State of the Art: Apple Watch Review: Bliss, but Only After a Steep Learning Curve

Still, even if it’s not yet for everyone, Apple is on to something with the device. The Watch is just useful enough to prove that the tech industry’s fixation on computers that people can wear may soon bear fruit. In that way, using the Apple Watch over the last week reminded me of using the first iPhone. Apple’s first smartphone was revolutionary not just because it did what few other phones could do, but also because it showed off the possibilities of a connected mobile computer. As the iPhone and its copycats became more powerful and ubiquitous, the mobile computer became the basis of a wide range of powerful new tech applications, from messaging to ride-sharing to payments.

Similarly, the most exciting thing about the Apple Watch isn’t the device itself, but the new tech vistas that may be opened by the first mainstream wearable computer. On-body devices have obvious uses in health care and payments. As the tech analyst Tim Bajarin has written, Apple also seems to be pushing a vision of the Watch as a general-purpose remote control for the real world, a nearly bionic way to open your hotel room, board a plane, call up an Uber or otherwise have the physical world respond to your desires nearly automatically.

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Credit Stuart Goldenberg

These situations suggest that the Watch may push us to new heights of collective narcissism. Yet in my week with the device, I became intrigued by the opposite possibility — that it could address some of the social angst wrought by smartphones. The Apple Watch’s most ingenious feature is its “taptic engine,” which alerts you to different digital notifications by silently tapping out one of several distinct patterns on your wrist. As you learn the taps over time, you will begin to register some of them almost subconsciously: incoming phone calls and alarms feel throbbing and insistent, a text feels like a gentle massage from a friendly bumblebee, and a coming calendar appointment is like the persistent pluck of a harp. After a few days, I began to get snippets of information from the digital world without having to look at the screen — or, if I had to look, I glanced for a few seconds rather than minutes.

If such on-body messaging systems become more pervasive, wearable devices can become more than a mere flashy accessory to the phone. The Apple Watch could usher in a transformation of social norms just as profound as those we saw with its brother, the smartphone — except, amazingly, in reverse.

For now, the dreams are hampered by the harsh realities of a new device. The Watch is not an iPhone on your wrist. It has a different set of input mechanisms — there’s the digital crown, a knob used for scrolling and zooming, and a touch screen that can be pressed down harder for extra options. There is no full on-screen keyboard, so outbound messages are confined to a set of default responses, emoji and, when you’re talking to other Watch users, messages that you can draw or tap.

The Watch also relies heavily on voice dictation and the voice assistant Siri, which is more useful on your wrist than on your phone, but still just as hit-or-miss. I grew used to calling on Siri to set kitchen timers or reminders while I was cooking, or to look up the weather while I was driving. And I also grew used to her getting these requests wrong almost as often as she got them right.

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An Apple Watch app allows hotel guests to open the door to their room by touching the watch face to the door. Credit Michael Appleton for The New York Times

The Watch also has a completely different software design from a smartphone. Though it has a set of apps, interactions are driven more by incoming notifications as well as a summary view of some apps, known as glances. But because there isn’t much room on the watch’s screen for visual cues indicating where you are — in an app, a notification or a glance — in the early days, you’ll often find yourself lost, and something that works in one place won’t work in another.

Finding nirvana with the watch involves adjusting your notification settings on your phone so that your wrist does not constantly buzz with information that doesn’t make sense on the Watch — like Facebook status updates, messages from Snapchat, or every single email about brownies in the office kitchen. Apple’s notification settings have long been unduly laborious; battling them while your hand is buzzing off the hook is an extra level of discomfort.

Other problems: Third-party apps are mostly useless right now. The Uber app didn’t load for me, the Twitter app is confusing and the app for Starwood hotels mysteriously deleted itself and then hung up on loading when I reinstalled it. In the end, though, it did let me open a room at the W Hotel in Manhattan just by touching the watch face to the door.

I also used the Watch to pay for New York cabs and groceries at Whole Foods, and to present my boarding pass to security agents at the airport. When these encounters worked, they were magical, like having a secret key to unlock the world right on my arm. What’s most thrilling about the Apple Watch, unlike other smartwatches I’ve tried, is the way it invests a user with a general sense of empowerment. If Google brought all of the world’s digital information to our computers, and the iPhone brought it to us everywhere, the Watch builds the digital world directly into your skin. It takes some time getting used to, but once it clicks, this is a power you can’t live without.

The New York Times announced last week that it had created “one-sentence stories” for the Apple Watch, so let me end this review with a note that could fit on the watch’s screen: The first Apple Watch may not be for you — but someday soon, it will change your world.

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State of the Art: Parrying the Latest Predictions of Facebook’s Demise

“There are now a number of revenue streams that are being driven by venture dollars,” Bill Gurley, a prominent venture capitalist who has been warning of a tech bubble, said recently in an onstage interview at South by Southwest in Austin, Tex. “Facebook and a little bit of Twitter’s revenues are now coming heavily from mobile downloads. These are ads for, like, Game of War with Kate Upton. Those ads are now an increasing percentage of their revenue, and they’re being spent by these excessive venture dollars.”

The notion that Facebook and other social networks will suffer most deeply when the bubble bursts sounds plausible because it rehashes the last tech boom and bust, when advertising revenue run-ups at huge web portals (remember those?) turned out to be funded mainly by venture capital investments. In 2001, revenue at Yahoo — the largest portal, and something like the Facebook of its time — plummeted by almost $400 million when start-ups stopped spending during the bust. Yahoo has never recovered its former glory. Could Facebook face the same fate?

Probably not — or not yet, at least. On closer inspection, the theory that Facebook’s growth depends on unsustainable venture capital is mostly overblown, another strain of Facebook Second Guessing Syndrome. It’s a story that misses important facts about Facebook’s advertising business. For one thing, as Facebook’s executives have repeatedly pointed out, ads from app companies make up a small percentage of the company’s overall business. Most of the social network’s revenue comes from video ads and ads for large brands.

The theory also misses two other points. Not all these ads are coming from unproved start-ups. And the ads are set to be adopted more widely because they actually work.

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The venture capitalist Bill Gurley, left, with Malcolm Gladwell this month during South by Southwest. Credit Robert a Tobiansky/Getty Images for SXSW

According to several app makers and observers of the industry, the ads are tremendously effective at leading paying customers to new apps. It’s the effort to reach these paying customers — and not venture funding — that is often the reason for all the money pouring into ads for apps.

App-pushing ads are known in the industry as app-install ads. They appear in your Facebook News Feed or Twitter stream and encourage you to download apps from companies that make mobile games and e-commerce and travel services; they also come from big brands like Target and Chase. When you tap the ad, you are sent to Apple or Google’s app store. Facebook and Twitter are paid for each click according to prices set by an online bidding process.

According to Cathy Boyle, an analyst at eMarketer, a research firm that studies the online advertising business, the market for app-install ads is growing rapidly. Ms. Boyle estimates that in the United States, app companies spent $1.67 billion on install ads in 2014. She expects that number to grow 80 percent this year, to about $3 billion. The market for app-install ads is growing faster than just about any other digital advertising category, Ms. Boyle said, but it is still relatively small. In 2015, these ads will account for about 10 percent of the American mobile ad market, according to eMarketer.

Facebook and Twitter would not specify the proportion of their revenue from app ads, but both have described it as far from the majority of their business. “We talk about our mobile ad business growing — mobile app ads are a small part of that, growing in line with our total business,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, in a call with investors in October.

One reason spending on these ads is growing is that the ads solve a problem faced both by businesses that make apps and by users who want apps: App stores are becoming ever more crowded, and it is increasingly difficult for new apps to find an audience. In this way, apps for ads on social networks perform the same function as the highly successful ads for websites that Google runs alongside its search results — they show people something that they might click on and pay for, based on a combination of users’ interests and a business’s willingness to pay.

App ads are also like search ads in that they are highly measurable. Marketers can target specific types of customers whom they want to present with an ad for a certain app, and they can also track exactly how much money they make from customers they get through an app ad. By contrast, the advertising boom that doomed the portal industry was not built on measurable ads. Those were mostly web banner ads, whose effectiveness has always been something of a leap of faith.

Acquiring new customers through app ads is “100 percent based on data,” said Bernard Kim, senior vice president for social and mobile publishing at the video game developer Electronic Arts. “We have the ability to track the players that we get through these networks very carefully, and we know what the profitability looks like on a player, so these ads are a very effective tool for us to bring in the players that we want to engage with our titles.”

Skeptics remain. One tech investor who has been critical of these ads pointed out that start-ups are often very bad at calculating the long-term value of new customers. This miscalculation often causes them to overspend on marketing. Several recent venture-funded flops, including Groupon and Fab.com, were tripped up by huge marketing spending that did not lead to lucrative long-term customers.

If today’s money-burning, venture-funded app companies — Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and many more — are also overestimating the value of new customers, could they wake up one day to find they’re spending too much on app ads?

Facebook does not think so. In an interview, Andrew Bosworth, the company’s vice president for advertising, argued that start-ups today were more disciplined than in the recent past, with many analyzing not just how much they’re spending to get new users but also whether those people are actually buying stuff. “That’s been the big shift. The big V.C.-backed Fab.coms of the world spent on acquisition but couldn’t actually convert,” he said. But when today’s start-ups look at these ads, “They’re asking, ‘Can you put a dollar in and get two dollars out?’ If you can, you spend, and if you can’t, you don’t.”

Sure, Mr. Bosworth’s argument is a variation of “this time is different,” which is the stock defense during every boom. But he added that Facebook wasn’t counting on app ads for its long-term survival. “I think this will be a stable ongoing market,” he said. “I think it will plateau at some point in terms of share, as smartphone growth plateaus. I don’t think it will shrink dramatically, but I just think there will come a point where it plateaus.”

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