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How The Apple Watch Will Work, As Explained By The People Making The Apps

While Apple hypes up basic features like fitness tracking and voice controls, app makers get into the nitty-gritty details.

How The Apple Watch Will Work, As Explained By The People Making The Apps
[Photo: courtesy of Apple]

To get a real sense of how the Apple Watch will work, don’t listen to Tim Cook.

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In hyping up Apple’s first smartwatch, Cook has taken to pointing out items–like health tracking, notifications, and voice controls–that are readily available on other smartwatches already. When he said at a recent business conference that these features will change the way you live your life, he was barely scratching the surface.

To find out what the Apple Watch will really be like, you need to consider the apps that will run on them. So I’ve talked to several developers who’ve been working with WatchKit, Apple’s framework for smartwatch apps, to learn about the platform’s highlights and lowlights. Here’s what we know:

The Digital Crown Will Breed New Apps

So many of the Apple Watch’s interactions will be driven by touch that it’s easy to overlook the importance of the Digital Crown, a twisting dial that sits on the side of the device. This seemingly simple flourish actually enables the kind of deep apps that haven’t been possible before.

“Our Android Wear app and our Apple Watch app are very, very different, and they don’t really focus on the same things,” says Amir Salihefendic, whose company Doist creates the Todoist task management app. While Todoist’s Android Wear app is focused on interacting with notifications, the Apple Watch version will give users full control over their task lists. The Digital Crown is “a huge reason behind this,” Salihefendic says, because it allows for more precise interactions.

Todoist on the Apple Watch

Salihefendic isn’t actually sure whether people will want this level of depth on their smartwatches, but he’s looking forward to finding out when the hardware becomes available. Either way, he’s happy that Google and Apple are taking different angles. “I think it’s super cool that they are not trying to do the same thing,” he says. “That would be pretty boring.”

A More Powerful Siri, With One Weakness

The idea of voice controls on a smartwatch isn’t new, but the Apple Watch will go further than its rivals by directly controlling third-party apps. That means you could launch a to-do list and tell Siri which actions to check off, or open your smart lightbulb app and tell it which rooms of the house to light up. No other smartwatch platform allows this level of voice control within apps; the closest Android Wear gets is a Google-defined list of commands (like “take a note” and “remind me”) that third-party apps can use.

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There’s just one problem: Getting to where you can execute these commands on the Apple Watch may take too much effort. Markiyan Matsekh, a product manager at software development firm ELEKS, ran into this issue while hacking up an unofficial remote control app for Tesla vehicles. “[I]t would be great to open the car with a phrase like ‘open my Tesla’ or a single multi-touch,” Matsekh says. “Instead, you have to find the app, launch it, wait for the launch and only then speak or act. This doesn’t happen in seconds.”

ELEKS’s Tesla app

The good news is that the groundwork is set. If Apple ever added a faster way to launch an app and execute voice commands within it, Siri would become extremely powerful.

There’s Logic To The Limitations

In typical Apple fashion, it’s keeping developers on a tight leash for now. They can’t use the Digital Crown for anything except basic scrolling, and any touch gestures beyond basic taps are off-limits. Developers also can’t make full use of the pressure-sensitive “Force Touch” screen or “Taptic” vibration feedback. And as Apple itself has acknowledged, native apps that run independently of a paired iPhone won’t be possible until later this year.

Every developer I spoke with hopes and expects that WatchKit’s capabilities will grow. But for now, the restrictions enforce a sort of discipline not found on other platforms. Alex Bratton, CEO of enterprise app developer Lextech says it’s the same philosophy that distinguished iOS from Android in their early days, with Apple insuring that apps couldn’t hog resources and burn battery life. While Apple’s SDK doesn’t give much indication of how certain behaviors will affect battery life, Bratton says “there’s not a lot you can do to screw it up.”

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Even the lack of standalone watch apps helps developers on some level, Bratton says, due to the tools Apple built around companion apps. Apple has made it easy for developers to see how events on the phone affect what happens on the watch, and vice versa. This helps developers tweak either app as needed, and think about apps in an event-driven way. “I think that gives the developer at least a framework, not even technically, just a mind-set of ‘okay, here’s how I can address an app,’” Bratton says.

We’ll Probably See Some Generic Smartwatch Apps

Despite all the things that the Apple Watch can do differently, it still has some common ground with other platforms. As a result, some developers are already trying to figure out how to write share large amounts of code between Apple Watch, Android Wear, and Pebble apps.

Software development firm Apperson Labs, for instance, plans to use a platform called Strap that will adapt a single JavaScript app to all three platforms, says founder Matt Apperson. For instance, a twist of the Digital Crown in an Apple Watch app might be analogous to a swipe in Android Wear or a button press on Pebble.

While firms like Apperson can then add platform-specific features on top, we could very well see a subset of Apple Watch apps that aren’t too different from what you’ll find on other platforms. And that’s okay if it means more companies jumping into wearables, unafraid that they’d be betting on the wrong horse at such an early stage. As platforms like Android Wear and Apple Watch compete for features, some of their apps may not be as radically different as you might expect. “You don’t have to worry so much about who’s currently ahead,” Apperson says.

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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