I was wrong about smartwatches...it’s not all about the apps

I'm not using the apps on my smartwatch and that's not a problem

I hold my hands up and admit it. When I picked up my first ever Android Wear watch, (It was the LG G Watch if you really want to know) last year, I became a little too obsessed about how bad the app support was. That's pretty much continued with every other smartwatch I've used since then. It's up there with ugly designs and terrible battery life as my biggest smartwatch bugbears.

I now realise that frustration was misdirected. I was looking at my smartwatch with the same eyes as my first smartphone – but that's changed. I've started to finally realise that the longer I've owned a smartwatch the less I've turned to its apps.

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Having that reason not to reach into your pocket every time you feel a vibrating buzz is arguably the greatest asset of the smartwatch and something companies building them should never forget. It's the one feature all smartwatches should be great at, but it's surprising how many make an absolute a mess of it.

The tide is turning though, at least based on my experience this year. I've looked down at my wrist to read a Google Hangouts message or a Facebook notification more when I've had the Pebble Time Steel or even the Garmin Forerunner 630 running watch around my wrist. The Fossil Q Reveler and its illuminating approach to delivering notifications deserves a special mention as well. I've spent less time with my face glued to my phone – and I'm conscious of that when I find myself without a smartwatch on my wrist.

No killer app...yet

So here's another revelation: I couldn't tell you of a single smartwatch app that I've really enjoyed using or that's blown me away, whether that's on an Apple Watch, an Android Wear watch or a Pebble.

But I can tell you that I regularly check in on my WhatsApp, Hangouts and emails without feeling the urge to touch my phone. It's the reason why I feel like smartwatches do have a future once the hardware issues that are holding them back finally catch up.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying apps have no future on smartwatches whatsoever. Having something that makes it easier to open your front door or board a plane quicker certainly has its place. I just hope the manufacturers and developers don't lose sight or shift the focus away from the staple smartwatch feature.

Looking ahead to 2016, there are a number of things about smartwatches I'd like to change. I still want more battery life, slimmer designs and no more ugly black tires under screens. It's wishful thinking to think they'll all get addressed in the next twelve months. On the software front, notifications should remain at the heart. Apple still has some work to do on this but the recently announced Proactive Assistant could give Google Now a run for its money. Pebble's approach to notifications still feels the most complete.

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Speaking of Google, it's the evolution of Android Wear I look forward to the most, specifically those Google Now-inspired contextual notifications. With names like Fossil and Tag Heuer having a greater influence on making the Wear hardware more attractive, it's firmly in Google's hands to finally make notifications smarter and turn it into the killer feature it should already be.

Do you agree that apps are less important in the age of the smartwatch? Or is it that app makers just haven't got it right for smartwatches yet? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • ASD·

    Man those Apple watches are ugly.

  • ChrisLaarman·

    I disagree. To me it's all about the apps.  :-)

    To me, a smartphone is a device that filters information (notification, orientation) and only shows (or signals otherwise) what you want, when you want, where you want. By a twist of the wrist.

    Secundarily it can take some input, to be recorded or interpreted (as a command).

    Whatever data you use is up to you (any user), and so consequently are the apps associated - if available. That availability is a difference between Android and watchOS, at least in my perception.

    Me, I'm not on the social media. If I were, I wouldn't want to keep being distracted by notifications of yet another message on my medium of choice. I like to find my way (on my bicycle, in the Netherlands), I like to know my next appointment or task, I like to advance my presentation to the next sheet, if I were a performer I'd like to see the next song on my setlist. How convenient: these happen to be some of the apps that I have on my Apple Watch (paired with an iPhone 6). Some of these are also on my SmartWatch 3 (paired with a Galaxy S6), but the choice is more limited.

    To me, the killer app is turn-by-turn navigation. I remember cycling in Germany (without mobile data), off-line navigating using that S6 before I had mastered its fingerprint sensor. Not that again! A second killer app is (the premium subscription of) a weather app. I went cycling, knowing that the good weather was soon to be over. I could monitor the thunderstorm on my wrist, and I reached home with hardly minutes to spare.

    Well, that "unlocking" use may appeal to some. That S6 is (supposed to be) unlocked while that SW3 is in range, and my Apple Watch can unlock a Mac.

    To me it's not about the looks. Literally translating from Dutch: a beautiful or posh watch on me would be like a flag on a mud barge. And if I would only want to know the time (without drawing my smartphone), I could wear a dumbwatch, one that's cheaper than the replacement battery.

  • PebbleWatchInfo·

    I have found exactly the same. Apps have always been disappointing unless they're very, very focused, and involve quick interactions. Anything more than that, and it's time to reach for the phone.

    This is why I still reach for my Pebble every day. They're quick, to-the-point, and no fuss—and even easier to use with actual buttons. Once all the glitz has paled, we realise that it's the notifications and ease-of-use is the most important part of a smartwatch.

  • AeroEchelon·

    I completely agree. Most smartwatch apps (or at least the apps currently built on smartwatches today miss the point. Interactions with my watch should be measured in couples of seconds and not minutes. To be explicit, if I am doing anything more than say 10 seconds on my watch then the app blew it. By that time, it would have been better to simply pull out my phone. Quick glances at notifications are what smartwatches currently give you, spending time opening Instagram on your watch not better in anyway than opening it on your phone.

    • m.sawh·

      Some great comments here and I agree with you AeroEchelon. Interactions with smartwatches should be brief and simple. 

      Hopefully Apple, Samsung, Pebble and the rest will remember that next year!

  • nostrademons·

    I think apps have a future, but the best apps will be centered around rich notifications.

    Imagine an app to order pizza.  You launch the app and it remembers your favorite pizza orders, presenting 2-3 that you can flick through easily. Tap on it and it automatically orders; you can also tap to cancel, like how Hangouts lets you cancel a wayward response after taking dictation.  Then the app disappears into the background.  If you ordered for pick-up, the app sends you a notification when it's time to leave so that you arrive right as the pizza comes out of the oven; it then launches Google Navigation to get there automatically, which (on the watch at least) taps you on the wrist each time you need to make a turn.  If you ordered for delivery, the app sends you a notification when the pizza driver stops outside, showing you the total owed including tip, so that you can grab some cash out of your wallet and open the door for him.  If the merchant accepts Apple Pay or Google Wallet, you could pay just by tapping the watch, no cash needed.

    No one interaction with this app lasts more than 5 seconds, but it's successfully let you know every time you need to do something.  It also lets you adjust your plan on the fly and handle things electronically whenever possible.  It's a little bit more than just a passive notification, but very different from a phone or web app that you stare at for minutes or hours at a time.