Devs talk Apple Watch: 'A Wild West for apps' and a 'new way of thinking'

What makes the people building (or avoiding) Apple Watch apps tick?
Devs on Apple Watch: Apps Wild West

"I've no ideas yet for Apple Watch," admits Zach Gage, a developer and artist who, if his extensive and impressive catalogue of art and apps is anything to go by, is rarely someone short of an idea. He elaborates: "It's hard for me to feel I can understand something until I can play with it. So when Apple Watch is released, I might pick one up and see what it's like."

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Gage isn't alone. James Thomson, known for OS X app DragThing and multi-platform scientific calculator PCalc, questions the logic of leaping right into Apple Watch development. "The original iPhone was released without support for third-party apps, so people had a year to use it and understand the nuances of the interface before they could even think about writing an app," he expains. "And when the SDK arrived, you could run your code on a real device and know for sure how it behaved."

Uncharted territory

This isn't true for Apple Watch. There's no way of telling how it'll feel to use, no means of accessing Apple's built-in apps that Thomson says "will set the standard", and developers are currently stuck developing in simulators. So for the most part – after all, you might logically assume very big launch app partners have test units – a typical developer will join launch queues and run their new app on a real Apple Watch at the same time as their customers. "That's never a good plan," asserts Thomson.

And yet that's a situation quite a few devs are knowingly and willingly heading for. The question is: why?

Armen Papshev, working simultaneously on two fitness apps, explains there are "many technical unknowns at this stage", forcing experimentation with various approaches to see how Apple Watch apps can best work. He points to his range of mock-ups, including an apparent final design that can't be used because a circular progress bar cannot be implemented. It sounds like a huge headache.

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But for many, the challenge of working with entirely new hardware that no-one yet has access to appears as important a part of Apple Watch development as any financial opportunity – as is the need for razor-sharp focus. Thomson notes how this rethinking of what apps mean echoes the shift from desktop to mobile; now, Apple Watch demands absolute simplification and abhors complexity.

A new way of thinking

Developer David Smith, bringing Feed Wrangler to Apple Watch, has enjoyed the journey. "The natural limits of the smaller, constrained interface mean I must be incredibly mindful of what would actually be useful," he says. "It's easy to just start throwing things on to the watch and quickly overwhelm it. The key is to really try and imagine how it would be useful in practice, when glancing at your wrist while on the move."

The natural limits of the smaller, constrained interface mean I must be incredibly mindful of what would actually be useful

OfficeTime founder Stephen Dodd reckons the process has been frustrating but strict limitations may prove to be a brilliant move by Apple. "We've had all these fabulous ideas about what we want to do, but they're just not possible on the current Apple Watch OS. Yet Apple's been smart, because the restrictions forced us to go through dozens of designs – and the more we designed, the more we decided to cull and simplify."

For developer Gary Riches, "working within tight constraints" merely means you "have to get creative". Having developed for the Pebble, he dismisses any notions Apple Watch is too limited, saying it "looks to be leaps and bounds over what the Pebble offers in terms of functionality".

So developers are already thinking about pushing the envelope. We'll therefore likely see a raft of relatively simple – perhaps even cautious – productivity- and notification-oriented third-party Apple Watch apps on launch. But once developers actually have real devices on their wrists, expect rapid iteration and innovation.

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Some developers are already imagining a broader range of apps beyond obvious smartwatch use-cases. "Being a game developer, I can't help thinking about games for Apple Watch," says Kevin Ng. He elaborates that such titles will have to take the device's constraints; small display, limited input, unique form factor, working within Apple's extremely tight display restrictions, to heart. "They'll be even simpler than smartphone games – easy to understand and quick to play."

Giant Spacekat boss Brianna Wu agrees: "Apple Watch development is going to require an entirely different way of thinking."

A Wild West for apps

But Thomson warns against doing too much on day one. He found out the hard way about what can happen with new Apple features, when PCalc's iOS 8 Today view widget was deemed to not be acceptable on iPhone and iPad. Apple later relented, but his concern is it's "not clear what Apple's app review team will initially deem acceptable use for Apple Watch". And given that the current mechanism for apps is an extension of existing iPhone apps, entire app updates may end up in limbo, especially if developers "come up with clever ways to do more than what Apple may have intended". He foresees high-profile app rejections on the horizon.

That prediction might leave the anti-Apple mob rubbing its hands with glee.

Will Apple finally fall on its face, with an overpriced bauble, and angry devs flock elsewhere? Not so much, reckons content strategist David Chartier: "In fact, I've a hunch Apple Watch is going to be much bigger than people think, and I think it's going to be another Wild West for apps." There just might be a few duels before everything settles down.

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