plethora of apps and seamless connection to an iPhone—is supposed to do: ever-so-slightly liberate us from our older devices, even if one of those devices is only about eight years old.
- It’s something we did last year, and I thought it was funny that we were biking all that way just to eat at a ubiquitous bakery chain. ↩
- Kids today—who probably never use voicemail—must presumably consider the practice of calling your home answering machine to retrieve messages a positively antediluvian ritual. ↩