How developers are making apps for an Apple Watch they haven't seen yet

apple watch notifications
Credit: Apple

The Apple Watch is designed to make you healthier and help you communicate more easily, but those lofty goals can’t be attained without apps to back them up. Apple has its own apps in the works, like Workout and Activity for fitness-tracking, but the company needs popular iOS app developers to extend their services to Apple Watch. The company rolled out the WatchKit SDK in November to guide programmers and designers through the process, but I was curious: How do you make an elegant app without ever having seen the watch in person?

apple watch aa Apple

American Airlines is one of Apple’s early Watch app partners.

We already knew a few of the major apps that will be on board when Apple Watch ships: Instagram, American Airlines, ESPN, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts among them. Apple reportedly invited dozens of app developers to Cupertino in February to finish up their apps. But some have gone it alone in the hopes that following the WatchKit guidelines closely and sticking with simple features will win Apple’s stamp of approval and a spot in the Watch app store.

Developers faced a similar dilemma when building apps for the iPad. Apple waited for more than a year after releasing the first iPhone to launch the App Store, giving developers time to see the phone in action. But iPad apps were expected to appear in the App Store when the tablet launched, like we’re expecting Apple Watch apps to be available from day one.

So app makers have spent the last few months working around two major restrictions: They can’t access the Watch’s sensors and they can’t make native apps. Every Watch app must begin with an existing iOS app. Then there’s the fact that you can’t test a Watch app on the actual device—at least not yet. So the developers I talked to decided to keep it simple.

Off to a light start

Aside from the whole time-keeping part, the Watch’s most obvious purposes are offering information at a glance, similar to the iPhone’s Today widgets, and giving you actionable notifications. Developers I spoke to plan to extend their iOS apps with glances and notifications where it makes sense, making the Watch more of an iPhone accessory than a standalone device—at least in the early days.

The Omni Group is bringing its popular personal task management app OmniFocus to the Watch to let you keep track of tasks in progress, check off completed items, and dictate reminders to Siri that you can later listen to on your phone. Like other developers I spoke to, Omni Group CEO Ken Case said designing and testing an app using only a simulator has been a challenge, so his team had to get creative.

“For testing we use the simulator, but that’s not a very good way to think about how I should be using this device,” Case said. “We have a 3D printer and we printed some mockups. How big is it? How much room for buttons do you have? It’s hard to test things like the crown, but it helps you think about it somewhat better than just having it on your Mac.”

apple watch trello Trello

Trello’s Watch app will let you collaborate with coworkers on the go.

Group collaboration platform Trello will also be available on the Watch with notifications about upcoming project due dates that you can remove or change. The app will also let you create new tasks, or what Trello calls cards, using voice dictation, and respond to comments from collaborators. Trello, which is sort of like the Pinterest for productivity, would be difficult to replicate on such a small screen, and CEO Michael Pryor said the iPhone will still do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to having discussions.

Popular to-do list app Todoist will show you your tasks for the day at a glance, then let you check them off or dive in to see detailed information about each task. The team is also working on a feature that will let you reassign tasks to different days using Siri.

apple watch todoist Todoist

Todoist for Apple Watch will show you much of the same information you see on the iPhone.

“The biggest challenge is figuring out how to give a user access to their task list in a simple and quick form,” Todoist developer Enric Enrich said via email. “Since there is limited space on the watch-face, we have to decide how to concisely show each task’s essential information.”

Agile Tortoise developer Greg Pierce is behind ultimate note-taker Drafts (a Macworld favorite) and counting app Tally, both of which will land on Apple Watch at launch. Tally was simple: The app keeps track of anything you need to count, like how many glasses of water you drink or cigarettes you’ve smoked. Pierce said Tally will make use of taps to function—one tap to count up and a force tap to bring up a menu to count back down or reset the counter.

If you already use Siri to dictate notes in Drafts, the Watch version will be similar. While you’re on the go, just tell Siri a reminder or a quick idea, then bring it up later on your phone to choose a destination for your note.

The apps “remove the additional friction of getting your phone out of your pocket and seemed like a natural fit, like the Watch is likely to be good for,” Pierce said.

No one I spoke to had used the Watch, but everyone was confident that Apple would open up more of the device’s functionality to developers in the future.

Not just a smaller iPhone app

Starwood Hotels & Resorts has the advantage of being a preferred Apple partner—the hospitality company worked with Cupertino to roll out Passbook with iOS 7 and has a similar role for the Apple Watch launch. We caught a glimpse of what Starwood’s SPG app will look like at the Watch reveal back in September, when we found out that the Watch will unlock SPG hotel room doors.

The keyless unlocking function isn’t exactly new: Starwood added the feature to its iPhone app, which I saw in action at the W New York in downtown Manhattan back in November. Stephen Gates, Starwood’s vice president and creative director of global brand design, told Macworld that the company has experimented with Android Wear, but could only make the contactless door unlocking work on Apple Watch.

“To be able to do something like keyless entry, which works very simply and seems like magic, there’s a huge amount that goes into the programming and security,” he said. “The Watch is the most robust [wearable] platform we’ve seen so far.”

apple watch spg Apple

Apple announced Starwood’s keyless unlocking feature at the Apple Watch reveal last September.

Gates declined to say what the Watch app’s other marquee features will be, but said wearables lend themselves to travel by offering information you need to see at a glance.

“The watch isn’t just a smaller version of our iPhone app,” he said.

We’re expecting to see more Watch apps and their features on display at Apple’s “Spring Forward” event on Monday. Check back at 10 a.m. Pacific/1 p.m. Eastern for the Macworld live blog straight from the event and complete coverage of the Apple Watch launch.

To comment on this article and other Macworld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.