It’s not the iWatch, it’s the Apple Watch. It's a communication tool, a fitness tracker, and a method of payment. So big news, but what will it mean for developers to build apps for this new device?
iOS for Apple Watch
A brand new category of device requires a brand new way of interacting with that device. As usual Apple's designers have done an outstanding job.
The Watch features a new typeface that was designed in-house "to maximize legibility" — a noble and important goal when you're dealing with a particularly small display. Interestingly, Google's Roboto was designed with some of the same goals in mind.
- Swipe up from the watch face for Glances. These quickly show you information you care about, such as your current location, stocks or your next meeting.
- Digital Touch allows you to send a sketch, a gentle tap, a Walkie Talkie message, or even your own heartbeat.
- Pay for coffee using Apple Pay™, board a plane with a Passbook boarding pass, control your Apple TV, or get map directions.
The Digital Crown interface
The watch’s side-mounted dial, or "crown," is key to the interface. You might want imagine it as a reimagined iPod clickwheel. Turning the crown does things like zoom in and out of maps and scroll through messages. Pushing it returns you to the device’s home screen. The interface is designed to minimize the hassle of using a small screen – the included messaging app lets you respond using canned replies or spoken ones that you dictate. Beyond that, the interface will also differentiate between taps and hard presses, giving users more options for interaction but departing from Apple’s normal touch system.
The communication button
The communication system gets its own little dedicated button under the crown. Prepare to feel like Dick Tracy, because Apple wants you talking on its watch. By pressing the secondary button on the device, you're presented with a list of favorite people, and you can tap on their faces to communicate with them via a phone call or a new messaging app that lets you send drawings back and forth. It’s separate from the messages app, which has some bold new features of its own: one lets you send animated emoji to your friends, and you can change the emoji’s faces by moving them with your fingers.
Apple's special developer kit for the watch is called WatchKit. So far we know it allows you to create custom apps as well as notifications that users can interact with.
A whole new era for apps
Apple will also need a robust group of third-party developers working to power the experience and ecosystem. Apple's always been good at roping in high-profile teams, and now the first round of its new partnerships are high caliber. They reeled off a long list of third-party partnerships as part of the announcement. These companies received early access to WatchKit.
The apps include social networks, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Those were expected; some others were less so. You'll also be able to find your car using a BMW app, check out scores with the MLB app, and even control the temperature in your home with a Honeywell app. If you're heading out on a run, load up the Nike app. If you'd rather fly, there's an American Airlines app that works by touch.
- American Airlines allows you to handle the entire process of checking in to boarding the plane with their app.
- Starwood hotels allows you to check in on your watch and you can open your hotel door by waving your watch in front of the door.
- The City Mapper app gives you mass transit directions and reminds you to get off at the right stop by tapping you on your wrist!
- The Pinterest app alerts you when you are near sites of interest that you have marked in advance and even gives you walking directions.
- BMW lets you see the charge level of your car, and will give you directions to where you parked your car.
- Major League Baseball lets you see the current sports scores.
- Honeywell lets you control the temperature in your home.
- The Lutron app allows you to control the lighting in your home.
- The Nike app allows you to challenge your friends to go for a run.
The question is how those partnerships will stack up to competitors'. Apple will want to continue into different fields — entertainment, media, and especially health — to go up against the solid lineup of Android Wear.
Apple Watch has a built-in:
- Heart rate sensor
- The back of the Apple Watch also acts as another input device. It has four sapphire lenses, infrared and visible light LEDs along with photo-sensors that can detect your heart rate
- "Taptic Engine"
- For input sensing: can recognize the difference between a tap and a hard press. Apple calls that a Force Touch and it is essentially the smartwatch equivalent of the right-click on a mouse or a long press on Android.
The watch has water-resistant speakers (thank you, Apple) that allow you to interact with the user by playing sounds or music.
The Apple Watch also has a linear actuator that provides haptic feedback in the form of gently tapping the user on the wrist. To give you a sense of how nuanced these taps can be, the Maps app uses different wrist taps to indicate turning left versus turning right.
It comes in two screen sizes: 38mm and 42mm. From the looks of it, there won't be any difference in the layout of the apps on the two screen sizes like there is for the new iPhone 6 Plus and the iPhone 6.
Made to measure all the ways you move
The health announcements were tamer than we were expecting. Apple didn't have any clinical partners on stage with them and they didn't announce any more detailed sensing than heart rate. Previously it was said that there would be a sweat sensor and blood oxygenation tracking.
At WWDC, the developer conference in June, they had Epic Systems and Mayo Clinic as health partners, but they were noticeably absent from the iWatch unveiling. In the months preceding the unveiling, Apple also hired a flurry of medical device experts. Perhaps this means Apple is holding off on additional health functionally for now pending regulatory approval, or just to wait until it works well enough. Regardless, there is still some new health functionality they discussed.
The two new phones include a built-in barometer that measures air pressure. The new M8 processor can also accurately measure distance traveled and elevation (altitude) by using this sensor. It will be interesting to see if the Watch uses this information from the phone.
The Workout app that lets you set specific goals for workouts like cycling and running. The Activity app shows you summaries of your movement data and shares it with the iPhone. The iPhone then also has two apps, Fitness and Health. The data in Health can be accessed by third-party fitness apps.
Apple Watch goes on sale early next year for $349 at the low end. "And it is worth the wait," Cook said. Until then, we’re also waiting for any details on battery life and potential wireless connectivity, as well as a full list of prices.
Unfortunately, Apple didn't release the WatchKit framework in the latest release of Xcode 6, but as soon as it becomes available, I'll dive in and start writing articles about it. For now WatchKit is only available to the chosen partners and not all developers.
Apple hasn't given much in the way of when they'll open it up. But... buried in their press release was this line: "Starting later next year, developers will be able to create fully native apps for Apple Watch.” So I'm taking that to mean that they may enable the Glances functionality for existing phone apps before they let fully native Watch apps run wild.
The interface you would create for an Apple Watch app is very different than that of an iOS app. As you consider the architecture, if you keep your core logic separate from the UI, you'll be able to more easily move functionality to the new platform when it arrives.
Personally, I'm excited to get my hands on WatchKit and begin building the next generation of apps. Writing for a brand new platform provides an unparalleled opportunity to get apps noticed when there are only a handful to choose from.