Apple has finally given the people making Watch apps the freedom to make them awesome
Last month, my colleague Steve Kovach made the argument that the biggest thing holding the Apple Watch back from its full potential is exactly what makes the iPhone so great — the apps.
Now, after using an Apple Watch for the past week, I too can attest to how underwhelming its apps are. Very few are any more compelling than their iPhone counterparts, and they’re all terribly slow to load and connect to the internet.
But Watch apps will get much better this fall, when Apple allows developers to release native versions for the device. That means that apps will load and operate off of the Apple Watch directly instead of running off of a paired iPhone via Bluetooth.
Reliance on the iPhone is the main thing that's held back the Apple Watch, and once the iPhone takes a backseat, the Watch is going to be way more powerful.
Earlier this week, Apple unveiled watchOS 2, the first major software update for the Apple Watch. There are a number of big changes in the next version of the operating system, like new watch faces, a “Time Travel” mode that lets you visually go back or forward in time to see things like past events or the weather forecast, and a “Nightstand” mode for charging the Watch while you sleep.
But App Store developers say that the biggest change is that their apps can now run directly on the device and access features like the heart rate sensor and Digital Crown, Apple's small dial that's used to control some aspects of the Watch’s interface.
It’s a watershed moment for Apple’s wearable and the first step in it “becoming a standalone platform,” Michael Facemire, a principle analyst at Forrester Research, told Business Insider. "To this point the Watch was simply an extension of a nearby phone, allowing for the proxying of alerts, messages, and a few clunky apps."
Now Apple Watch apps can access WiFi networks without having to be tethered to the iPhone. So an app like Citymapper would be able to get transit directions without needing an iPhone’s cellular connection.
Apple is allowing third-party “complications” on the watch face, which means that a sports app could show your favorite team’s score next to the time. Right now, only information from Apple's own apps can be shown on the clockface.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of cool apps coming out that people wouldn’t have made,” Joe Binney, vice president of engineering for the stock trading app Robinhood, told BI. “It’s going to prompt people to start using apps on the Watch a lot more.”
Apple Watch apps will get much faster when they're loaded directly on to the device. Load times for opening apps will be reduced from around five seconds to less than a second, according to developers we spoke to.
At the media event where Apple announced the Watch’s new software, Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, told the crowd that apps on the Watch will “change peoples' lives."
That may be the case one day, but many developers still need to find good reasons to put their apps on our wrists. Now that Apple has given them the tools needed to make Watch apps that don’t constantly depend on the iPhone, developers are optimistic about what they can do on the platform.
For Jeremy Olsen, who runs the app company Tapity, the Apple Watch’s upgraded software is a new opportunity to make compelling software. “It could be that game changing moment when apps really become useful."