Fitness apps are ruining the Apple Watch. Apple should scrap them.

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My resolution for 2016: Less staring at spinning dots, more running.
My resolution for 2016: Less staring at spinning dots, more running.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Apple has got its fitness strategy all wrong. It sees Apple Watch as a computing platform rather than a device, and so it promotes third-party apps instead of making better built-in ones of its own.

That may be a fine strategy for Macs and iPhones, but it just does not work for watches and fitness trackers. Relying on third-party fitness apps means spending far too long staring at the spinning dots of death (the Watch equivalent of a spinning beachball), when we should be working out.

Instead of offering a range of underwhelming third-party workout apps, what Apple Watch really needs is one great built-in app that integrates with popular fitness platforms like Runtastic and MapMyRun.

Building a platform on shaky foundations

There was a lot riding on the Apple Watch launch. As the first new product of the post-Steve Jobs era, everyone was keen to see if Apple still had the old magic.

It wasn’t enough for it to just be a great device. Like the iPad and iPhone before it, Apple Watch was expected to become another new computing platform, with its own App Store ecosystem.

But a “device” is an entirely different beast to a “computing platform”. Devices are designed to perform a small number for functions very well, with hardware and software tightly integrated and configured for that purpose. Whereas computing platforms support a wide range of third-party applications, with a design and operating system that is generic and extendable to reflect this.

Apple’s fitness guru, Jay Blahnik first spoke about his fitness platform strategy in August last year. Back then, with the promising new release of watchOS 2, it seemed to make sense. With the support of all the biggest fitness brands, Apple Watch could quickly become the leading fitness wearable.

Five months later, things look rather different. Surprisingly few fitness apps have updated to support the new features in watchOS 2. And those that have tend to be glitchy, unreliable and difficult to use.

The trouble is, a watch is just not suited to running third-party apps. It is, in its nature, a device. By trying to make its watch into a computing platform, Apple succeeded only in making a sub-standard device.

Not everything needs to be a platform

It didn’t have to be this way. iPod was not a platform, but that did not stop it from becoming one of Apple’s most successful products of all time. At the height of its popularity, its sales dwarfed Apple Watch sales.

The beauty of the iPod was its simplicity. It was just a device. It did not run third-party apps, (with the exception of iPod touch, which was really an iPhone in disguise). Instead, its hardware and software were designed to do one thing really well. Play music. The click-wheel was ideal for scrolling through track listings. You never saw a spinning beachball, six spinning dots or any other kind of lag. Sure, it didn’t do much more than play music, but it did that brilliantly. Without a glitch.

Apple Watch should just do a few things really well, rather than a lot of things badly

Thanks to all the third-party apps, Apple Watch can do many different things. But it does not do any of them very well. Launching apps takes ages. Their user interfaces are clumsy and unintuitive. And their features tend to be limited.

Creating a new computing platform is a complicated business. The complexity of Apple Watch is the result of its support for third-party apps, and this in turn leads to a poor user experience for the built-in apps that really matter.

The sad thing is that this complexity seems to be unnecessary. Most users don’t need a wide range of applications. From my experience, there are only a handful of functions that really matter:

  • Telling the time
  • Notifications
  • Apple Pay
  • Tracking health & fitness
  • Logging workouts

Of these five essential functions, two are fitness related. You might say I’m biased because I’m fitness obsessed (and you’d be right). But fitness turns out to be a core feature for most wearables. Apple likes to imagine their key competitors are other watch manufacturers, but it seems Fitbit’s fitness bands may have beaten them this holiday season.

Given the importance of fitness to Apple Watch, it is strange how little attention Apple has devoted to its built-in Workout app.

Apple made sure its built-in iPhone apps were the best

Unlike Apple Watch, when iPhone originally launched, it didn’t support third-party apps. This gave Apple a head start in refining and polishing its own built-in apps before it allowed third-party developers onto the platform.

Even when the App Store launched, Apple still did not initially allow third-party developers to compete directly. For a long time, mail apps were banned from the App Store, because they “duplicated the functionality of built-in apps”.

Competitor mail apps were only allowed onto the iPhone once Apple had made sure that its own Mail app supported all the major e-mail platforms, including Microsoft Exchange, Yahoo and Gmail, rendering third-party mail apps redundant.

Apple learned this lesson the hard way from its experience with the Mac. Back in the 1990s, the first thing every user did with a new Mac was to install Adobe Type Manager. Back then, Macs were used primarily for desktop publishing and this required PostScript fonts that only Adobe Type Manager enabled. So every Mac user became dependent on Adobe.

This problem was only resolved with the return of Steve Jobs and the launch of OS X, which offered native PostScript support. I suspect Apple vowed never to make the same mistake again, and allow a competitor to muscle in on their platform.

With Apple Watch, however, it seems like Apple has forgotten this important lesson. Instead of ensuring its Workout app becomes the market leader, Apple has chosen to focus its efforts on helping third-party apps to catch up, by providing the HealthKit Workout API in watchOS 2.

The result is that we now have a choice of many different fitness apps for Apple Watch, but they all do essentially the same thing, and none of them do it very well. These apps are slow to install and launch. And they are unresponsive and unreliable to use.

I keep seeing dots before my eyes when I go for a run with Apple Watch
I keep seeing dots before my eyes when I go for a run with Apple Watch
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Apple should make its Workout app more like its Mail app

I wish that Apple had taken the same approach to Fitness on the Apple Watch that it did with Mail on the iPhone.

When you set up the Mail app in your iPhone, you are presented with a choice of different service providers including Exchange, Google, Yahoo!, AOL and Outlook. Why can’t Apple do the same thing with the Workout app for Apple Watch?

Running watches from competitors, such as Garmin or TomTom work with all the major fitness platforms right out of the box. So you don’t need to download and install any special apps just to get your run data to sync with Runtastic, Strava, MapMyRun or Nike.

Apple Watch Workout app could sync with popular fitness platforms
Apple Watch Workout app could sync with popular fitness platforms
Image: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

It’s time to make Apple Watch “best in category”

In a recent interview with Mashable, Phil Schiller said that: “Across the board, our goal is to make the best in the categories we choose to compete in.”

Which makes me wonder if he had ever attempted to log a run using an Apple Watch. If he had, he’d know Apple is very far from the best.

It is too late now to shut down the Watch App Store and focus on improving the core features instead. That horse has already bolted. Third-party Watch apps are there if anyone really wants them. But I think the time has come for Apple to focus on making the Watch’s core features work well. So I no longer need to rely on flaky third-party apps to log a run, and I never need to see those infernal spinning dots of death again.

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  • imronburgundy

    This hits the mark. I don’t even use Run Keeper anymore since its unstable and the timer isn’t even usually correct at first glance on the watch. It’s much easier to just run with the built in workout app, although it needs some upgrades like customized workout plans such as intervals.

    • Mike

      I enjoyed using Runkeeper “live” on my phone while running for a few short months back in 2010, but found that it REALLY ate my battery power (yes, even when following Runkeeper’s standard advice to shut off the screen and just run the app in the background). So now I just plot my runs manually on the Runkeeper website after the fact and never actually use the app.

  • Someone ever tried for example the “polar beat” app ?

  • Patchy

    Sounds like someone wanted to buy a fitness tracker but bought an Apple Watch instead and now has buyer’s remorse because they didn’t think their purchase through completely. Apple Watch is a “smartwatch”, not a “fitness tracker”.

    • Buddusky

      The problem is that I think the fitness tracker market is MUCH bigger than the smart watch market and Apple has a shot at getting both in one device. They only need to vastly improve their built in fitness app and add sleep tracking (I charge mine before going to bed or in the morning before work or AT work and always have an extra cable), and more scale syncing capabilities.

      I just bought the Watch after using the Fitbit Surge for the last 9 months and the Surge is superior in every way to the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker. I thought I’d be able to ditch Fitbit and figured the tracking and fitness features in the Watch couldn’t be that much worse. But they are. Coming from something so simple as Fitbit I’d say the AW’s fitness tracking is unusable in comparison. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to sell my Surge and just also wear a Fitbit Charge HR for the better HRM (and continuous, not once every ten minutes as long as you’re not moving), sleep tracking and much, much, much easier overall fitness and activity tracking. I love the Watch for everything else it does, especially things like taking phone calls on it, getting message alerts, the Focus app that I use at work to help me spend time on one task, the ease of using Apple Pay on the Watch, or even just always seeing the temperature outside on the watch face (complications are awesome). It speaks to the usefulness I wasn’t aware of outside fitness tracking that I’m even keeping it instead of just going back to the Surge.

    • eastamherstbias

      Not buyers remorse. It is just not working correctly.

  • tedcranmore

    While I like your idea regarding making the workout app like the mail app, I think you are confusing the fact that the platform is an infant, vs. “it not needing to be a platform”. The biggest issue is that it isn’t good enough yet for these 3rd party apps. If you weren’t staring at dots, you wouldn’t be writing this.

    The reason it needs to be a platform, is that while it’s true that we interact with only a few apps, these apps are different for everybody. Apple watch needs to be a platform because it needs breadth. For you, likely the biggest thing is fitness, but for a large swath of user it’s recipes, stocks, security, home automation etc. Dedicated devices have been, and will continue to be put out by other companies and they will do well. However, the reason a consumer will buy the Apple watch is because of the breadth, because of all the things it does well, and it’s tighter integration into the Apple ecosystem, and because it’s a platform.

    So, your observations and ideas are great, but your conclusion only appears to be right because this platform has a lot of growing up to do. App makers are also still figuring out what to put in the watch app and a lot of mistakes are being made during this learning process. Another factor is the chicken and egg issue regarding investment. Only has Apple watch continues to grow (and it will), will sufficient investment be dedicated to making truly useful watch apps. To this point, it’s been a learning experiment for most app makers. To change the idea of the watch being a platform right now would be a mistake, but they need to put great energy into this growth phase to let this baby get stronger.

  • Greg Woods

    Thank-you for your opinion. Please respect those that disagree.

    BTW: iPhone apps were not perfected in the first versions either. It was through the competition that the app store brought that created an environment of continuos improvement. This all fostered competition by upping the game via competitors.

    You failed to mention integration of MACID for example, an app that locks/unlocks your mac simply by proximity. Also Runmeter is an excellent watch/iphone app. the integration and cross-device integration are awesome

    • Paul

      Runmeter is hands down the best running app I’ve ever used, I wish it got more attention. The watch app is great, but it’s a very sophisticated wrist remote – I still run with my phone. I’m fine with that though, and I do like having the various metrics easily available on my wrist.

  • Mike

    Until Apple Watch has full standalone functionality and allows me to both track my progress and listen to my podcasts while ELIMINATING THE NEED TO STILL CARRY MY PHONE WITH ME WHILE RUNNING, there’s not an additional thing I need it for that I don’t already have on my iPhone anyway.

    • Do not Spamme

      Good luck strapping your phone to your chest to measure your heart rate with the flash

      • Mike

        I don’t use technology to measure my heart rate, so no problem there. The good old fingers-to-the-carotids method still works just fine for that purpose for me.

    • Do not Spamme

      Btw, I have exercise with just the watch to track my activity and also listen to audiobooks (albeit I had to convert them as regular MP3) through a BT headset without my phone.

  • jwrbloom

    I went back to wearing my Jawbone Up2 alongside my Apple Watch because I didn’t want to pay for the additional stuff other apps what you to buy.

    • Buddusky

      Jawbone has an app that will pull data from the Watch for free. I came from Fitbit and they have something just will pull from Healthkit, but I think I’m just going to switch from a Surge and just also wear the Charge HR with the Watch.

  • Grits n Gravy

    For me, I wanted a fitness tracker from the Apple Watch, the native workout app is good enough, with some minor tweaks to iron out the bugs, it’d be great. Plus my data is local, not on some server like Fitbit and who knows how long they’ll be around. I’m happy with my purchase.

    However, outside of fitness, the Watch is pretty lackluster, I’ll give you that.

  • twitboydk

    Apple Watch is a flot if you ask me. I have one myself and I rarely use apps cause they all pretty much suck. Even the ones by apple. All in all the watch is a sub-standard gadget

  • isitjustme

    Any app created by Apple for their platform should not be the best of its class otherwise developers will have no incentive to develop great apps.
    Apple provide the platform and it is up to the developers to create the best apps in their class so that they can monetise them.
    I am not sure why the developers are not spending resources to developing great apps for the Watch, is it because the believed the hype from the bizarros at wall street that the Watch is not selling well or they are waiting for the version 2 to come out.
    I believe they should develop great apps and the best ones will be the first to reap the rewards as the Watch gain traction in the future versions.

  • eastamherstbias

    Yes, Fitness is a hot mess. Watch Os 2 has not fixed anything. HR rates are always off. Distance is wrong. Nothing is synced from 3rd party apps and the native fitness app. Too complicated.

  • Doro

    That nails the point perfectly…. The watch doesn’t work without the phone in reach, tracking pace, distance, time etc on the run is impossible…. I just returned to wearing my Nike watch for running … waiting for improvement

  • NoNonsense74

    I mostly rely on built in apps. I love the apple watch and really love it. I agree with the article.

    • Peter Johnson

      I think you mean “disagree” from the rest of your comment.

  • Peter Johnson

    It is reasonable to ask that the Apple apps are made as good as they can be, however I don’t think they need to close the door on third-party apps to do this.

    I make regular use of a Watch app that covers my local underground service. You can’t expect Apple to cover all of this, everywhere, at launch.

    There are a lot of slow third-party apps out there, and plenty of apps that should never have been made. But it is still early days, and I don’t see that their existence is inflicting harm other than by giving naysayers something to complain about.

  • do not spamme

    Graham, I don’t understand your logic. You wanted the Apple Watch do be like the iPod because …

    >>

    The beauty of the iPod was its simplicity. It was just a device. It did not run third-party apps

    <<

    So why not just use the Apple Watch as is. You are not forced to install 3rd party apps. Just use the watch as it is. You cited MapMyRun, Runtastic but I know Endomondo and RunKeeper are equally popular as well. I was using Endomondo and Runkeeper a lot on the phone, but I didn't use it even once on the Watch. I have Runkeeper installed, but I mainly stuck with the native app. It shows me pace, it shows me duration, it shows me my splits when I'm done etc. So no more spinning dots.

    Blaming Apple for bad 3rd party apps is unfair.

    My only complain about the Watch is the HRM actually. But I got to be realistic. Since it is strapped to my wrist and with sweat and all, I know it is not going to be super accurate. So, I jump rope for 5 mins straight @ 170jumps/minute and I see my heart rate reported at 90. Sure, it is disappointing to see some inaccuracies, but it sure beats wearing a chest HRM which I have 2 by the way sitting un-used. When I exercise for 80 mins, I'm ok with some inaccuracies. If I actually burned 700 calories in the 80 mins and the watch is showing 650 calories. So what? People make too much of a fuss over this. Just enjoy your workout and somewhat inaccurate calorie burn.

    • The reason I don’t use the built-in Workout app is because it does not provide GPS mapping, and does not sync with any of the major running websites. For this, Apple requires that you use 3rd party Watch apps. This contrasts with TomTom and Garmin, both of whom provide support for third-party running sites out of the box, with no need for third-party apps.

  • Chris

    Everyone keeps wondering why the fitness tracker apps are all wonky and not working correctly…..here’s why:

    The apple watch doesn’t let an application keep accessing the accelerometer data in real time when the watch screen turns off. Once the screen turns off, the app is forced into standby mode, meaning the app can’t continue to access the accelerometer in real time. In OS2, Apple forces apps to get “historical data”, meaning once the application is woken back up (screen turns on), it has to go access all of this data that was recorded while the screen was off. It then has to take this data and incorporate it into the tracking into its tracking algorithms. Thats what the issue is.

    The reason you don’t have this issue on android watches is because with the “always on” feature for applications, the tracker app can still access the devices motion data even if the screen is off/in ambient mode. So, when the Sony Smartwatch 3 goes into ambient mode and the screen is essentially on standby, runtastic/strava can still access the GPS and accelerometer data in real time and put it into its algorithms.

    If Apple wants their tracker apps to stop being wonky, they need to let the app continue to access sensor data in real time even when the screen turns off. Will probably drain the hell out of the already sketchy battery life though….