The Tyranny of the Rings

I like the Apple Watch. This surprises me, because I’ve never enjoyed wearing watches. Since I’m an old, I remember the times before the mass adoption of mobile phones when watches were necessary for telling time. Even though I had a couple of fun Swatch watches and a Canal Street Rolecks, I carried a pocket watch. This was not merely an affect, but it allowed me to have some semblance of timelines without strapping something to my wrist.  But, once I started biking, running, and occasionally swimming in triathlons, I craved more data and picked up a Garmin GPS watch, and liked the concept of a smartwatch enough that I bought an Apple Watch Series 2. I’ve since upgraded to a series 5. 

While I still prefer the Garmin Forerunner 935 and its physical controls as a GPS sports watch for running, biking, skiing, and hiking, I happily use the Apple Watch, as an everyday notifier and computer (and soon, iPhone) unlock token. Because it saves me from typing in my computer password as much throughout the day and its Taptic Engine notifications are subtle and useful, I wear the Apple Watch every day and use it as my daily activity tracker.

Apple recently launched their Fitness+ video workouts, and as much as I hate exercise classes, I’m actually really digging it. Having a coaching program for at-home strength training and structured treadmill workouts is just what I needed for pandemic winter without going to the gym. Since I already pay for iCloud storage and Apple Music and will pay for Apple TV+, the Apple One bundle is a no-brainer. (This could be its own post, but despite the lukewarm reception at launch, I think Apple TV+ has a good batting average — Ted Lasso, Dickinson, The Morning Show, and For All Mankind are all very good to great shows)

Unfortunately, Apple’s fitness offerings are not smart or social enough. 

1. Be Smarter

Unfortunately, the Apple Watch’s activity tracking remains decidedly not smart. 

Apple’s fitness tracking paradigm is based on closing rings — setting daily goals for standing (which measure having at least one minute of activity per hour), exercise, and overall movement. Generally, I think this is a helpful set of metrics. Be active, get consistent exercise, and don’t be sedentary. As you beat your overall goals, Apple Watch suggests that you increase your daily movement target.  

The drawback of the Apple Fitness paradigm is that it rewards consistent moderate exercise, but doesn’t account for the way that many people incorporate activity into our lives. If I train hard on Monday, I shouldn’t repeat the exact same workout on Tuesday so that I can rest and recover. But Apple Watch will just tell you that you did well and go beat it again. Apple could add the concepts of days off from counting the rings, but it needs to think long-term. After all, wearing a fitness tracker regularly creates a whole stream of activity data to use to make recommendations. 

The Move target needs a daily activity floor and a weekly target. After a big workout day, the next day should likely be a recovery day. If I set the Activity goal low enough that I’ll meet it even on a recovery day, closing the rings provides little motivation. If I set the Activity goal high, I won’t meet it, which provides negative feedback. But if I have a weekly activity target, Apple Watch should be smart enough to know that I should be taking a rest day, but may encourage me to meet that daily floor. It can push towards higher peak or sustained efforts. Apple Watch should use its data, machine learning, and programs designed by fitness experts to give you a dedicated coaching plan. 

A coaching plan could also tie into Fitness+. Instead of just making sessions available on demand to pick and choose, it should offer structured training plans. Adding goal-oriented programs, like a First 5K training plan, with a defined set of challenges per week would work well with the achievement paradigm of closing rings. 

2. Be More Social

Since Ping, Apple has failed miserably at integrating social aspects into any of its services other than pure communications tools. (iMessage and FaceTime are pretty great.) The Fitness+ coaches are encouraging, even though like all trainers, they toe the line of being cloying overbearing. But where cFitness+ falls down against Peloton or  Zwift as leading indoor training programs, is in having a complete lack of meaningful interaction and competition. With Peloton, you can compete against your friends. In Swift, you can actually race them live and in real time. I enjoy using Strava to see what my friends are doing. It’s not just competition, but also inspiration. 

If you’re doing the same workout as a friend who has opted-in, show their stats, too, not just the generic burn bar. Make it easy to start the same workout at the same time with someone else. Where Peloton and Zwift both succeed is in having the ability to create the feel of a group class, even if the participants are physically distant. Syncrhonous and asynchronous competition would be great additions to Fitness+. 

Apple Fitness does allow activity sharing, but I believe it is sharing the activity rings and does not have fine-grained sharing controls. With Strava, I can choose which activities I want to be public, shared with my friends, or entirely private. While I don’t expect Apple Fitness to include a Share to Strava option any time soon, it would be nice to be able to share with friends and family, even if they don’t already have an Apple Watch. (Strava already allows you to import Apple Watch workouts into its app). Adding a way to asynchronously share your activity achievements with other people, even those who don’t have an Apple Watch or iPhone, would make accomplishments in Apple Fitness more gratifying. The lack of social features in Apple’s own services makes them lonely and isolating, rather than allowing users to create community. (Apple’s lack of social acumen is also why I keep thinking about going back to Spotify, even though I strongly prefer Apple Music’s integration with local, non-Apple Music media. Not only does it seamlessly integrate, but it also uploads your music to Apple’s cloud, so it’s accessible across any device.)

So Apple Fitness, be smarter and be more social. Support a varied set of training and have more opinions on how Apple Watch users can train to improve their fitness. Allow us to share our accomplishments in a way that isn’t just for your other friends who track their endurance sports activities on the internet or own a $2,000 internet bike.