"A solution in search of a problem" has become a popular criticism leveled at the Apple Watch. Of course, it's not specific to Apple, either. The phrase has been attached to practically every other high-profile smartwatch before it. And more to the point, it arises practically every time there's a major push around a new product category.
At the hardware level, smartwatches are either grossly underperforming smartphones, or digital watches that have learned a few new tricks. Either way, they hardly represent the sea change on which Apple, Samsung, Google and their peers seems to be banking. The magic needs to come from the apps.
To survive past the novelty stage, smartwatches need a killer app -- actually, scratch that, they need a whole army of them. Early adopters are one thing. Sustained interest is a far, far bigger fish to fry.
With the Apple Watch a few mere weeks out, the first crop of apps has finally coming into sharp relief. The early batch includes 24 different apps. It's hardly a deluge, but it's certainly enough for a proof of concept -- and a proof of early commitment to an unproven platform by some fairly big name content providers including Flipboard, Expedia, The New York Times, Target and MLB.
Naturally, the first apps are all Watch versions of existing iOS apps. That's to be expected for a number of reasons. For one thing, it's easier to get out ahead of the game if you just have to tweak an existing app. For another, Apple no doubt courted trusted developers with large existing user bases. Third, and perhaps most importantly, many developers see Apple Watch apps as a way to drive users to other devices, anyway. The baseline use for a smartwatch is grabbing a user's attention enough with some bite-sized piece of information, then getting them to pull out a tethered phone or tablet for more information.
Sifting for gems
Full disclosure: I've tried several smartwatches, but I've yet to stick my wrist through Apple's device. That said, this initial crop offers us some broad-stroke notions of how third-party developers will be embracing this first-generation product. It should go without saying that it's much too early to pass down judgement on any of these.
The major categories here are News (Including weather and sports), Note taking/List Making, Travel, Chat/Social, Payment and Fitness.
News represents the fundamental fulfillment of that aforementioned "baseline." The New York Times, for example, has already detailed its offering as "One Sentence Stories." As much as that phrase might raise the hair on the back of a seasoned journalist's neck, the fact of the matter is that every single news outlet out there already serves this up through social media. It's not really innovative, so much as it is Twitter.
With Twitter, the idea is to create a pithy enough sentence to hook the reader and convince them to pull out the phone. That's, perhaps, one of the great ironies with these devices. Ultimately, they exist to curb constant phone usage, but a huge number content providers are angling for just the opposite.
Apps in the Chat/social (Twitter and popular Chinese service WeChat) and Note-Taking/List Making (Evernote, Things) categories may keep the phone in the pocket a little longer, assuming that interaction with the Watch apps is more than just read-only. But I can tell you from experience that interaction with an app like Twitter is a tricky proposition on a smartwatch.
Even if typing is available, it's certainly not recommended. I still wake up in a cold sweat imagining sitting on a bus in a world in which everyone is constantly talking to, rather than typing on, their devices. It's like that scene in a movie when a character realizes they can read minds -- and suddenly starts reading all of the minds at ones.
In an ideal world, travel apps will greatly cut down on phone time. Air Canada and Qantas promise gate numbers, boarding times, electronic boarding passes. Even still, you can get all of those through a phone right now.
Fitness and Payment both fall into the category of nice perks that likely won't sway anyone in and of themselves. As we've discussed in past weeks, there's not a lot in the way of fitness that a smartwatch offers over a fitness band -- or for that matter, you're phone's built-in sensors. The same goes for mobile payment, which means swiping one device instead of the other.
Again, it's too early to judge the respective merits of any of these apps, but it seems safe to say that there's nothing in the bunch that's likely to turn around cynical audiences. Even in this first batch, there's a fair amount of redundancy; many of the apps offer similar functionality on different services.
Give the Apple Watch time
It's not all doom and gloom, of course. Arguably the most exciting aspect of the mobile app boom is the rise of the no-name developer. Given that pretty much all of the first crop are from established developers, it shouldn't be too surprising that there are no immediate head turners in this first class.
Let's give a few months. Mark your calendars. I'm sure someone's working on an app for that.