iPhone dependence is killing Apple Watch. Here’s how Cupertino could fix it.

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It’s time to cut the cable and set Apple Watch free
It’s time to cut the cable and set Apple Watch free
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

For activity tracking, fitness and notifications, Apple Watch is pretty awesome, and these days, that’s all most people use it for. Which is a shame.

When it launched back in 2015, Apple had a much bigger vision: a wearable computing platform supporting a rich and varied ecosystem of apps. Like an iPhone strapped to your wrist. But the reality has turned out to be rather different. Instagram is just the latest of a series of high profile apps to desert the platform. So what’s up?

I believe Apple Watch’s dependence on iPhone is holding it back, and the time has come for Cupertino to set its smartwatch free. In this, the third and final part of my wish list of watchOS 5 features, I’ll focus on how I hope Apple will improve setup, apps and iCloud to create a badass stand-alone device.

iPhone cut the cord and finally came of age in iOS 5. Now it’s watchOS’ turn.

It seems crazy now to recall that there once was a time when you could not set up an iPhone or iPad without connecting it to a Mac or PC running iTunes. It was only with the launch of iOS 5, back in 2011, that Cupertino “cut the cable” and let you set up your iPhone and iPad as stand-alone devices.

Today, Apple Watch is similarly constrained. Even though some Series 3 models come with built-in LTE, you still can’t set them up without an iPhone. I believe that this dependence on iPhone is killing watchOS as a standalone platform. The idea that people don’t use watch apps has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since the watch is not a stand-alone device, you’re unlikely to leave home without your iPhone. And if you have your iPhone with you, why bother trying to use your watch?

As a result of this vicious cycle, no one is seriously trying to solve watch-based approaches to tasks you would normally perform on your iPhone. Loads of apps still don’t work when your iPhone is out of range. Apple still has not given us some essential apps like Notes, Voice Memos and Podcasts. And big-name developers like Instagram, Amazon and Google are deserting the watch, telling us to use our iPhones instead.

In other words, iPhone dependance is killing innovation on Apple Watch. It’s about time Cupertino did something about it. Here’s what I think needs to happen.

The missing apps
The missing apps. Apple should show third-party devs how it’s done.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Why most Apple Watch apps suck

The only reason Apple Watch apps generally suck is that we haven’t used them enough yet to work out what a good one should be like.

Right now, Apple offers third-party watch app developers a very basic framework for building apps. But few developers are pressing Cupertino to open up watchOS to proper app development because there is such a lack of interest. Even Apple Watch fan John Gruber recently questioned whether Apple should continue to support third-party watch apps at all.

I disagree. I think if Apple gets serious about promoting Apple Watch as a stand-alone device, the wearable can finally emerge from the iPhone’s shadow. Doing so would jump-start a new era of watch app innovation. With Apple Watch truly unshackled from iPhone, people would finally start thinking of it as a stand-alone device. That means delving deeper than superficial features, like notifications, to find out what they can really do with their watches.

Once Apple Watch becomes a genuine iPhone replacement, plenty of people might choose to abandon iPhone altogether. They might take only an Apple Watch and an LTE-equipped iPad mini with them when out and about, for example.

Here are the six things I think Apple must do to make this happen.

1. Fast, stand-alone Apple Watch setup

Setting up a new Apple Watch takes forever, involving tedious arcane tasks like upgrading, pairing, configuring and syncing. I think we’ve got so used to it that we forget quite how bad this is as a user experience.

Setting up an old-fashioned watch is simple: You take it out of the box, strap it on your wrist, set the time, and you’re done. I’d like to see something similar with Apple Watch. Unbox it, wear it, log into iCloud and you’re done.

That would require a major reworking of the setup process. However, it should be possible, for an LTE Apple Watch at least. Like with an iPhone, once its connected to iCloud, you could start using the watch while all your data starts to sync.

Apple SIM let's you buy data plans right from your iPad. Apple Watch should too
Apple SIM lets you buy data plans right from your iPad. Apple Watch should do the same.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

2. Stand-alone LTE data connectivity

Currently, Series 3 Apple Watches with LTE use eSIM technology to “share” your iPhone’s SIM and phone number. While a pretty neat solution, it proves limiting in three important ways:

  • You can’t use LTE without an iPhone on a compatible account.
  • It does not support global roaming because it depends on support from your carrier.
  • It only works with a small number of carriers who support it, which means it remains unavailable in most of the world.

With watchOS 5, I hope Apple will unleash the true power and flexibility of the eSIM technology by enabling you to select a data plan from providers like GigaSky and pay for it with Apple Pay directly from your watch. (This would be similar to how the Apple SIM works on iPad.)

Right now, the few carriers that support Apple Watch LTE are laughing all the way to the bank by charging us a fortune for the privilege of using the data we already paid for on a second device. It’s about time they were given a healthy dose of competition. Buying data plans this way would also enable us to keep our watches connected when we travel abroad.

Buying an LTE data plan from your wrist could be this easy
Buying an LTE data plan from your wrist could be this easy.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

3. Sync with iCloud, not iPhone

Macs, iPhones and iPads sync your data via iCloud. Add a contact on your Mac, and it appears on all your other devices automatically. Same with notes, photos and reminders. But not so for Apple Watch, which still must sync data via Bluetooth. That seems a little clumsy, especially now that the most popular Apple Watch model brings LTE.

It’s about time for Apple Watch to get a promotion. Apple should make it just another device that syncs directly with iCloud, rather than getting everything second-hand via your iPhone. So, for example, if you leave your iPhone behind when you go out shopping, if someone else in your family adds something to your shopping list via HomePod, it would automatically be added to the Reminders app on your watch. And third-party apps should get access to iCloud syncing, too.

4. Add the missing apps: Notes, Podcasts, Voice Memos and more

If you’ve ever tried using an LTE Apple Watch as an iPhone replacement, you know that you soon discover some essential apps are missing (like Notes, for example).

I appreciate that it’s not a great reading experience to scroll through a long note on your watch, but not all notes are long. Many of my notes are one-liners — a web address, or the name of a product I want to look up later. Having the ability to make notes on my watch via Siri would be very handy. For example: “Hey Siri, make a note to listen to last week’s CultCast.”

On the subject of podcasts, it’s about time Apple gave us a Podcasts watch app. Voice Memos is another notable omission.

More controversially, perhaps, I also think Apple needs to add Safari. Yes, seriously. I realize that browsing the web on a watch’s postage-stamp-size screen would suck. But Apple could help with this by basing its Apple Watch web browser on Safari’s stripped-down Reader View. I don’t anticipate anyone using Safari on Apple Watch for long sessions. But sometimes it could be very handy — to check the menu and opening times on a restaurant’s website, for example.

Install watch apps straight from your wrist [Mockup]
It would be awesome to install Apple Watch apps straight from your wrist.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

5. The Watch App Store should be a watch app

Another essential app notably absent from Apple Watch is the App Store. Currently, if you want to install a watch app, you must do it via your iPhone. Apple Watch will only truly become a stand-alone device when this final dependency is eliminated.

I suspect that many people will throw up their hands in horror at this suggestion, saying that the user experience of browsing and downloading apps from an Apple Watch app would be terrible. And perhaps they’d be right. But if anyone can do this properly, it’s Apple. It sends a very bad signal to third-party devs to suggest that such an app cannot be done in a good way.

Tackling big and complicated watch apps like Safari and the App Store would also serve another purpose: showing third-party developers how it is done. It would give them clear guidance — and a reason to believe in Apple Watch as a platform.

If Cupertino genuinely thinks third-party developers should produce watch versions of their apps, Apple should lead by example and produce more of its own.

6. WatchKit sucks: Give third-party devs the same tools Apple uses

When third-party developers create apps for iPhone and iPad, they get to use exactly the same tools to build the apps that Apple uses. That’s one reason there are so many great iOS apps out there.

But if you want to develop an app for Apple Watch, you must use a framework called WatchKit that Apple’s developers would not dream of using themselves. Why? Because it’s extremely limited and buggy. There are more than 20 built-in apps provided by Apple on the watch, but of those, only three could have been developed using WatchKit.

Many of the nice animations, transitions and controls you see on Apple’s own apps are impossible to create within the confines of WatchKit. Until Apple gives third-party developers access to its special sauce, third-party apps will continue to be very limited, and few developers will be motivated to create them.

Conclusion: What did I leave out and why?

This is the last of my three posts about the future of Apple Watch. If you missed the others, check out Part 1: Usability and Part 2: Fitness.

In total, there are 18 items on my wish list. I deliberately left out some obvious ones, like third-party watch faces. Despite some evidence to the contrary, I’m still not convinced that Jony Ive would ever sign off on random third-party developers messing with the beautiful hardware-software integration of his prized wearable. Most third-party watch faces on other devices just look plain fugly.

What do you think of the list? Have I missed anything important? Let us know in the comments below.