Getting Apple Watch Apps Right Will Take a While

The good news: Beyond the first apps, the Apple Watch’s software will certainly come along. Consider heart rate sensors and other features that will turn the watch into a useful tool that can contribute to medical uses and ResearchKit studies. The bad news: There will be no fart apps.

Fart app adSeriously, with years of iPhone app experience, Apple has created the rules for software to make the additions relatively useful. Apple has a long, 26-item list of things in the Functionality section of the Guidelines that declare: “2.11 Apps that duplicate Apps already in the App Store may be rejected, particularly if there are many of them, such as fart, burp, flashlight, and Kama Sutra Apps.” The hard part is coming up with a new class of apps that take the best advantage of the Watch.

The apps launched for the original iPhone were designed by Apple itself (and we have forgotten that even such a key app as Google Map for the iPhone was by Apple). It wasn’t until the introduction of the iPhone 3G in 2008 the device was open to third party apps, giving developers plenty of time to think of solutions. The iPhone 3G came out with 15,000 apps, but its telling that Smule’s $1 Ocarina was one of the most popular choices.

Subway appOf course, the availability of the iPhone produced a flood of products in the App Store. Many of them are simply a small-screen extension of popular iPhone apps. Only a relatively few really help, for example American Airlines offering that gives key flight information on your wrist as you dash through the terminal, providing service that is easier to get to than a similar report on a phone. Sneaking a glimpse at the score of a sports event, checking the coming of a subway train, or entering a payment into a parking meter could be very helpful. And, as my partner Ben Bajarin has pointed out, the Watch will be most useful when it is kept hands free.

On the other hand, a number of the Watch apps are silly. Green Kitchen offers recipes on your wrist. I am a big fan of the iPad for recipes but a watch display is way too small for the job. And the two hands generally involved are going to be a problem during work that nearly always requires at least one hand in use. Getting your account information from Citibank, your financial data from Mint, and bidding on purchases through eBay are mainly silly and add, at best, very little to an iPhone.

Watch caluclatorCalculators may be the worst idea of the Watch. Of course, calculators have been available on electronic watches for a long time—Casio offered them on cheap watches 20 years ago. Meanwhile, today you can pay up to $1,200 for a 1970s Swiss Pulsar LED watch. Those watch calculators failed to work the same way the Apple Watch’s version will fail: the touchable buttons, now on screen rather than physical, are just too small.

Basically, most of the initial Watch apps are shrunken-down iPhone apps, just as the early iPhone apps imitated applications on the PC desktop or a web service. It takes a while to do two incredible things. One is to redo how the design of the software has to be done to fit a smaller display and the different controls. This is mostly a reasonable start—the Watch apps don’t expect to use an on-screen keyboard. The harder part is to find apps on the watch that aren’t quite similar on a phone, a tablet, or a PC. That will take longer.

Nike appI think health care, both do-it-your-self health and physical techniques and more professional medical apps, will probably be very important. Apple sees its software launch of HealthKit as a success and CEO Tim Cook called the response to ResearchKit, a tool that allows medical researchers to easily collect data from participants, “simply amazing.” The Watch, for example, can be improved in these functions not only because it has better sensors than a phone but it can be more thorough in the collection of data because it remains on the body more reliably than phones do.

As the apps get better, they should continue to drive increasing watch sales. Initial Watch sales are going to fans who have been waiting for the product, but the volume will likely drop when these orders are filled. Eventually, it is the improved apps that will drive the sale, even as the iPhone soared once customers realized it was delivering services that weren’t practical in  some other way.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

16 thoughts on “Getting Apple Watch Apps Right Will Take a While”

  1. Watch controlled fart app. No doubt the 21st century whoopee cushion. And yet we can’t solve world hunger.


  2. Some of the ideas that I am seeing are really interesting. For example, the public transport transit app that I use (from Yahoo! Japan) does not try to replicate the functions on its smartphone app at all. Instead, all it does is it tells you how many minutes there are until the next train leaves your local station. It’s much more bare minimum than I expected, and I don’t think the feature exists on the smartphone app (at least I haven’t found it). It would be great for commuters who want to know whether they should walk briskly or run to catch the next train. I think the cleverness of the idea is that searching for transit information is not an everyday task, but walking to the station is.

    Also, I expect to get a lot of value from a baseball app. It’s heavily notification based but it alerts you to who the starting pitchers are tonight. When the game beings, you can see the score in a glance. It’s just what you want. It’s almost perfect.

    On the other hand, the Twitter app is something that I don’t expect to be using except for notification of mentions and DMs. The problem is, scrolling through tweets is a very crummy experience on the watch. This is in stark contrast to the smartphone which, in my impression, made scrolling much much more pleasant than even desktop PCs. I expect Twitter to have problems in the long run unless they get really serious about filtering the most relevant tweets. Asking users to scroll through long lists is not going to work on a smartwatch. Since Twitter was mostly a time killer which depended on my pulling out their phone all the time, and since I pull out my phone much less when I have my Apple Watch, I predict the Apple Watch to negatively affect Twitter usage. The same could be said of a lot of apps that became popular on the smartphone, because many are essentially boredom killers.

    In summary, I am starting to see new, stunningly simple ideas. It’s very exciting. On the other hand, I see disruption looming for some boredom-killing apps.

    1. The bus station around me have a QR code, scanning that loads a page with the real-time schedule of the next buses coming through. Or you can create Favorites. I’m sure they could move that to the watch easily, except if I’m waiting for the bus, I probably have my phone out anyway ^^

      1. Yes!!

        I knew there would be a lot of innovation in public transport in regions where it matters. Does that QR code link to a URL so that you can get the information from a browser? In that case, it makes a lot of sense to develop an app that somehow knows which bus you want to take (favourites?), and tells you when it’s going to arrive. It might not make sense if you’re already at the bus stop (you’ll have your phone out because you’re bored and checking out Twitter 🙂 ), but if you’re running to catch the bus, this information should be accessible from your wrist.

        We have a similar system in Japan that uses GPS systems loaded on buses which communicate their positions to an information centre, which then estimates arrival times and transmits that information to terminals at each bus stop or to an Internet service. I haven’t seen an Apple Watch app that uses this information just yet, but it obviously is simply a matter of time.

        And all the US is interested in is Uber…

        1. Indeed, city buses have GPS (some bus stops have that info displayed in real time, not mine though), metro has equivalent some system (not GPS for sure ^^) and so do trains.

          In the end there’s 3 ways to get info and schedule a trip:
          1- scanning the QR code indeed leads to a web page with next buses.
          2- there’s a city public transport (bus/metro/tram/boat – Marseilles is a coastal city, we have boats for a couple of islands and since the city is elongated & hugs the coast, another boat does cabotage along the city coastline) -specific app which lands right on your favorites page at launch, and has a complete schedule database + real-time data + a trip scheduler.
          3- the theoretical and real-time schedule data is made available by all transport providers (not sure if it’s a law or a gentleman’s agreement), so there’s even a publicly-funded app that does multi-mode transport. I’ve had it do city bus+metro+train+private bus travel several times. And I’m a salesman, so *that* problem is solved ^^

          1. That’s very impressive!

            I think that the data is publicly available in Japan as well, and we too have independents developing apps.

            Which brings me to the topic of Google. With all this accurate data being publicly available, independents can effectively compete against the massive data collection machine that Google is.

            Yes, Google Now is well positioned to be the AI behind relevant notifications. However, in many cases now, higher quality data is being publicly disclosed. Any developer is now free to innovate on how this information should be presented through a wearable device, without relying on Google in any way. I expect a lot of fresh innovation.

          2. “I expect a lot of fresh innovation.”

            One can hope. Feedback on transit conditions via watch sound eminently helpful while one is en route to the station or stop. Most people in NYC or Chicago are trekking at a pretty good clip. Pulling out one’s phone to check status only slows one down. And in Atlanta, I would feel safer knowing people are being notified by watch while they drive to the Marta station rather than checking their phone.

            I have an intense distrust for QR codes. I especially don’t trust any url I can’t read. Quite a few stops in NYC and Chicago have active sign updating vehicle status, both in the stations and at bus stops.

            The NYC Subway maps seem inaccurate by a just a few minutes. I can’t tell if that is inherent to a mass transportation system, or if the publicly available info is deliberately inaccurate for safety reasons.


          3. The Japanese, and I hear the Chinese too love their QR codes.

            Somewhat in relation, I expect huge regional differences in how the Apple Watch will be used. Good apps will likely combine location, timeliness and situation.

    1. I agree that the lists you link to are very poor, with maybe the exception of Citymapper. Related to our discussion below, the amount of information disclosed by the government, etc. might be key. We have several weather apps that tap into publicly available weather satellite data, and notify you when rain clouds are heading your way, together with cloud images on the phone app. Then you can decide whether you want to rush home or spend a few extra minutes in the cafe, or go and buy an umbrella at the convenience store. Maybe not a concern in Silicon Valley, but I would definitely count these as essentials in Japan.

      1. But presumably you already got the weather forecast for the day before you left home and you already knew to bring your umbrella. And if you have a meeting to get to, then knowing it’s about to rain doesn’t change the fact that you have to leave.

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