FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

Why There Aren't More Apple Watch Apps, According to Apple Watch Developers

TL;DR: it's a pain.
July 21, 2015, 9:58pm

Sign up for Motherboard's newsletter, Motherboard Premium, and get more stories like this daily.

It's now been three months since the Apple Watch was released, and even though we don't know how many units were sold, there are lots of apps for it. Target. American Airlines. Twitter. CNN. OpenTable.

By this point, Apple is pretty good at convincing publishers to build apps for its new products. Apple is also already dominating the new smartwatch market, analysts say, beating out the indie darling Pebble, Samsung Gear, and Android Wear-powered watches such as the Moto 360.

Advertisement

At the same time, however, the Watch is still missing the elusive "killer app"—the thing that improves your life so much that it alone is worth spending $350.

Part of that is because publishers are still figuring out how people use the device. There is an app for Instagram, for example, but not for Facebook. "I don't know if we could get it all in there in a way that feels good and works well," one Facebook product manager told the New York Times this week.

"The current lack of apps is mostly related to technical issues and limitations of the first watchOS release."

An interaction with your Watch, or any wearable, should take about four seconds, says Sean White, CEO of BrightSky Labs, which built 10app, an app that works as a remote for your GoPro.

"I'd say it's early days for developers to understand what it means to create a watch user interface, and early days for Apple to know what to provide as infrastructure," White said in an email.

An Apple Watch app takes about as much time and money to build as an iPhone app, meaning it could range from $10,000 to $50,000 or more depending on complexity. Publishers may not be ready to make that investment for such a new device and such a small market (in the low millions, if guesstimates are correct).

Publishers and buyers may also be discouraged by some of the Watch's limitations: slowness, design constraints, the fact that it must be paired with an iPhone app. Much of this will get better in the second version of the Watch software, but for now, the experience isn't always that great.

Advertisement

So what would it take to get more apps on the Apple Watch? Does it even make sense to put an app on a watch? We talked to three Apple Watch developers about what it's like to build apps that display on an expensive, tiny, and unfamiliar device.

MOTHERBOARD: Do you own an Apple Watch?

Sean White [10app]: I'm wearing it right now. There's a developer watch, a watch that they offered to developers. If you see one on the street that is a Sport Watch with a blue band, it's possible it's one of those.

Pam Selle [home security app, undisclosed]: I do not. I develop on Mac, but I don't have an iPhone or an Apple Watch. I wanted to develop for them because so many people use them.

Boris Bügling [Brew]: Yes. I mostly use it for notifications and controlling the Music app on my phone. I am quite happy with it, it is a very polished first generation product.

How do you feel about it?

Bügling: Its biggest issue so far is how the third party apps work. In contrast to Apple's own apps which run directly on the watch, other apps run on the iPhone, and the Apple Watch acts as more of an external display with some interactions.

As the communication works via low-energy Bluetooth, it is both quite slow and unreliable, also communication happens on every button press. This is what currently makes most third party applications quite useless, because they take too long to launch or use.

This will however be fixed mostly by the upcoming WatchOS 2 update in the fall, as it allows third party developers to also build apps which run directly on the watch, having the same performance and usability as Apple's own apps.

Advertisement

What are some of the design challenges unique to the Apple Watch?

Selle: In general, there are a lot of limitations in Apple design, and especially with Apple Watch, there is a limitation in how you can lay out your app.

I had to follow pretty strict rules in how the app had to be designed visually, so that was pretty difficult in working with the designer. I thought it was more restrictive than for the iPhone. Like literally, you couldn't just put a button wherever you wanted. There were only certain areas you could put buttons. The text had to be a certain size and in a certain area. It was very restrictive.

White: It's called the "fat finger problem." If you put your finger over the watch, you're covering almost 30 percent of the surface of the interaction space. The mistake that I think some people are making is, they'll have information that is being hidden by the person actually touching a button or trying to interact. You see that a little bit with iPhone but there is just generally more space.

"It's not really that interactive"

That's not specific with the Apple Watch, it's any watch. That's one reason why they have the crown as an interface.

Bügling: Very limited screen space. Limited time for interactions as it is not convenient to play around with a watch for extended periods of time. Data input, as there is obviously no keyboard and dictation is not always desired by users.

Advertisement

Lack of direct network connectivity—while the Apple Watch supports Wi-Fi and will connect to known Wi-Fi networks on its own, it needs the iPhone for cellular connections and for connecting to new Wi-Fi networks for the first time; this means it is more important than ever to think about offline use of an app.

Why aren't there more killer apps for the Apple Watch, and on the flip side of that, more Apple Watch users?

White: I think part of it is, it takes time for people to get used to interacting with something that's on their wrist.

In the 90s, people carried a phone, contact system, and music player—three different devices that all converged because real estate is limited. In the same way, you see people wearing FitBits and bracelets and the phone and the watch. My sense is that it converges. We see a lot of anecdotal evidence right now where people are pulling their phones out of their pockets less.

The promise of wearables in general is that we'll pay more attention to the world around us.

Selle: I think the platform itself is pretty limited. I was pretty surprised once I got in there just how much work it required in order to be able to communicate data between your phone app and your Apple Watch. You'd hope that functionality would be there starting right away.

I think the hobbyists and the indies really do extend the platform and do a lot of cool things but given the amount of work it takes to get an existing app onto the Apple Watch, and the limitations of the Apple Watch itself—it's not really that interactive. It's really an external screen for your phone because if anything important happens it wants you to pull out your phone.

Advertisement

I think it's kind of blocked people from doing really out-of-the-box things. Maybe if the price point drops we will see that. It's less than $100 to get a Pebble, and it's already open source and hackable. When people are doing the really interesting or creative stuff, they're doing it on Pebble.

Bügling: I think the one of the main issues is currently the crappy experience of third party apps due to the performance problems. This makes many apps simply not feasible, because users wouldn't want to wait for the constant delays.

But of course there's also the issue of a limited install base when people already don't really want to pay for apps anymore on their phone, it is hard to justify developing for an even smaller market.

I think the current lack of apps is mostly related to technical issues and limitations of the first watchOS release. It seems clear that Apple concentrated on the built-in apps for that, leaving third party developers with a little bit of a crappy solution, but the upcoming release will fix those issues. I'm quite sure we'll see a bunch of additional apps for watchOS 2 in the fall.

Do you think it's a good interface for apps?

Bügling: The apps that work well have to be really focused on their problem, as it is quite annoying to interact with a watch for more than a minute. This is also something that Apple stresses quite strongly in their design guidelines.

"When people are doing the really interesting or creative stuff, they're doing it on Pebble."

Some examples that I think work well: TransitHopper, it shows the next public transit connections nearby which will take you home at a glance. Apple's own Music and Apple TV remote apps—they provide a quick way to remote control other devices. The Uber app, quickly order a cab with one tap.

So what works best is quick interactions, showing a few bits of information at a glance or remote controlling other devices more conveniently.

White: I do. But I don't think, in the same way that you would never take iMovie and stick it on an iPhone, you should never take an iOS app and stick it on your watch. A lot of wearables are really meant to be micro interactions, things that are only going to take a few seconds at a time. You're not going to sit there and watch 15 movies on your watch.

Selle: In my personal opinion, no. It's an Apple thing so people will try and make the best of it and try and do really interesting things with it… but when I was checking it out, at least in its first iteration, it seemed very much like an external monitor on your wrist for your phone, which doesn't sound that appealing. When I think of the future, that's not what I think of.

Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. The interviews with White and Selle were conducted by phone. The interview with Bügling took place over email.