Tomorrow, Apple's most eager customers will open up their Apple Watches and try out some of their favorite apps for the first time. In many cases, the developers who made those apps will be using a Watch for the first time, too. Though Apple has not-so-secretly been inviting developers big and small to trial sessions with the Apple Watch, developers are largely putting out apps that they don't have much actual experience using. "It's an entirely new platform, and no one has access to one," says Adam Grossman, a founder of Dark Sky. "And yet we're expected to make apps for it."
The task sounds daunting, but it's one that developers seem to be excited about, giving them a chance to play with a whole new platform. "We had to design an app for a device that we didn't have, that we couldn't use, that doesn't exist yet," says Andrew Phelps, product manager for The New York Times' Watch app. "That was a totally fun and crazy challenge for us."
The trouble is, no one really knows what makes a good Watch app yet. Apple can hand guidelines to developers, but even it doesn't know for certain how people are going to want to use the watch. Developers almost have to code for it, though — waiting means losing ground, users, and publicity to other apps — so thousands are now taking a crack at it and hoping that they get it right.
How Watch apps work so far
There are two use cases for apps that quickly stand out when you talk to most developers: a Watch app can help you do something faster than a phone app could, or a Watch app can get you to use its corresponding iPhone app even more.
Dark Sky only does one of those things — its Watch app is meant to be faster to glance at than its iPhone app — which is why Grossman thinks that his app is a perfect fit for Apple's new device. "It feels like Dark Sky was really meant to be on the Watch," he says. Dark Sky, a forecast app that alerts you ahead of inclement weather, will push a chart of the next hour's rain or snowfall to the Watch before it starts coming down. Normally, the app would just send a brief alert ("Rain starting soon!") to your phone, and you'd have to open the app to see more. "A lot of the times it takes longer to get the phone out of your pocket than it does to check the app," he says. "So for us it makes a whole lot of sense to put it on your wrist."
Dark Sky is the kind of app that translates so naturally to the Watch that it makes you see why the Watch could actually work. But most apps aren't that simple. You don't need to do anything in Dark Sky — you just look at the forecast and then close it. Most other apps have complex functions; you're supposed to use them, often at length.
"We ultimately need be able to help you accomplish something."
That's why many developers are also using the Watch as a way to send people back to their corresponding iPhone apps. Because of that, you may call their presence on the Watch obligatory (and in some cases, it probably is), but apps from The New York Times and Evernote aim to straddle that line, letting you accomplish small tasks and pointing you to your phone when appropriate. "We ultimately need to be helping you accomplish something," says Jamie Hull, Evernote's VP of mobile products. "Otherwise the app's not particularly valuable."
Evernote has built its Watch app to automatically surface stored notes that are relevant to what a person is doing. Actually reading those notes is a different story: "We gave ourselves sort of a design rule of thumb: you should be able to get it done in three to five seconds, and if not, we want to bounce you back to the phone," Hull says. Evernote's app will even let users search through all of their old notes; but only a few results will surface, and they'll be presented in an abridged format. Try to read too much, and Evernote just won't let you — you'll have to pull out your iPhone.
The New York Times' app blurs the two use cases together. The app displays about half a dozen stories that have been boiled down to just a sentence in length (on the Watch, more detail than a headline) and allows users to add each story to a reading list that they can later pick up on their phone, should they want to know more. The Times' breaking news alerts are meant to serve a similar function.
"If you look at the Watch as a device that helps you decide whether it's worth taking your phone out of your pocket or not, … I think that'll become a very addictive and very useful feature for a lot of people," Phelps says. Appropriately, that idea echoes precisely why The New York Times' tech columnist Farhad Manjoo says he began to appreciate using the Apple Watch: "By notifying me of digital events as soon as they happened, and letting me act on them instantly, without having to fumble for my phone, the Watch became something like a natural extension of my body — a direct link, in a way that I’ve never felt before, from the digital world to my brain."
The trouble with Watch apps
Of course, that's how Watch apps will function so long as they actually, well, function. The Verge's review of the Apple Watch notes frequent performance issues, both due to the device's limited processing abilities and the fact that nearly all app data is being beamed over from a nearby iPhone. "The device is first generation," Phelps says. "It has a lot of limitations, and I think readers will blame The New York Times if The New York Times app is slow."
Dealing with those speed issues, for the Times, required making changes to how its app acts to get things running quicker. "We had to do a lot of work," Phelps says. "Basically shaving every millisecond we could off of installation time, launch time — it came down to even reducing the number of fonts in the binary to make sure that the thing loaded quickly."
Glances — which, as their name suggests, are screens meant to be very quickly glanced over — also ran into performance issues during The Verge's tests. In some instances, they loaded so slowly that you could have pulled out your phone instead, which could really limit their utility to both developers and users. That may not be entirely the Watch's problem, however. "App developers should pay a lot attention to only put things in there that hopefully are gonna come up in fairly short order," says Hull, of Evernote. "If you know you have to go back to your own servers and do some heavy lifting there via the phone, it might not be appropriate for a Glance."
The Watch also doesn't allow third-party apps to run natively yet, though the developers we spoke with didn't see this as a major problem. Some may wish that their apps could do an additional thing or two — Evernote, for instance, would like to be able to accept dictated notes when a phone isn't nearby — but because the initial round of Watch apps are growing out of traditional iPhone apps, no one really seems to mind that the iPhone has to be around.
Parag Vaish, StubHub's head of mobile, says that initial app issues may have more to do with unexpected behavior than with limitations. StubHub's Watch app, for instance, is supposed to allow users to pull up their tickets and present them at a show — but that only works if the Watch’s screen doesn't turn off. "If you're trying to show a mobile ticket on your Apple Watch to an usher or a ticket taker, the simple fact of you moving it away from your body could have it go dark," Vaish says. StubHub says this isn't a problem for most ticketing, since scanners typically come from above, meaning Watch users won't be required to turn their wrists upside down and risk the display turning off.
There are also inherent limitations of the hardware that developers will just have to get used to. "We joke that we hope Arnold Schwarzenegger is not in the news anytime soon," Phelps says. "It simply does not fit on that screen."
Still, one developer The Verge spoke with, who was unable to speak publicly because of an agreement with Apple, said that developers trying to make complicated apps for launch day may just be out of luck; there may be too many potential issues for an app to run into. "Honestly, I don't know how somebody could build a Watch app without having gone into [Apple's] lab," the developer said.
Watch apps down the road
While complicated apps may pose problems on launch day, most developers described coding for the Watch as fairly simple. StubHub had one of its developers build a working prototype over a weekend. Evernote even described working on a Watch app as akin to working on a notification screen widget. "The good news is, the app developer community has certainly had the opportunity to build extensions before this point, which is ultimately what the Watch app is," Hull says.
And while no one may know exactly what a Watch app should look like, it may not be that hard to build an acceptable one if you follow Apple's suggestions. Grossman, of Dark Sky, says that what you can do with a Watch app is "very constrained," but he sees that as a good thing. "Apple is kind of leading you down a path," he says.
"Ultimately people will want more and more complex experiences on the Watch."
In part, that means keeping Watch apps streamlined and simple. "We've been at this for about five weeks now, and over the last two weeks we've only removed features from the Watch," says StubHub's Vaish. "Essentially the build we had two weeks ago was more than we needed to have for it to be in the store today. We trimmed it back."
While simplicity may be necessary for now, Phelps, of the Times, suspects that people will want Watch apps to do more in the future. "I think ultimately people will want more and more complex experiences on the Watch," he says. "But for day one, for a device that is brand new … I think simplicity was key."
Watch apps may evolve in much the same way that iPhone apps did, as developers standardize around symbols, layouts, and interactions that users become accustomed to. Already, Grossman says that he's made Dark Sky better by looking around at other developers' apps. "The watch is a lot more fluorescent [displaying bright colors on a black background] than the iPhone is," he says. "Looking at other apps made me kind of change Dark Sky from muted colors to more bright, vibrant colors."
Apps are going to have to quickly change to keep up with what people expect from the Watch, especially as more and more people have one. But for the most part, this initial batch of apps may not be far off the mark. "The apps six months from now are going to be significantly better than the apps on day one," Grossman says. "But I don't think it's going to be a major overhaul in our thinking."