It's time to face facts: Apple Watch apps are terrible

A lack of quality apps is holding back the Apple Watch
Why are Apple Watch apps so bad?

Outside of Macs, I've had experience with two kinds of Apple product – both positive. The first being iOS devices, namely the iPhone and the iPad.

These devices were described by furious people who hate Apple as limited 'walled gardens', yet proved to be exciting and extensible in terms of entertainment and creativity. My iPhone quickly ousted handheld consoles for gaming, and my iPad is now what I use to write all of my music.

Essential reading: The best Apple Watch apps

The second kind is an actually closed platform: the Apple TV. Until the most recent revision, the little black box only did what Apple allowed: download content from the iTunes Store, talk to iTunes on a networked PC, run a selection of US-oriented pre-loaded channels, and grudgingly stream other third-party content over AirPlay.

The experience was inflexible but robust. In a sense, the Apple Watch increasingly feels like the opposite, and I wonder whether Apple Watch should have been more Apple TV than iPhone.

There were good arguments for opening up Apple Watch to third-party developers. Most were about bettering the competition and letting Apple's new device find its place. There's also an expectation people should be able to load apps on to pretty much anything they buy.

And just as the iPhone quickly stopped being merely a phone for many people – it's a tiny computer that happens to have a 'Phone' app – perhaps the aim was for Apple's watch to transcend its very watchness, becoming a supercomputer on your wrist.

Check this out: Apple Watch 2 investigation

That sense of ambition should be admired; the snag is the Apple Watch app experience too often remains miserable.

I've written Apple Watch app round-ups for Wareable, and the first was a giddy, joyful plunge into a pool of possibilities. So many apps were clamouring for attention. Every one claimed to be transformative. Quickly, I discovered most were terrible.

There's plenty of apps, but quality is a problem

There were exceptions, most notably Lifeline, an excellent game that brilliantly played with the conventions of time and narrative structure, along with taking advantage of – rather than fighting against – the limitations of the Apple Watch interface.

Mostly, though, using apps has been akin to wading through treacle; trying to get anything done can be nightmarish.

We were told watchOS 2 would fix all this. Instead of constantly communicating with your iPhone, native apps would mostly do their thing on the device itself. Everything would be faster! Better! More responsive! Magical!

But the app experience too often remains dismal.


A familiar sight for Apple Watch users

Launch one and chances are it'll whirr away, to the point it's quicker to get out your iPhone and use that instead, eradicating much of the point for having an Apple Watch in the first place.

Once previously opened, apps sometimes stay in memory and respond more rapidly, but if not you get to watch that exciting opening animation all over again. (This is assuming the app doesn't crash and send you back to the launch screen, which happens annoyingly often.)

It's for this reason many Apple Watch owners I know now mostly use the device as a watch. The problem is it's not an especially great watch, even if you've managed to perfect the 'wrist flick' to turn the screen on, without accidentally punching someone in the face.

Of late, my Apple Watch has sometimes not even managed that simpler duty. It once spent a week buried in my office, suffering the ignominy of several days 'lost' underneath a drained Tesco Hudl. I realised I didn't miss it.

All too often I forget to put my Apple Watch on

There are glimmers of hope. A handful of apps work well within the limitations of the device, getting directions via haptics is smart and genuinely useful, and the glance and notification systems can make life easier when you take the time to set them up properly.

Third-party compilations are sometimes a boon, too, for example sending you directly to Fantastical, to avoid Apple's inferior Calendar app, or placing flight information front and centre. But there's still that nagging sense this is a device with rough edges in half-baked software – a stark contrast with its perfectly finished hardware.

You might counter that this is in fact my first 'third kind' of Apple product: one where I expected too much of it, or where it just doesn't fit into my life. But the more I share these nagging doubts, the more other people admit they feel similarly. It'll be interesting to see if such issues are addressed, or whether 2016 will merely bring more of the same, only – given that we're talking about an Apple product update – in a thinner form-factor.

6 Comments

  • ManInFull says:

    I don't have an Apple Watch right now because I've chosen to wait for version 2 or 3 (just as I did with the iPhone). What you described as some of its problems is certainly enough to confirm that I've made the right decision. However, I think when accessing the watch, you have to give it 3 grades: (1) battery life, (2) how well it does smart phone functionality (notifications, apps, etc.) and (3) how well it serves as a fitness/activity tracker. For me, when it comes to any wearable, I am much more interested in #1 and #3 right now. With that in mind, the Apple Watch seems to get solid marks in those 2 categories. It has some work to do to improve #2, but based on Apple's track record, the improvements will happen.

  • Gt2000 says:

    1.  Battery life is fine.  If you throw it on the charger every night like I do you never worry about battery life in theday.

    2.  It works just like a phone on your wrist.  You can take calls, make calls, and notifications are much nicer with taptic vibration and watch notification menu.  

    3.  I don't use it for fitness myself but I hear only great things from my brother who uses his at the gym all the time.  

    I personally like it for news, messaging, controlling music, watching the stock market.  The  alerts are way nicer to your wrist with the taptic.  I also like to use apple pay at subway, fire house subs, and mcdonalds.  Very easy to just hold out your wrist hear a beep and your done.  No more cards or cash.  The ability to change bands on the sports model makes it the most economical and affordable and practical.  Just grab a spots version and find a bunch of bands on amazon to change up the style.

    The watch is very first gen but I would not want to be without it.  I don't think the apps are terrible just first gen.  You have to consider developers have only had months to figure out watch OS and develop for it.  Much better things are coming for Apple Watch that is for certain.

    This first gen is great in my opinion and I would much rather have it than not have it for all the things that it can do.

  • kpbarbee says:

    I agree about the app experience. So far the major benefit to me is notifications on the wrist and Siri on the wrist. So far there are no "killer apps" for the watch. Even the small number of watch face complications are screwed up by Apple's limitations -- case in point: displaying your step count on the watch face--can't be done! Must open an app on the phone to force the update onto the watch...Ughh!

    [ What apps do you use for music writing on your iPad? ]

  • pi1000 says:

    You're right, there are so many apps that are not powerful enough to satisfy the user, but I think you can't generalise.

    I do personally often use an app called Celero which offers basically the same functionality as the Twitter app, but that has a lot more useful features - and most importantly doesn't annoy me with a bad user experience.

  • CraigGrannell says:

    @ManInFull: I've found battery life variable and very dependent on what you're doing. I know a friend returned his watch, because it couldn't deal with long bike rides in combination with Strava. His experience was not isolated. Mine usually gets through the day with light use, but any extended app use canes through the batter.

    On fitness, it's OK. App quality varies wildly, but accuracy is strong. Just hope you never have to wipe the thing back to factory (as I had to when iOS 8.something messed everything up), because your data might be sacrificed to the gods of Cupertino.

  • sccarlin says:

    The Watch is where I really do think Apple shows that it is a truly different company than under Steve Jobs.  Can anyone imagine that he would have released a product with the issues you describe? And while the hardware is truly beautiful, the home screen with the "jelly bean jar" look is hideous and the polar opposite of a beautiful jeweled timepiece.  It's like opening a Faberge egg and finding a Jack-in-the-Box clown.  I am sorry, but the Watch is this decade's Newton, especially when compared to the elegance of the Mac desktop and laptops, iPhone and iPad. And for the price they are charging?  No thanks. There are plenty of cheaper, more capable, almost as pretty alternatives.

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