App Development
IT & Services

WatchKit: 3 developers discuss their Apple Watch plans

Mutual Mobile
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November 27, 2014

It came out a little early to be considered a holiday gift, but if it had been, app developers might be approaching Apple about exchanging the first version of the WatchKit SDK for something that would let them make better Apple Watch apps.

Late last month, Apple announced the software development kit for its first wearable device and suggested that many organizations are already hard at work building new kinds of mobile experiences around it. The press release cited high-profile firms such as Instagram, for example, which is planning an easy way to add emojis to photos through the Apple Watch. ESPN and American Airlines are also involved in apps based on WatchKit.

Not so fast

According to some developers contacted by FierceDeveloper, however, Apple seems to be acting just as slowly and cautiously at letting them build apps for Apple Watch as it was when the first iPhone came out in 2007.

“In terms of what types of apps are possible (with WatchKit), it’s pretty limited to textual display and images–very simple UIs, scrolling lists, paginated views,” said Kevin Harwood, a developer with Mutual Mobile based in Austin, Texas. “All these apps are going to look very similar. You’re not allowed to draw anything custom, no core animation.”

That being said, developers weren’t really expecting all that much with this first go-around, Harwood added. Apple has indicated that the ability to make Apple Watch apps would initially be confined to what’s in WatchKit today–alert-style functions or “Glances” at data fed from iPhone apps.

“What it’s really allowing developers is to create advanced notification,” said Evan Guerin, who works at bespoke mobile app studio IntellectSoft based in Campbell, Calif. That is “helpful to a lot of people who don’t want to have to take a phone out of their pocket.”

IntellectSoft has already been approached by customers who are interested in what the Apple Watch could offer them, Guerin said. For example, companies that need to conduct repairs on mechanical devices could arm employees with Apple Watch apps to send them information without forcing them to have a device in their hand, he said. Still, Apple could be helpful if it loosened the reigns more quickly on WatchKit to make such apps.

“For the GPS functionality be strictly tied to the phone is a bit troublesome and an annoyance,” he said. “For logistics-based companies, that would be a concern.”

Nick Walter agrees. An iOS developer based in Provo, Utah, Walter is launching a course this month on how to make Apple Watch apps.

“If you’re a jogger or doing some sort of exercise, if you have to have both an Apple Watch and an iPhone, that’s pretty burdensome,” he said, adding that developers need to think carefully about the differences between various form factors. “An Apple employee told me something that helps explain it. Apps that are made for the Mac are meant to be used for hours. Apps for the iPhone are to be used for minutes, but apps for an Apple Watch might only be used for seconds. These apps aren’t going to be ones where people have their face staring down at their wrist. It’s more about helping to make quick decisions and confirm that things are happening.”

There is still the specter of possible performance issues that turn consumers or even business users off, however, Harwood warned.

“Because it is a paired scenario where all code is executed on the phone, users are going to experience just a little bit of lag as they move from screen to screen,” he said. “They could also be extremely constrained from a memory perspective.”

On the plus side, Walter said the introduction of Apple’s Swift programming language and some similarities between WatchKit and other iOS SDKs may ease the transition for many of his peers. This includes the way an app would handle scrolling through lists, tables and so on. “It’s definitely a lot easier than when the iPhone first came out.”

Looking ahead for truly native apps

Among the things developers are most excited about seeing in WatchKit release No. 2 include the ability to make custom watch faces, like those shown during its initial reveal back in September. There’s also interest in being able to do more with the hardware itself, such as the “digital crown” that will control much of the Apple Watch’s functionality. Best of all, of course, would be the ability to make truly native apps that don’t need an iPhone involved.

“There was a very vague comment where (Apple) said later next year we will be able to write native apps. If you read the tea leaves, that points to WWDC that they will offer code that lands on the watch,” Harwood said, citing haptic feedback, custom animations and other elements that would make such apps more interesting. “We’ll see how things open up.”

In the meantime, Walter said developers shouldn’t wait until next summer.

“If you can make something that is hugely helpful to (Apple Watch users) and they check it two or three times a day, you’re going to have a great reaction,” he said. “There literally won’t be any better time to get yourself in the App Store with a WatchKit app than right now.”