How the Apple Watch Is as Strict as the Original iPhone

Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch
Source: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

Tech-minded consumers aren’t the only ones excited about the launch of the Apple Watch next year. Many developers who currently make apps for the iPhone and the iPad are already on board to begin developing apps to bring new user experiences to the Apple Watch. But among the many challenges that developers face, are the extensive restrictions that the company has placed on what those apps can do.

Apple’s WatchKit guidelines ensure that watch apps depend heavily on the iPhone version. Apps can’t access most of the watch’s features and sensors, and developers won’t be able to build native apps until sometime next year. But regardless of those restrictions, developers are still enthusiastic about creating apps for the Apple Watch.

Just as opening up the original iPhone and the first version of the iOS mobile operating system was a a major opportunity for both Apple and developers (and Apple didn’t enable developers to create iOS apps until the original iPhone had been on the market for nine months), the opening of the Apple Watch platform is significant for developers and for Apple alike. And the limitations that Apple has placed on early Apple Watch apps are in many ways analogous to the early restrictions and limitations placed on developers creating the first apps for the original iPhone in 2007.

Cult of Mac reports that despite never having experimented with an Apple Watch firsthand, developers are “feverishly” working on apps for the wearable device. To do that, they face numerous challenges, such as designing for a device that’s not only much smaller than all of the screens they’ve previously worked with, but also requires a different kind of user experience. And as Tech Cheat Sheet previously reported, the functionality of Apple Watch apps will be subject to a dizzying array of technical limitations and restrictions — at least at first.

Apple releases WatchKit to enable developers to create apps, glances, notifications for Apple Watch

WatchKit documentation reveals how Apple will limit the first Apple Watch apps

As we reported at the time, the newly launched WatchKit site includes programming guides, human interface guidelines, templates, and more resources for developers beginning to work on apps for the Apple Watch. WatchKit and the iOS 8.2 SDK are both included in the Xcode 6.2 beta, and developers who are members of the iOS Developer Program can create apps for Apple Watch.

The literature on Apple’s site revealed some of the technical details of the upcoming wearable — such as the fact that the 38-millimeter Apple Watch will ship with a 272-pixel-by-340-pixel display, while the 42-millimeter Apple Watch will ship with a 312-pixel-by-390-pixel display, for example — and also provided insight into what the Apple Watch and the apps built for it will be capable of doing.

Developers can equip their apps with optional Glances — which offer the most timely and abbreviated data from an app — and notifications that come in two varieties: The “short look” and the “long look.” But their apps will be limited in functionality by their dependence on the iPhone, to the point that they act more like extensions of the iPhone app than standalone apps themselves. A developer’s existing iOS app — which is the first necessity for developing a watch app — is responsible for installing and managing the watch app, and the WatchKit extension runs on the iPhone and executes code in response to user interactions with the Apple Watch.

Source: Apple
Source: Apple

To operate an app on the watch, Apple Watch and the iPhone pass information back and forth. Apple notes that “A watch app complements your iOS app; it does not replace it. If you measure interactions with your iOS app in minutes, you can expect interactions with your watch app to be measured in seconds. So interactions need to be brief and interfaces need to be simple.” However, a press release notes that developers will be able to build native apps beginning next year. These apps won’t require an iPhone component (though the Apple Watch will still require users to have an iPhone 5 or later).

Many of the Apple Watch’s most exciting features, like heart rate monitoring and NFC capability, will be off-limits to third-party apps for now. Developers also won’t be able to create custom gestures for users to interact with apps, notifications, and Glances. They can’t add gesture recognizers to their apps, because the system handles all gestures on the developer’s half. Apple has created a standard set of user interactions. The behaviors recognized by the Apple Watch are vertical swipes, which scroll the current screen; horizontal swipes, which display the previous or next page in a page-based interface; left-edge swipes, which navigate back to the parent interface controller; and taps, which indicate selection or interaction.

Apple Watch will not support multi-touch gestures such as pinches. Table rows, buttons, switches, and other controls are all operated by tapping on them, and Force Touch interactions display the context menu associated with the current screen, opening a menu with one to four possible actions. User interactions can also take advantage of the fine scrolling enabled by the Digital Crown.

Apple Watch screen sizes and resolutions

But despite limitations, developers are still excited about the Apple Watch

The independent designers interviewed by Cult of Mac are “unabashedly delighted” to take on the challenge of developing apps for the wearable. David Chartier of AgileBits, the Canadian company behind 1Password, told Cult of Mac, “There’s this natural extension of the device experience people have been itching for, and I think this is that next step.” AgileBits is already formulating ideas for bringing 1Password to the Apple Watch, and Chartier says that the app could benefit from having sensitive data, like logins or a Social Security number, available on the wrist.

Benedikt Lehnert, chief design officer of Berlin-based 6Wunderkinder, the company behind Wunderlist, also regards the Apple Watch as a platform for new app interactions. “Wearables, and especially the Apple Watch, are a wonderfully natural expansion of Wunderlist and our vision of keeping people’s life in sync,” he tells Cult of Mac:

It will feel like a friend that is kindly reminding you of the project presentation you wanted to finish for the upcoming meeting. Or you will get reminded of bringing the groceries that your partner added while walking past a supermarket. And in case you want to quickly add a to-do or save a thought for later, just dictate it through the Apple Watch and Wunderlist will remind you later.

Developers say that even with its limitations and restrictions, WatchKit allows for more functionality than they expected to be available at the device’s launch. As Cult of Mac notes, the speed at which WatchKit was made available to developers actually contrasts dramatically with the history of iOS. The original iPhone was available to consumers for nine months before Apple officially gave third-party developers the ability to build apps on the platform. The development of the Apple Watch ecosystem is much more accelerated.

If the projected release timeline for the Apple Watch is correct, developers have about six months to prepare their apps to coincide with the Apple Watch’s launch. That timeline illustrates that Apple considers third-party apps a vital contributor to the Apple Watch’s success, and developers, likewise, see the wearable as a major new opportunity.

Track progress with Apple Watch and Fitness app on iPhone

Apple’s limitations for Apple Watch apps hearken back to early restrictions on iOS apps

The dependence of the first watch apps on the iPhone version seems analogous to similar restrictions early in Apple’s process of enabling third-party developers to create apps for the iPhone. When Apple finally let developers create iOS apps, they were only allowed to make web apps at first. Cult of Mac notes that John Gruber of Daring Fireball referred to that situation as a “shit sandwich,” and points out that for veteran iOS developers, the arrival of WatchKit is just like 2007 all over again.

While Apple likely made the decision to require watch apps to rely on the iPhone’s processing power in order to save the wearable’s battery, the approach isn’t without its compromises. Until they can build native apps, developers won’t be able to create custom animations, or implement most video and game ideas. WatchKit currently provides no API access to NFC, audio playback, the Digital Crown, Force Touch, the Taptic Engine that provides vibration feedback, or sensors like the heart rate monitor. Apps’ access to the iPhone’s camera is also limited, and custom watch faces aren’t yet possible. The watch’s microphone can so far only be used to dictate text input.

But to many developers, the restrictions and stringent guidelines are a way for Apple to ensure that developers create consistent, simple, and useful experiences for users of the new platform. Werner Jainek, the chief executive of Cultured Code and maker of Things, a recent free app of the week, tells Cult of Mac of WatchKit’s strict guidelines, “In a sense it’s very classic Apple.”

Developer David Smith, maker of Feed Wrangler, says that the current version of WatchKit is “more than enough to build pretty sophisticated apps.”

Apple Watch faces are customizable

Third party apps are crucial to the success of iOS — and will also be critical for Apple Watch

Apple realizes that third-party apps will be crucial to the Apple Watch and its ability to attract users. The sooner that Apple can successfully convince third-party developers to get on board with its wearable ecosystem, the sooner it can make the Apple Watch into the premier platform for development that iOS has become, pulling resources and interest from other competing platforms.

Everything about the Apple Watch’s launch is intended to sabotage the competition — from its announcement months before it will be available and conveniently before the holiday season, when other manufacturers will have a much harder time selling wearable with the anticipation of the Apple Watch hanging in the air. Just as the announcement of the original iPhone in January 2007 — six months before it was ready to ship to consumers — will remain a notable milestone in the company’s and the industry’s history, the launch of the Apple Watch marks another milestone early in the development of a nascent industry of its own.

Whether or not Apple decides to build a dedicated App Store for the Apple Watch, the unique apps and user experiences that developers create for the Apple Watch will be crucial to its adoption among consumers. In a similar way that it did with iOS in its earliest stages, Apple is restricting what developers can do with Apple Watch so that the user experiences are consistent, simple and useful. But the company is also playing its cards — successfully, it seems — to get developers on board right away, both to undercut the competition and to start building Apple Watch up as the same kind of “premier platform for developers” that iOS has famously become.

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