Apple Watch apps kinda suck, but Cupertino hopes you won’t notice

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Apple Watch apps were conspicuous in their absence at this week's Apple event.
Photo: Apple

At this week’s “Let us loop you in” keynote, Apple revealed a major shift in its smartwatch strategy. Tim Cook tried to dress it up by announcing new Apple Watch bands and a price drop, but the most significant aspect was what he did not say: There was no mention of third-party Watch apps.

After Monday’s keynote, Apple updated its website with a new marketing proposition that represents a tacit acknowledgment that, right now, Apple Watch is only good for three things: notifications, fitness and health.

What happened to the idea that there is an app for everything?

On Apple Watch, there isn’t an app for that

When Apple unveiled its smartwatch back in 2014, the company positioned the wearable as a tiny iPhone on your wrist. Like the iPhone, Apple Watch was versatile, supporting a wide variety of third-party apps. Much of its early marketing imagery focused on the app launcher’s colorful grid of circular icons.

This week, however, Cupertino erased all traces of the app launcher from the Apple Watch website. And the only third-party Watch app to be featured in this week’s keynote was NCAA March Madness Live — although only the notification was shown, not the app itself.

This is in marked contrast to the marketing of the Apple TV. At the event, Cook crowed that there are now 5,000 tvOS apps and once again claimed that apps are “the future of TV.”

It seems pretty clear that Apple no longer wants to talk about Watch apps. But why?

From features to benefits

Monday’s keynote and the website update make it clear that Apple Watch is now focused on just three benefits: notifications, fitness and health. This change is something that in tech marketing is described as switching focus from features to benefits.

Whereas Apple previously talked about features such as Siri or the App Store as standalone reasons to buy an Apple Watch, now they are only described in relation to the wearable’s three key benefits. Siri is positioned as a way of starting a workout or checking your heart rate. Third-party apps are only mentioned in the Notifications, Fitness and Health sections as extensions to the Apple Watch’s built-in core functionality.

Features that do not fit into one of these three benefits are consigned to a “More to love” section of the Apple Watch site. This is actually a euphemism. In reality, “More to love” is a dumping ground for all Apple Watch’s now-unloved features. Even former favorites such as Apple Pay, Digital Touch and Glances languish here, just because they don’t fit into Notifications, Fitness or Health.

Why? Because Apple Watch apps suck

I think this new focus represents a recognition on Apple’s part that Watch apps suck. Especially third-party apps, which have to be built using the frustratingly limited WatchKit framework.

With watchOS 2, Apple promised that developers would be able to build their own native apps. Which is true: You can now build Apple Watch apps that work even when the iPhone is out of range. But that does not mean they can be remotely as powerful as Apple’s built-in apps, which benefit from a framework only Apple’s developers have access to, called “PepperUICore.” For example, third-party apps cannot run in the background, can’t get the position of touches onscreen, can’t use swipe gestures nor multitouch, and so on.

This is probably due to the sluggish hardware and poor battery life of the first-generation Apple Watch. If Apple were to give third-party developers unfettered access, their apps could be a major drain on the wearable’s battery and further slow down its already bad performance. As one iOS developer put it to me, Apple Watch apps are a flop because “the hardware is just not ready for what Apple wanted to do with it.”

Maybe the Apple Watch 2, when released, will bring a significantly faster processor and better battery life. Until then, Apple is likely to stick to its new marketing mantra of notifications, fitness and health. However, this new positioning fails to differentiate Apple Watch from lower-cost alternatives such as Microsoft Band or Fitbit Blaze. (This may be why Apple dropped the Apple Watch price by $50.)

A rare climb-down for Cupertino

For some time now, I’ve found myself only using Apple Watch for timekeeping, notifications and fitness. And it seems I’m not alone. Maybe Apple has come to the conclusion that (right now at least) that is all the Apple Watch is good for.

This is a major change in how Apple talks about its smartwatch, but Cupertino seems to hope we won’t notice. Normally a change in strategy is something Apple spells out clearly during a keynote. This feels more furtive. Sheepish even. It’s a rare climb-down from Cupertino.

There’s reason to hope, though. In the iPhone’s early days, Apple’s smartphone was similarly limited in terms of what third-party apps were allowed to do. If you wanted to play music in the background with a third-party app, you had to jailbreak your phone. As the hardware of the iPhone has become more powerful, Apple has gradually given developers more possibilities.

A major hardware upgrade is required before Apple can grant third-party developers more access to the Apple Watch system. That’s when Apple Watch apps will finally become interesting.

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  • Garrett Fahey

    Mostly true. The apps I use most consistently are the built in Apple apps – Music, Wallet, Activity, and sometimes Maps or the alarm clock. These alone with Apple Pay are more than enough to justify the watch. The only third party apps I use on occasion is a sleep tracking app and Shazam, when my phone isn’t immediately accessible.

  • Driving directions are excellent on an Apple Watch. I prefer it to the iPhone or the in-car navigation.

    • roborat

      Yeah, and the battery is dead at 8:30 in the morning!

      • whodakat

        Mine regularly goes 2 days without charging, and when I do need to charge it, it takes about 45 minutes. Maybe if you got off the couch in your moms basement, and got a job, you could afford one for yourself and then you could quit hating.

      • roborat

        Don’t get mad at me if a watch that you need to explain to people why you bought one needs to be charged every two days.
        Why would I want to wear something that says I make poor purchasing decisions?

      • whodakat

        I ain’t mad at ‘cha, son. Who needs to explain to other people, why they bought something? I bought it because I wanted it. Pretty simple for me. Why do you buy things?

  • Nicholas Gonis

    I just taped my phone to my arm with some electric tape. Now my Apple Watch does every thing my phone can.

  • Tjosansa

    iMessage, Calls, checking time, reminders, temperature, music control is my basic need with it. And i want the watch to keep statistics of my health so i can get the data in the future when i need it.

  • disqus_7XunpanFgK

    Forgot to mention that the Apple Watch isn’t much of a watch… More than 80% of the time it is a blank, black, dead screen.

    My Huawei watch (designed by a Swiss certified horologist) puts the effeminate Apple Watch to shame. Google now, rich notifications, tons of 3rd party apps, customizable watch faces, always-on mode, good battery life, etc…

  • tjwolf

    Heck, even the built-in apps can be god-awful slow. Prime example: the simple Timer. How is it possible that in this day and age it takes 5 seconds for an app to “recall” the last start time (7 min in my case – egg boiling time :-) ???

    Even if it had to establish a Bluetooth connection to retrieve that info (which it shouldn’t have to with watch 2.0). Terrible.

  • roborat

    Just get a Fitbit Charge HR – last for 5 days on a charge and does all the health and fitness that you need. Everything else, you leave it on your phone and avoid looking like a nerd who buys everything Apple sells.

  • whodakat

    Love notifications, as I can’t have my phone out at work. Using Apple Pay is better on the Apple watch than on the iPhone. I use it for phone calls way more than I thought I would (very convenient, when you’re in the car or laying around). Maps works great (even better with 9.3), I like the vibration alert for upcoming turns.

    As far as apps go, Apple’s apps are great. Calendar, Reminders (the notification, lets you complete the task on the go), Messages (the wife has one to, so we even use the little animated emojis and screen drawings. Granted I wont be using these to chat with my friends, but it’s an easy little way to communicate with your loved ones, which I’m sure was the intent.). I use Remote to control my Apple TV and iTunes on my Mac. Not as often but I have used the Keynote app to move through presentations at work. I’ve even used the camera app to take group shots, it’s cool how you can get a view from the phones camera and get everyone lined up right, without having to be behind the camera.

    But hey this article is about how 3rd party apps suck right? Well here are just some of the apps I think work great. Mint, Geico, Wells Fargo, Barclay, Capital One, 1Password, Evernote, Deliveries, Omnifocus, Duo (I work from home a lot and when I sign into our server it pushes a notification to my watch, which I can then click on and it signs me in. Way better than changing numbers!), Postmates, Dominos pizza, Dark Sky, Hulu, iTranslate, Timers, eBay, Amazon, Shazam, Lifeline, and Uber!

    Look, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. I’ve had my watch since they came out so I remember 3rd party apps those first few months. They were admittedly, unusable. But that’s long in the past. I think the problem is some people are looking for iPhone apps on their Apple Watch, and they aren’t the same device and they shouldn’t be the same. Watch apps tend to be singular in focus. Quick in, quick out. If I want to read something, I go to my phone. If I want to do one particular thing, and fast, it’s the Watch.

    I guess the whole point of this rant, is that you shouldn’t let click bait articles influence your buying decisions. If you like tech and have the cash, get one. Everyone I know that has one loves it. But temper your expectations, it’s a 2 inch screen on your wrist, it’s not going to tuck you in at night.

    • seanudal

      The watch is great, however Apple has made no effort to market decent OS2 apps on their watch app store. The app store highlights a few apps, however the staff responsible for this page are not passionate about this device. To make matters worse nobody is doing decent reviews on OS2 apps on YouTube or websites. It all died sometime last year. Fantastical 2 is an example of a useful check list app. Djay2 works very well on the watch. Tacet silent metronome is awesome. Just Press Record is a good dictaphone. I have a Garmin HR and it is aweful. The Microsoft band is expensive for what you get. The Apple watch needs to drop another $50 and someone needs to do a review on decent OS2 apps. I have found a number that I use, however they were not mentioned by Apple. So a long slow process of searching on Google.

      Apple need to be more passionate about their own product and the media need to encourage developers to make more OS2 apps. Write and article on Apple Homekit and Watch integration. Philips Hue and lots more.

      • seanudal

        You can not rate or review a watch app separately to the iPhone app. OS1 apps are glorified remotes. So a add on to make something on the phone work. OS2 apps can do much more and should be listed like a normal app. Apple do not seem that interested in the success of 3rd party apps on the watch, and so no huge incentive for a developer.

        Just Press Record is an example where the iPhone app is not the main app. It is just a cloud file system for the watch. Maybe if developers could sell watch apps seperatey, they would develop more.

        I can see me using my watch to control home devices, so tempted to buy a Philips Hue 2 which supports HomeKit.

  • A-thought

    Welcome to the world under Tim’s leadership.

    iPhone could tolerate slow development progress when it came out, it was that far ahead of the tech at the time. Watch is not.

    Sccccrrreeeeee…

    Hear that? It’s the sound of a once iron-clad Apple slowly tumbling off a cliff.

  • Boy

    I bought a Casio watch from Argos for £18 with three years no quibble insurance. Granted I get through watches with my job but amazingly I’ve had this one for the three years now. It has a beautiful clock face, one very similar to what the Apple Watch has. I put my hand in my pocket when I need my phone and its functions. What great value. Smart watches aren’t smart enough yet as far as I’m concerned.

  • gnir

    When you complain about the battery life of the Apple Watch you make it seem like it is an issue now. Yes, it *could* be an issue with certain new apps but right now, mine goes a full day with no issues at all. I use it for all the typical things … alarms, times, fitness, heart rate, music, etc. I never have less than 30% battery left. The discussion on MacRumors seems to indicate that just about everyone is OK with the battery ….

  • TJ

    Don’t forget Time Travel for calendar and weather, iMessage, setting a timer without having to dig my 6S+ out of my pocket and Apple Pay (plus Starbucks QR code pay). These are all vital ways I use Watch and I love it. In fact, I got the watch first, then got a 6S+ because I knew I wouldn’t have to pull it out so much for transient things. People simply don’t get why the watch is awesome, including most developers apparently because most apps do suck. Watch 2.2 has made my battery last long enough that I can sleep with it on, wake up in the morning, stick in on the charger while I get ready for work, then put it back on and repeat.