At WWDC 2018, Apple announced some pretty exciting consumer-facing features for what was billed as bug fixes and stability improvements. All of the platforms got a little something to be excited about. But none of those announcements will change the fundamental way we use the device more than the walkie-talkie feature in WatchOS 5.
Yesterday, you had a smartwatch. Today, you have a new kind of communicator. Okay, it’s a new take on an old kind of communicator. But there is enough here to justify thinking of it as completely new. Calling the feature a walkie-talkie is about as accurate as calling the Apple Watch a watch. To understand this, we will have to dig in a little deeper:
Apple Watch walkie-talkie vs. a traditional walkie-talkie
There are some real differences between an old-fashioned, dedicated walkie-talkie and what the feature in WatchOS 5. Here are a handful of traditional walkie-talkie (TWT) features vs. Apple Watch walkie-talkie (AWWT) features:
- Frequency selection and tuning
- Strict range based on consumer or government hardware
- Conversations open to anyone with the right frequency
- Number of people who can join the conversation limited only by physics
- There are no frequencies. Communications are based on FaceTime protocols
- There is no range except those imposed on FaceTime
- Connections are private and conversations are encrypted
- As far as we know right now, conversations are limited to one on one
There are a few other differences worth noting. If two people are to communicate with a TWT, both parties must have their radios on and ready to go. They have to leave them on and ready to receive all the time, or have some signal for when it is time to talk.
Another difference is that if the sender wants to say something to a receiver whose walkie is not at the ready, there is no way to let them know someone is trying to reach them.
In the same scenario on the Apple Watch, the effort is not lost to the void. The intended receiver gets a notification that their friend is trying to reach them. They can jump to the app from the notification.
At this point in the beta process, there are still a few questions about how this will all work. For instance, if you make yourself available for conversation, that availability does not last forever.
The watch will ask if you are still available after a certain amount of time has passed, then deliver the message if you agree. This message delivery service does not appear to work right now if you are on Do Not Disturb. Apple has plenty of time to sort this out.
The big advantage retained by a TWT is that it works without regard to signal. That is to say, it does not need a cell or wifi signal to send and receive. It sends and receives based on the hardware in the device. So it is useful in emergency situations where there is no other signal present.
The Apple Watch needs to be either paired to the iPhone, connected to wifi, or in possession of a cell signal (LTE models only). Apple could probably open this up to something like Wifi Direct, forming a direct wifi connection between devices as they do for some features. To my knowledge, this is not currently an option for the AWWT feature.
New communications require new etiquette
We are on the verge of an explosion of wrong ways to use the walkie-talkie feature. We saw this with Nextel phones. But those were limited by expensive phones on an unpopular carrier. The AWWT is coming to everyone with an Apple Watch newer than the original.
It is not going to be pretty.
It is hard to describe what makes it worse than people using their cell phone to hold obnoxious conversations in inappropriate places. There will be the added component of hearing both sides of the conversation. It is not readily apparent to the person on the other end that they are broadcasting to everyone in the store, or the train, or the street.
There is also that annoying chirp that precedes every message.
Chirp - Did you want the large eggs or the extra-large eggs?
Chirp - I don’t know. What’s on sale?
Chirp - Just tell me what you usually get.
Chirp - I usually get what’s on sale. Ouch!
Chirp - What happened?
Chirp - I bumped my elbow…
This conversation has no end.
This conversation will also not be limited to short messages. It will contain many rambling speeches more fit for a phone conversation. Walkie-talkie messages are to phone calls what text messages are to email. They should be very brief blurbs, not expanded dialogs.
There is also the matter of walkie-talkie etiquette as opposed to phone etiquette. With a phone call, we begin with some sort of greeting and introduction. It is a very formal process. And we close with an equally formal sign off.
There is no formal introduction for a WT message. You just launch right into your brief shout out. Sometimes, the message may not go through, or the person just didn’t hear it. So in this world, it is useful to add something like, Over to the end of each message. This lets the person know that you are done talking for the moment.
If the recipient of the message has nothing to add, it is useful to acknowledge that you received the message by saying something like, Copy. It sounds silly. But it does have utility when holding a half-duplex conversation.
If the message thread is going to have more than two or three exchanges, or you see that it is going longer than intended, switch to a phone call. Don’t try to have a phone call with a walkie-talkie. For reasons already mentioned, a phone call is less obtrusive than a walkie-talkie conversation.
Some of the problem goes away when you have headphones paired to your Apple Watch. The whole conversation, including the chirps, happens in your ears. The only thing heard by others is your side of the conversation.
Ideal uses for the Apple Watch Walkie-Talkie (AWWT)
You ideally want to use AWWT in those instances when you would have sent a text from your watch. Right now, the best way to send a text from the Apple Watch is by voice dictation. You will keep it discrete, short, and to the point.
The drawbacks are that you still have to speak that message aloud. There is still a translator in the process in the form of speech-to-text and autocorrect. And there is no way to edit the message if you made a mistake. In short, there is no ideal way of sending messages with the Apple Watch.
AWWT will quickly become the best option once it is widely available. You are speaking aloud. But the person on the other end can clearly hear what you are trying to say. Even if you fumble your words, there is no need for editing. The messages are in real time. There is no autocorrect getting in the way. And you will quickly find that AWWT starts replacing texting on your phone.
Since my wife and I have been using AWWT to keep in touch throughout the day, we haven’t sent each other any text messages, emojis, handwritten messages, and very few FaceTime calls with Memoji, or even phone calls. It really has subsumed all our communications, not just those from the Apple Watch.
The mic on the Apple Watch is very good. You can get away with a whisper. So there is no need to shout your message to the entire room. If you and your friends have gone your separate ways in the mall and want to meet up, an AWWT shout-out is a good way to determine everyone’s location.
You and your partner can communicate in the house without having to shout. You can have a quick conversation from the office on a break. You can get clarification at the store. I always need that when I’m doing the shopping.
I am not bringing up little annoyances that have to do with using the first beta of a new thing. Though there are surprisingly few such annoyances to be found. For most people, this will be a new kind of communication. And that is also true for Apple. They are going to have to carefully think through a few issues. We are all going to have to be patient while this is all worked out.
For instance, what does it mean to be available for an AWWT conversation? Right now, you get a chirp and message in some situations when you are on Silence and DND. That is unacceptable. It seems that when the watch is silenced, you should never get the chirp. But in some respects, you are always somewhat available except for when you explicitly turn AWWT availability off.
There needs to be a shorter time-out period. The first message in a new conversation should come with a notification giving you an option to hear the message or send an auto-text saying that you can’t talk right now.
There also needs to be a conversation about group chats. Team messages will be a big boost for people working together. Perhaps there can be some granularity allowing some people to get through all the time, while others have to be vetted with each initiating message.
There is the matter of connectivity stacks. Right now, the Apple Watch wants to use a wifi signal. This is problematic for reasons I don’t have time to go into. But for many people, walkie-talkie will feel broken because it can’t connect. Turn off wifi in the watch settings. And everything works much better.
That still doesn’t sort out the headphone situation. Use AirPods on your phone, and the watch will try to use them as well. This handoff does not always work. And it is even worse with other headsets. So using AWWT without a headset works more reliably. These are technical issues that will affect how we use the feature. I might right more about these connectivity issues in another post.
Finally, get ready for text messaging for voice. We think differently based on the medium we use to communicate. We talk on a phone differently than we talk via a hand-written letter, which is itself, different from an email, from a text message, from a smoke signal.
We are going to have to learn to speak our thoughts in Twitter-like short bursts. That is harder than you think. And you may not be proficient in the beginning. But if you give it a few days, you will find it frustrating to have a conversation any other way.
There are a few months separating us from this walkie-talkie future. But the time to start thinking about it is now.
Over and out.