Third-party complications are a bigger deal than native Apple Watch apps

If the Watch is all about getting you in and getting you out, complications have the best real estate in town.

apple watch watchos2 complications primary
Credit: Apple

As one of the people fortunate enough to save enough money to buy the most expensive Apple Watch that isn’t wrapped in 18-Karat gold, I was also one of the last pre-orderers to wear one. So by the time I finally got to strap a Space Black Stainless Steel Apple Watch to my wrist, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Not only had I frequented my local Apple Store to play around with demos and try on the various bands, I had also read a few dozen impressions from people who had gotten one before me.

It wasn’t just the usual round of rushed reviews—over the 52 days between ordering and receiving my Watch, I devoured as much as I possibly could about Apple Watch, from touching experiences with its accessibility features to therapeutic tales of how couples used it to augment their relationships. But mostly I read about apps.

Standard aptitude

In the post-iPhone era, apps are everything. From the earliest days when Steve Jobs tried to convince us that web apps were a “sweet” solution for developers, it was clear that we needed a store that sold native applications. No matter how skilled a developer may have been at writing AJAX code, there was a deep gulf between the apps Apple offered and the ones that ran inside Mobile Safari. Apple set the standard for speed, quality and just plain usability, and developers were champing at the bit to get their hands on the iPhone’s SDK. The Multitouch screen opened up a world of possibilities for mobile applications, and just as soon as the App Store opened its doors, hundreds of smart, modern apps began to populate it.

watch face complications

I assumed it would be the same with Apple Watch. Much as developers shrunk their Mac apps in size and stature for the iPhone (and embiggened them again for the iPad), it made sense that they would simply get smaller for the Apple Watch. As I studied screenshots, and read blog posts and reviews of the various apps I would eventually install, it seemed as though developers were doing just that: whittling down gobs of information for a wrist-sized screen.

But after the honeymoon phase of wearing my Apple Watch ended, a funny thing happened: I stopped using apps. Completely. Unless I received a notification that I could act on (like a message or phone call), I never launched an app. Ever. Not even one of Apple’s.

Short and sweet

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of the Apple Watch apps. Even without native support—the flagship feature of the fall release of watchOS 2—they actually look and feel more polished than the first-generation of iPhone or even iPad apps did. Developers have put a considerable amount of thought into what information is needed on our wrists, and many of the apps I’ve used are quite intuitive in displaying useful chunks of data. And while it would be easy to blame the lag, that’s not really the issue either. Admittedly, loading can at be painfully slow at times, but more often than not apps display relatively quickly, and there have been very few times when I left one out of impatience.

watch sport face complications

There’s just something about the Apple Watch that seems to discourage a direct use of apps, and no matter much better the apps on Apple Watch perform under watchOS 2, I just don’t see myself using them much. As I’ve become more acclimated to the new device on my wrist, Glances and faces occupy the bulk of my time, and rarely do I spend more than a handful of seconds looking at the screen. And with watchOS’s 2’s third-party complications, I suspect I’ll be looking at it even less.

Apple Watch has returned something that I didn’t even realize I had lost: concentration. Where I can easily get lost in a sea of apps on my iPhone, Apple Watch has made me more aware of the world around me even as I stay connected; a quick flip through my Glances can save me from looking at my iPhone for several minutes, helping me stay engaged with the people in my life, not the screens. You won’t find it in its marketing materials, but it seems as though this is one of the main reasons Apple built a smartwatch, and watchOS 2 is another step toward the ultimate goal of truly integrating technology into our lives, not disrupting them with it.

Quick time

We interact with each of our Apple devices in vastly different ways, but it’s not just how we use them that’s unique, but also for how long. As our devices have gotten smaller and more powerful, the chunks of time we spend with each of them has been very clearly measured by what they do and how we do it:

Mac: Hours iPad: Quarter-hours iPhone: Minutes Watch: Seconds

I can sit at my desk all day and use my Mac without a bit of strain, but trying to do the same with my iPad isn’t nearly as comfortable. And I can scroll through hundreds of Twitter messages or reply to multiple emails on my iPhone, but it’s not so pleasant on my Watch. With a screen that’s attached to my wrist, I need to hold my arm a very specific way to operate it, and after a rather brief period, it’s just not enjoyable.

So all those apps that seemed great in theory just don’t work for me in practice. And I don’t see the how watchOS 2 will change that. I have no doubt that developers will create awesome tools and games that do incredible things with a tiny space, but it boils down to feasibility. Most people are unlikely to hold their arms up long enough to do more than press play or dismiss a notification.

That’s why third-party complications are the most exciting part of the new SDK. After trying out every face Apple offered my favorite one quickly became Utility, mainly for its ability to customize what I see when I raise my wrist. Solar and Motion are certainly beautiful—and one of the first things I show off when demoing it—but I settled on a more functional face so I can quickly see a variety of things even quicker than a Glance.

Natural selection

The best devices are the ones that are able to seamlessly integrate into our lives with a low adaptation curve. Apple Watch accomplished that extraordinarily quickly. In less than a day I barely reached for my iPhone anymore. The various things I would obsess over–namely important emails, messages and calls–smoothly routed to my wrist and quickly relieved my worry that I might miss one.

watch edition face

It wasn’t just that I was checking my phone less; once the novelty of newness wore off, I also used my Watch far less than I imagined I would. While I rarely pull down the Notification Center on my iPhone, Glances on my Apple Watch are a perfect space for widgets, offering the quick bites of information that I crave within seconds. I can check a score, the forecast, Twitter mentions, or my data usage without entering an app. Apple Watch is a perfect platform for widgets, and I’m far more interested in how Glances will benefit from the native performance of their companion apps.

But third-party complications are the real prize here. It would be ideal if they could automatically change throughout the day–like, for example, a stock could show while the market is open or flip to reflect flight times on the day you’re traveling–but a deeper level of personalization on the de facto lock screen expands Apple Watch’s capabilities far wider than native apps. iOS and OS X have been taking steps to deliver data without needing to open and close apps as often, but on those devices, apps still make the most sense. I don’t mind spending time with my Mac or iPhone, but with my Watch I want to put my wrist down as quickly as possibly; once developers begin to embrace the beauty and simplicity of the complication, even the number of times I need to use the Glances on my watch will likely drop considerably.

Now I just have to wait for the Faces API.

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