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How Apple can get developers fired up about the Apple Watch again

When the company announces the new watchOS 5, we hope it will address these Siri, Bluetooth, and interface problems.

How Apple can get developers fired up about the Apple Watch again
[Photo: rawpixel/Unsplash]

With Apple’s WWDC developer conference coming up on Monday, it’s interesting to note that the Apple Watch is both a big success with consumers and a disappointment to many developers.

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Apple has likely sold between 45 million and 50 million of the devices, estimates show. But credible reports (and my own conversations) say many developers have stopped creating and improving Watch apps. Why? It’s a number of things, but the overarching theme is this: Developers perceive that the Apple Watch has yet to emerge as a mature, free-standing platform, independent of the iPhone and iOS. There’s also the fact that apps on the Watch are often just not that useful.

When it was announced in 2014, the Watch was little more than a remote control accessory for the iPhone. It had apps from the start, but they were only mirrors of the same apps running on the paired iPhone. It’s come a long way since that first version. The apps now run on the Watch itself, which is, in general, more independent of the phone–especially now that Apple gave the device its own 4G cellular connection to the internet last year.

But the problem and the perception remains. With any luck, Apple has been working on ways of smoothing the cellular connection and perhaps the number of things it can do for apps. Apple also needs to make some important improvements to the Watch’s operating system to increase the device’s independence from the phone. Here are some specific ones I hope the company will address in watchOS 5, the new software we’ll see during the WWDC keynote on Monday morning.

More activity info

On the Watch’s Activity screen, you can see only your progress toward your daily movement, exercise, and stand goals. It would be nice to get a look at your progress on weekly or monthly goals, too. There’s plenty of room on the Activity app screen to add that information. It might also make a nice complication (or two) for a Watch face.

Call in progress

A developer colleague (who is an avid Watch user) told me about a problem he has when making voice calls on the device. Right now you can’t use other features of the Watch while a phone call placed on the device is in progress. If you need to access some piece of data from the calendar or a text message or a map, you have to go to the iPhone. Fixing that would make the Watch more independent of the iPhone.

Bluetooth blues

If streaming Apple Music via the Apple Watch to Apple’s wireless AirPod worked flawlessly, it would be the Watch’s killer app. One of the big problems I have with the Watch/AirPods combo is the Bluetooth connection between the two. When either the Watch or the AirPods get to less than 50% battery level, I experience disconnections between the two. This usually happens when I’m out for a run after work. I’ve already been wearing the Watch all day, and using the AirPods intermittently. So it’s easy to see low battery levels when it’s time hit the streets. I often listen to Nike Run Club coaching while I’m running, so sudden interruptions to that can kill a workout.

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The handoff problem

When I’m preparing to run, I waste time trying to get the AirPods to forget about the iPhone sitting on the desk and connect with the Watch. Having to choose “Mark’s AirPods” on the Watch several times is, for me, a real-life experience. Even when I’m outside and well away from the phone, the Watch doesn’t seem to able to lock in a connection with the AirPods and hold it. And why do the AirPods have to connect with only one device at a time, anyway? My Bose Quiet Comfort wireless headphones can connect to two devices at once. Apple needs to find a way to at least make it more apparent to me which device the AirPods are currently connected to. The Bose headphones simply speak that information into my ear.

Another Watch user tells me that handing off a telephone call from the iPhone to the Watch/AirPods is no walk in the park.

Music confusion

Why does the Watch need both a “Now Playing” screen and a “Music” screen? The Now Playing screen is supposed to provide a quick way to control music playback whether it’s coming from the phone or playing on the Watch. The Music screen is supposed to show what’s being played from the Watch’s memory or streamed via Apple Music. When the music is playing from the Watch (not the phone), the Now Playing screen and the Music screen display the exact same track information and controls. And they both appear in the scrolling app drawer. It creates a confusing user experience. Apple should find a way to integrate the Now Playing screen into the Music screen.

Wrist flip

When you flip your wrist to point the Watch toward your face the Watch is supposed to wake up and display the time. But this often requires an exaggerated wrist flip. Some Android Wear watches show the time on the Watch face even in sleep mode. Apple should add this to the Watch, or fine-tune the sensors that detect the wrist movement.

Siri on the Watch

I saved the biggest opportunity for improvement for last. The biggest problem with the Watch may also Apple’s biggest problem as a company. Apple has fallen behind in artificial intelligence–especially the AI that powers the voice-based personal assistant, Siri.

One of the reasons Apple cares so deeply about the Watch is that it is a uniquely personal device which you wear next to your body all day long. That requires a small size and lightweight. It also entails a shrunken user interface, so having some way other than that tiny screen to communicate with the device is important. And that’s voice input.

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When using Siri on the Apple Watch with AirPods works, it’s great having an assistant speaking information directly into my ear so no one else can hear it. And Apple made a big improvement by allowing Siri to talk back to the user in Apple Watch 3. But, in practice, talking to Siri this way is so hit and miss and so slow that I usually avoid trying it. Even though I have my AirPods set to launch Siri with a double tap to the side of either earphone, the Watch often doesn’t respond. Often, when I am able to wake up Siri, it begins listening but very quickly displays a message reading “Sorry could you say that again?” before I have a chance to spit out my request. And this is to say nothing of Siri’s difficulties comprehending requests even in perfect conditions.

Making Siri work smoothly and effectively on the Watch is important to consumers, and equally important to developers who have to decide whether to expend scarce resources to develop apps for the platform. That’s why I hope to hear Apple talk about Siri on the Watch–and the other improvements listed above–when it has the audience of some 4,000 developers at the WWDC keynote Monday morning.

My colleague Harry McCracken and I will be at the event with the play-by-play and commentary, so please tune in here for all the excitement.

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