What Makes Smartwatch App Developers Tick?

The smartwatch market is small and unproven, but not all app developers are waiting for the dust to settle.

What Makes Smartwatch App Developers Tick?
[Photo: Flickr user Olivier Bacquet]

Look around in a public space, and you probably won’t see any smartwatches.

Despite all the buzz about wearables in the tech world, nascent platforms like Android Wear, Samsung’s Gear line, and Pebble are fighting over a tiny group of early adopters. Even among these users, attrition is a problem, as no one’s quite figured out how to keep people from tossing their not-so-old smartwatches in a drawer.

Still, that’s not stopping some developers, who are diving in and building software for these unproven wearable platforms. We asked a few of them to explain why.

Glanceable, Teachable Moments

For companies whose strategies hinge on ubiquity, jumping in with smartwatches makes sense. The apps are simple and don’t require a lot of manpower to build, and at this early stage they allow developers to figure out what works.

“It is early days, and really, it’s kind of [about] trying to understand what makes sense [for] wearables, trying to see what new functionality users enjoy using, and exploring and experimenting,” said Damian Mehers, Evernote’s wearables lead.

Evernote’s Android Wear app

Evernote currently has apps for Pebble, Android Wear, and Samsung’s Tizen-based Galaxy Gear watches, but they came about by happenstance. As an early Pebble smartwatch backer, Mehers had whipped up a basic Evernote app just for fun, then showed it to his superiors. Their response was to put him in charge of all wearable development and make it his focus. It’s a job he mostly does himself, with help from people in other departments and feedback from higher-ups.

“Part of the promise of Evernote is being able to access information pretty much everywhere…so it kind of seemed like a natural extension” to target wearables, Mehers said. As for the learning experience, Mehers said Pebble users responded well to Evernote’s rather dense smartwatch app, but they wanted the ability to open a note on their phones and have it pop up on the watch. That became a feature in Evernote’s Android Wear app, which allows that level of connectivity between phones and watches.

Opera Mini for Gear S

Igor Netto, a product manager for Opera, also said wearables are a chance to learn, so the company recently announced a version of its Opera Mini browser for Samsung’s Galaxy Gear S. “For Opera, this is really a time of exploration,” Netto said in an interview. “We want to see how our products could work on this very special form factor.”

Opera had already created a version of its browser for the Tizen platform that Samsung is using, so adapting it to the small screen didn’t take much effort. (“Let’s say one week, one person,” Netto said.)

Spritz

But not all companies see wearables as just an experiment. For Spritz, a startup that lets users speed-read by cycling through words on timed intervals, the small screens of wearables are the perfect venue. When the Gear S launches later this year, it’ll have Spritz-powered apps from the Financial Times and Engadget, among others.

“The reason why we’re so committed to it is because our partners who have the content want to be able to make it available to their users,” Frank Waldman, Spritz’s founder and CEO, said in an interview. Spritz handles most of the development work, Waldman said, so it’s fairly easy for publishers to get on board. Eventually, Spritz hopes to make money by partnering with publications across more device types, on things like integrated ads.

Enter The Hobbyists

Wearables have also attracted plenty of individual smartwatch enthusiasts, who’ve found it easy to create little apps that serve their own needs.

That’s what led Keanu Lee, an Ontario-based computer science and business administration student, to create the popular Pebble Cards app. He simply wanted a way to glance at the time, date, and other types of information in a single view, so he built an app using Pebble’s JavaScript SDK.

“The greatest motivation for me working on Cards is that I can use it myself,” Lee said in an e-mail.

Pebble doesn’t currently support paid apps, and Lee said he’d probably keep Pebble Cards free even if the policy changed, though he didn’t rule out separate freemium or paid apps in the future. While the occasional donations Lee gets through his website aren’t enough to live on, they’re enough for him to consider the project a success.

Cards for Pebble

David Rodriguez Rincón, a Pebble user based in Spain, had a similar experience creating the YWeather watchface. He couldn’t find any weather watch faces that displayed the day and date in Spanish, so he made one. People started asking for more languages, so he started adding them, and YWeather is now listed in the “most loved” section of Pebble’s app store. “I’m still freaking out about that,” Rincón wrote in an email.

Like Lee, Rincón doesn’t plan to charge for the app, but collects donations–he won’t say how much he’s earned–through his website. “I have no words to express my gratitude to all the YWeather backers (which are way more than I could ever imagine),” he wrote.

In talking to developers, one can imagine how things are going to play out from here. The platforms that don’t expand in a major way could still subsist on the contributions of enthusiast developers, because the demands for creating smartwatch apps are minimal enough.

Meanwhile, larger companies can pile on more resources as needed, after the experimentation is over and it’s clear which platforms are winning. Evernote’s Mehers, for example, imagines that over time, Android Wear development would be absorbed by the larger Android team, and the same could be true for its iOS crew if Evernote created an app for the Apple Watch.

For now, though, Mehers is happy to be one of the enthusiasts. “It’s rare,” he said, “that you get the opportunity to work on something that you have a personal passion for…and that comes in line with the company’s interests.”

About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com.

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