Apps to watch out for
Let’s face it, the Apple Watch ticks all the iOS boxes
Lots of developers have been hard at work making versions of their apps for Watch. Among them is Realmac Software, which is building a Watch version of Clear, the popular reminders app. Realmac’s Nik Fletcher told us about the company’s vision for it. “Clear will show your to-dos, and notify you with Reminders, as you’d expect. We’re also bringing interactive notifications to Clear for the first time”, he explained. “We’ve built the most-used parts of Clear into Clear for Apple Watch, right the way down to using a design based on whichever theme you’ve chosen in Clear for iPhone”. On themes, he added, “In addition to Apple Watch support, a new theme will be unlocked when you use Clear on Apple Watch for the first time”.
OfficeTime is another iOS app that will make the transition to Apple Watch. Developer Stephen Dodd told us, “We’re really excited about OfficeTime for the Apple Watch. I want to be able to walk into a meeting, tap a button on my wrist, walk out, tap it again and at the end of the week have a breakdown of where my time went. I think it will really make tracking your time easier and more immediate”.
Gary Riches is working on two apps for Watch. The first is a version of his own app, Home Remote. “The Apple Watch version of Home Remote will act like the Today view extension, it will allow the user to unlock doors, turn on lights and even put the kettle on if they have the right equipment. The set up is all done in the iOS app and then the Apple Watch and the Today view extension provide a way to trigger the actions you’ve set up”, he explained.
Riches believes that Apple Watch is hugely important for the future of his app, and that “people that use Home Remote and an Apple Watch will almost exclusively use Home Remote from their Watch and not their phone”. Riches’ view is informed by the success of Home Remote for Pebble’s smartwatch, and the way that it removes the barrier of having to retrieve a smartphone from your pocket to use the app. “Home Remote also supports the Pebble smartwatch, and the experience of using it to control your home is great. Being able to offer that functionality with a better display, touch input and eventually voice control from your watch has me incredibly excited”, Riches told us.
Riches is also part of a team working on another Watch app, Prompt, a tool designed to help with delivering presentations. “You use the iOS app to set up the presentation, write what each section will be about and the run time of that section. When you start your presentation
Prompt and it will let you see how much longer you have to talk as well a guide on what you should be talking about”, he explained.
The idea for Prompt had been kicking around for a while, Riches told us, but hadn’t been taken further, in part because of hardware limitations. “Taking your phone out of your pocket whilst doing a presentation wasn’t really feasible, but when the Apple Watch was announced it was a no brainer. This is just what Prompt needed. The Apple Watch isn’t just important to Prompt… It’s essential to it”.
Having quick and easy access to the Watch, rather than constantly pulling an iPhone from your pocket, is something that all the developers we spoke to believe will help their apps. Stephen Dodd explained, “The biggest challenge with tracking your time is remembering to do it. Having the ability on your wrist and the reports on your phone will take one piece of inertia away… Every barrier you remove to tracking your time immediately, the better picture of your life and projects you’re going to get”.
Despite the excitement over the potential for Watch apps, there are limitations. The most widely publicised is that apps won’t run on the Watch itself. They must be downloaded on an iPhone and then synced with the Watch. Apps will be displayed on Watch, but the computation will all be done on an iPhone. Developers can’t create native apps until later in 2015.
“As exciting as it’s been to develop this, it’s also been frustrating. We have all these fabulous ideas of what we want to do but with the current version of WatchKit, but it’s not possible. We’re hoping when the native version comes out later we can put some of our dreams into fruition”, explained OfficeTime’s Stephen Dodd.
Apple Watch’s inability to render animations on the fly is another significant limitation for developers. Instead, animation has to be produced as a series of pre-rendered images to achieve high frame rates.
“It’s not surprising perhaps, given the power constraints, but the rigid nature of canned animations (a series of pre-rendered images) means that the initial Apple Watch experience may be a little less fluid”, explained Realmac’s Nik Fletcher. “I suspect that folks in Cupertino would want a richer experience too, and this is almost certainly an area we’ll see a lot of movement in as we get towards native apps”.
Access to the Watch’s vibrations and Digital Crown is restricted too, as Gary Riches explained: “The fact we don’t have access to Apple’s Taptic Engine (a vibration motor to us lay folk) meant we weren’t able to have vibrations as you are approaching the end of your section or presentation (in Prompt)”.
The restrictions aren’t all bad news, though. The developers we spoke to agreed that the constraints forced them to think more creatively, and to be more strict about features included in their apps. “We’ve gone through dozens (and dozens!) of designs for tracking your time on your wrist. The more we design, the more we decide to cull and simplify”, Dodd told us. “We’ll develop something simple, intuitive and useful and add bells and whistles when we know we’re doing the right thing”.
With that sentence, Dodd hit on another key restriction. No one knows just what the longterm experience of using an Apple Watch will be like – will it become indispensable or is it just an expensive toy? Can we put up with the battery life? Is the need to have an iPhone close by too much of a bind? How easy is it operate the Digital Crown? What about the screen? Apple’s recent history suggests the answers to these user issues will be largely positive. Battery life isn’t as good as we’d all like it to be (not quite all day), and there are, of course, some teething problems. But given the time and effort that’s gone into the product, it’s certainly no turkey. Nevertheless, some developers remain cautious, like Fantastical’s Michael Simmons, who said, “Until we actually get to use it, understand the features and overall user experience, and likewise, the limitations, we wouldn’t want to just make something that ‘fits the mold’”.
Watching from afar
The developers who are already making apps are more positive, but still cautious about the prospects of Watch app development.
“It’s hard to get a feeling for what it’s going to feel like using an Apple Watch and how it’s going to affect your day. It’s one of those products that won’t really shine until you see your friend using it”, said Dodd.
As for Apple’s promise of native apps later this year, the developers we spoke to are relaxed about it and won’t regard it as disastrous if that time scale slips. “I think you’re going to be surprised with how far developers will be able to push the APIs they have been given access to. Apple has a great set of independent app developers behind them and they’ll be able to push the Apple Watch far beyond anything Android Wear has been able to offer”, explained Riches. “I would like to see native apps available announced at WWDC this year, but if we had to wait until early next year then, whilst disappointing, I don’t think it would be particularly damaging”.
Jeremy Olson, of Hours’ developer Tapity, agreed: “I don’t think it is essential to the success of the platform for it to happen this year. I think the tools Apple has given us, while limited, are a great start and I expect Apple to dramatically improve them in the next couple years”. And Realmac’s Nik Fletcher reminded us, “The iPhone launched without apps at all, but the pace and scale of iteration since the iPhone SDK launch in 2008 has shown it’s only a matter of time for the Apple Watch SDK to truly hit its stride”. Just look at how far the App Store has come in just seven years since then.
The message is clear: while we may end up having to wait until next year for Apple Watch apps to reach their full potential, there’s still plenty to get excited about right now! And Apple won’t allow launch day to be a damp squib. Expect some seriously good apps from some big names, with a flurry to follow throughout the summer as developers realise the potential market and follow the trends that others will lead.
Much like Realmac Software has with Clear, the best Watch apps are rethinking and paring back their interfaces for a whole new kind of device.
As an iPhone app, OfficeTime is useful, but as a Watch app it could be essential for tracking time spent in meetings with just a tap.
With apps like OfficeTime, you can add and access data with just a quick lift of your wrist and a tap of a button. Now that’s how ‘at a glance’ is supposed to be!
Menelao takes the friction out of recording your expenses, so you never forget anything because you’ll no longer need to pull out your iPhone to record items.
Remote lighting is all well and good, if you can locate your iPhone. Now just tap your wrist to turn the lights on and off. Home automation may find its ‘home’ in Watch apps.