Messaging apps could be the best thing about the Apple Watch

Look to Asia for the future of Apple Watch apps

The Apple Watch isn’t the first smartwatch, but it is a wholly new communications device. Apple’s own messaging features take front stage on the hardware; the Watch only has one traditional button, which takes you to a list of friends and lets you exchange quick sketches or emoji, get their attention with a nudge, or connect on a more intimate level by sending them your heartbeat.

It’s unclear whether any or all of these “digital touch” features will take off, despite their current prominence. Of the “HBD” messages I got last week, the hand-sketched ones on my wrist felt more personal than those on my Facebook wall, at least.

But the Apple Watch’s potential as a way to communicate doesn’t have to hinge on Apple’s own ideas — like the iPhone before it, the Watch is a software platform where developers are hoping to strike gold with the next hot social app. It’s a new device with new ways to interact, and there are obvious challenges to overcome, like the small screen, limited battery, and lack of keyboard. And if what happened with the iPhone is any indication, you might want to look to Asia first.

line takeshi idezawa

Messaging is the most important function on your smartphone, and Asian apps like Line in Japan, WeChat in China, and Kakao Talk in South Korea have set the pace for Silicon Valley. Facebook Messenger and Yo have cribbed their growth strategy from these apps, while Path just sold itself to Kakao’s parent company after spending years aping its features. These apps were all on the Apple Watch at launch — Apple even highlighted WeChat during its May event — and they turn out to be a great fit.

It’s all about stickers. Most Western users will have come across stickers, which are like oversized emoji with more personality, through Facebook Messenger. But they’re a far more prominent and essential feature in the East. Stickers are a quick, contextual, often hilarious way to embellish conversations, which turns out to be perfect for the Apple Watch. Line, Kakao Talk, and WeChat all have very similar Watch apps that let you reply to messages with stickers right from the wrist; if you’re used to stickers, they’re often all you need.

"When they first came out no one really knew whether [the sticker characters] were boys or girls or even what kind of animals or people these things were," Line CEO Takeshi Idezawa (above) told me last year. "But that fluidity lent them the ability to let our users express their emotions more easily by not tying it down to one thing." Line in particular has done an incredible job of making its users identify with its own stickers; Brown the bear and Cony the bunny are Hello Kitty-style phenomena in Japan and beyond, with extravagant merchandise stores popping up in cities like Bangkok and even New York. Stickers are a major reason that Asian chat apps are so engaging, and that’s why they work so well on the wrist — it’s easier to convey delight with a deranged bunny grin than a clumsy sketch using Apple’s digital touch.

There are a couple of interface hiccups at present. Line, for example, automatically suggests relevant stickers when you type on a phone keyboard, which makes it much easier to find the one you want, whereas Watch apps make you scroll through a limited selection. But overall, it almost feels like stickers were made for the Watch. "It’s a new device, and its potential has not yet been discovered," a Kakao spokesperson tells The Verge. "But the Watch boasts higher mobility and accessibility than mobile devices, and we believe these characteristics will bring changes to communication and conversation just as changes came with the introduction of smartphones." Kakao says it was an intentional decision to keep its Watch app light with only the most frequently used stickers from the phone, and will continue to build out features over time.

Apple Watch on arm

While these chat apps are finding ways to extend themselves onto the Apple Watch, other developers are creating apps where the Watch is the primary platform. One of the more ambitious to date is WatchMe Messenger, developed by a small Tokyo startup called Pocket Supernova; it pushes right up at the boundaries of what’s currently possible with Apple Watch apps by offering a rudimentary form of video chat. You shoot a 3-second clip with your phone and type in a brief caption, then WatchMe recognizes your words and adds related graphics to the footage before compressing it all into a jerky, colorful GIF made just for the wrist.

"When we saw the watch for the first time at the Apple event, we thought what would be best is a short notification that’s visually rich," says CEO Oscar Noriega, who says he was inspired by the lo-fi fun of Nintendo’s Game Boy Camera. "We imagined that if that notification had motion and additional information, and was visual, it’d be way richer than plain text with a logo from an app."

The obvious issue here is that communication is asymmetrical — one person uses their phone to send a message, then the other receives it on their Watch, then has to dig out their own phone if they want to reply with a video of their own (though they can reply with voice or basic emoji). But WatchMe messages are definitely fun to receive, and Noriega isn’t concerned about the lack of back-and-forth. "It was never intended to be a super deep product. You can’t have a deep conversation about space or life on Mars or anything like that. It may seem like we designed it as a one-way experience, but in reality users can do what they want [depending on the situation]." One thoughtful feature is that the sender gets a notification when their video has been viewed, which can often be enough of a "reply" in itself. Noriega gave the example of showing an en route friend where you’re sitting in a restaurant, which is actually what I sent to him when I arrived early for our interview in a cafe.

Dingbel is another quirky Japanese messaging app, created by Keisuke Kamijo, a producer at mobile gaming company and Nintendo partner DeNA. Kamijo describes it as a "minimal communication tool," and the app itself is incredibly simple — you just tap to send one or two "dings" to a Watch-wearing Facebook friend, much like you can with Apple’s own built-in messaging features. But Dingbel is interesting because the context for each message lives outside the app itself. One ding is supposed to mean "yes / positive / good" while two dings means "no / negative / bad", so you can send ultra-quick messages on the move that can be meaningful based on the situation.

"We believe that communication among wearables will be increasingly high-context," says Kamijo. "Other than 'ding' and 'ding-ding,' you can also see the sender, the time, and the distance, which can be just enough information to get what it means. For example, if you are supposed to meet up with a friend at 6PM but are running late, a 'Ding' from your friend 500 meters away obviously means ‘I’m here. Where are you?’"

There’s no reason why you couldn’t do almost the same thing with the Apple Watch’s built-in software, and DeNA has its work cut out convincing people to download and use an app with little obvious extra functionality. But by defining and codifying how abstract notifications are ascribed meaning in the real world, Dingbel could be useful because everyone with the app will share an understanding of how to use it.

Apple Watch stock

But for all the efforts of developers, there’s only so much they’ve been able to do right now to make compelling software. Apple Watch apps have very limited functionality right now because of WatchKit, the cut-down SDK developers use — WatchKit apps don’t run on the Watch itself; they’re subsets of iPhone apps, and all the processing happens on the phone while data is sent across to the Watch. This is effective for reducing strain on the Watch’s battery, but means that loading apps is often maddeningly slow to the point where the Watch’s quick-look advantage is rendered irrelevant.

Things are about to get better, though; native apps that run on the Watch itself are coming. Last month at its Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple showed off the first details of watchOS 2.0 and WatchKit 2.0, which should be a huge boon to developers. Apps will be able to use hardware features like the Watch’s sensors and digital crown, and won’t have to rely so much on the iPhone.

"People need to understand that the changes announced at WWDC are really important and will have an impact on the kind and quality of apps overall," says Noriega, who is understandably excited about the ability to play actual video files as well as make use of the Watch’s sensors. "Developers can provide better experiences with native apps, and this is the most important change — without getting into the technical details, what really matters is that for users this just means better experiences, faster experiences, and smoother flows."

We’ll have to wait and see just how developers end up using the Watch hardware. But after a couple of months wearing the Watch myself, I’m convinced that it holds great — yet untapped — potential as a messaging device, and that the things that tend to work best on the Watch are unlike anything we’ve seen before. Who knows? The next Snapchat might work best on the wrist.