"Is Apple Watch in trouble?" "Is Apple Watch a dead platform?" Just a couple of responses I saw this week to news that a handful of third-party apps have quietly vanished from the smartwatch. Amazon, Target, eBay and Google Maps have all made an exit over the past few weeks, but some of the reactions would have you thinking Tim Cook had been spotted stomping on his Apple Watch.
Quite the contrary: it was also this week we found out that Apple Watch sales almost doubled in the last year. Clearly, it's not doing badly. But this isn't just about Apple. The smartwatch is undoubtedly in a bit of a lull; as features editor Sophie puts it, "what's happening is the commoditisation of a category", and that includes software.
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Here's a weird thing: every time I boot up a new smartwatch for review, Google Maps is one of the first apps I download. But do I ever use it? Almost never. In fact the only time I've ever used a smartwatch for mapping is when I've tried Apple Maps' turn-by-turn navigation feature, which taps your wrist when it's time to make a turn. I'm not saying there's no merit to Google Maps on a smartwatch, but it needs refining.
The wrist is right for some things, but not for others. Is a smartwatch the best tool for browsing an entire online marketplace? Definitely not, unless you're the type of person who's happy to settle for the top five results every time. So I understand why Amazon might need a rethink. eBay bid notifications were a nice feature, but could work just as well as mirrored notifications from the phone without demanding a standalone app.
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It seems unlikely that any of the apps mentioned above would still be there had they been popular, and it speaks volumes that nobody noticed they were gone until now. Amazon told us that pulling the app was a decision it had made, despite some speculation that it might be Apple's move. Google says it plans to return eventually.
And all of this is OK. Everyone is still learning how people are using smartwatches and the kinds of features they want. Look how much both Google's and Apple's wearable platforms have evolved since they hit the scene. They haven't just been improved, but fundamentally changed, after these companies realized they hadn't grasped what people wanted from a smartwatch. The other harsh truth is that apps on smartwatches haven't accomplished what they have on smartphones, and they won't until developers really understand how different the wrist experience is.
So no, the Apple Watch platform isn't dead. These apps have vanished for good reason, and some will most probably return better crafted for a wrist-worn device. The smartwatch platform has huge potential. We're just learning how to get there.