Apple Watch: With great intimacy comes great responsibility

Here's how notifications work on the Apple Watch: When a new one comes in, the "taptic engine" — a linear actuator — literally taps you on the wrist to let you know about it. There's no loud buzzing to draw anyone else's attention, just a subtle but recognizable tap, designed for you and you alone. Meanwhile, the "short look" for the notification provides a minimum of information. Nothing that anyone could oversee — just the icon for the app and a brief bit of context as to who or why.

If you lower your wrist, it goes away. Keep your wrist raised or tap the notification, and it expands into a "long look" to give you more details. It's the kind of staging that respects that with greater intimacy comes greater responsibility. And I hope it's a sign of more features to come.

Part of the reason I stopped wearing my Pebble and haven't had much interest in other smartwatches is the lack of discretion and/or granularity when it comes to notifications and privacy — the lack of understanding that the closer something is, the more subtle and sophisticated it needs to be.

Right now, when I travel with my iPhone, I have to consciously think about how much information I want to let leak out onto the Lock screen. I only ever allow mail notifications for my VIP contacts anyway — something I wish I could do for messages as well — but if I have my iPhone out in public and put it down on a table — terrible habit, I know — everyone around me can hear it buzz.

If I have Lock screen notifications left on, everyone glancing at my phone can see the incoming messages or mail. There are situations, both personal and professional, where I just don't want that to happen. As such,I typically turn previews off. (Even then, they can still see who's messaging me, but without that information I can't decide which notifications can and can't be ignored — convenience comes at the cost of privacy.)

Taking a cue from the Apple Watch, it'd be great if the iPhone could also stage my notifications. A taptic engine won't work on a device that isn't always in contact with your skin — and it wouldn't need to if the watch is getting your notifications anyway — but a short look that expands into a long look when the motion coprocessor feels the device being picked up, or when the multitouch screen detects a tap event, that would be really interesting to me. It would remove the burden of having to micro-managing privacy, and have iOS just take care of it. Moreover, it makes that kind of privacy protection freely available to people who wouldn't otherwise know they could micro-manage it.

The contextual awakening of the objects around us might change the way we interact with the world, but the thought process and technology being surfaced in the Apple Watch will change the way that world interacts with us.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Love the idea of long and short glances on iPhone. Sent from the iMore App
  • Given the phenomenon of "phantom vibrations" in our pockets since the advent of smartphones, I'm wondering if the fact that the Apple Watch " literally taps you on the wrist to let you know about it" will result in a epidemic of "phantom taps" on the wrist when people are not wearing them.
  • Test
  • Once I figured out that the Pebble will only show notifications that appear in Notifications Center, it's worked out reasonably well for me as a phone-grabbing short circuit device. I do wish, however, that I hadn't told a certain management colleague that he was on the "short list" of VIP email notifications that would buzz my watch. Now he takes some delight in sending me random emails just to see me twitch. :-(
  • Lmao! Sent from the iMore App
  • What?? Sent from the iMore App
  • If the Apple Watch is close to a locked iPhone but not on a wrist (perhaps the watch is charging or left on a work desk and let's say the iPhone has notifications off for privacy), and a message comes in, could someone pickup the watch and read the message? Or does it need the skin contact? What if they put it on their wrist? Sent from the iMore App
  • I think it needs your skin contact - at least for Apple Pay it requires you to input a PIN when you put it on, and after that, it works as long as it keeps the skin contact.
    If someone else could pick it up and read notifications, it's something they should change before it comes out..
  • I believe Alex is correct. Once the watch leaves skin contact then you need to use the pin again. So your charging watch would be safe from prying eyes. Once is back on your wrist. You enter the pin once and you logged in until you take it off.
  • I'd go so far to say that managing the torrent of notifications could well be the primary reason people buy an Apple Watch. My initial reaction from back in October:
  • You know with iOS and Yosemite the Continuity feature its a great step forward butI think that Watch and perhaps iBeacons (built in to all Macs iOS Devices) can take things even further. I don't know how many times I get an iMessages / FaceTime while I am on the Mac moving the mouse, or typing but EVERY device around me is alerting me vying for attention – for the exact same message. ( Was sitting in a coffee shop and iPad, iPhone, and MacBook all started gong off at the same time, from a phone call - will even be more fun with Watch tapping on my wrist.) I wonder if a proximity of the watch to another device or the movement of mouse trackpad or keyboard or the accelaration sensors in the iPhone/iPad if the IOS and OS X added layer of intuition as to which device currently has your attention and appropriately provide some manner of priority, by most current activity or preferred order as to which device is signaled (sequentially or simletaneous) or groupings of devices. And we need some active management of these settings that are global in nature so that you from one device can control or limit (by time) other devices so they don't all go off inappropriately. Or if you read the message on your wrist it would be smart enough be hidden from the lock screen on other devices. Include handoff functionality to between phone calls, FaceTime audio, FaceTime video between the services and on any other target device. Such as start a call on the phone get on wifi and switch in line to FT audio then flip the call to Video on the Mac - all with out disconnecting.
  • Agreed. Smart notification handling should have been part of the whole package with Continuity.
  • You do know you can set custom vibrations on the iPhone don't you? Go to sounds, click on new email for example, then turn off tone and click on vibration, then scroll down to create a custom vibration. A quick tap is very subtle. You can also tap...wait...tap....wait...tap to make the process longer and still subtle. No more annoying long buzzing.
  • On a similar note, I feel like Apple needs to polish up the way notifications expire. I've got stuff leftover from days and WEEKS ago on all my devices that just accumulate. I turn on my Mac and I get a torrent of notifications from throughout the day that I've already read on my phone. And for some reason, it fools me every time. Also, it would be great if ringing could be optionally restricted to the device that is actively in use. They can all light up so the user is aware of the incoming call. But if I'm actively using my iPhone, I don't need ringing also from my Mac, iPad, and Apple Watch too!
  • The More I read about the Apple Watch, the more I am interested. I am really looking forward to the release.