Waiting on the Apple Watch

Where did the Apple Watch go wrong? I ask myself this whenever I think about the Apple Watch. I've had every generation of the Apple Watch since it came first delivered to people on April 24, 2015. The Apple Watch truly shines, like most technology, when you do not have to think about it. Unfortunately, there are ever increasing problems that make that hard, and I wanted to dig deep into why that is.

To dive into this, we have to go back to April when the Watch first came out. There were a lot of apps on release day to try, and a lot of major tech companies like Amazon, eBay, Evernote, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Uber were there. Reviews at the time called the Watch slow and unresponsive and blamed the fact the apps were actually being executed on the phone, and the data was transmitted over Bluetooth to the watch. There were signs that Apple knew apps were slow because they shipped it with a weird feature called Glances. You couldn't customize watch faces with your own preferred apps, so if you swiped up on a watch face, you would get a one screen view of an app and you could swipe between the glances. For example, this was handy for people who prefer Dark Sky over Apple's built-in weather app.

Apple had all these big companies making watch apps but it was slow and frustrating to use. On June 8, 2015, just 77 days after the Apple Watch shipped to customers, Apple announced a brand new SDK for watchOS 2. In watchOS 2 came two major features: the most important being apps could run from the device itself and not require an iPhone to power them, and finally the Wi-Fi chip in the watch would allow for direct internet access. This would remove the requirement of having your iPhone nearby to function. Only it didn't.

Customers were already upset that the apps they could get to run were very limited. Twitter clients like Tweetbot and Twitterrific added watch apps that did not include the ability to read a 140-character tweet. The Instagram app still only lets you see the last four images posted. Twitter's app would let you read all the posts you want but couldn't show you photos. These apps were built as super quick tech demos, and they were not being well received. So when Apple told them 77 days after their release to rewrite them, most developers said it was not worth their time.

A year later we see Apple announce watchOS 3. Apple said they are attempting to solve the speed problem and even release a new watch with built-in GPS to try to make transit and map apps faster. They also got rid of the Glances feature replacing with the dock. The theory behind this is that instead of a static screen of data, now you can keep multiple entire watch apps running to combat the slow launch times. Only it didn't.

Now here we are, three years later, and the Apple Watch still is the same looking device but slightly bigger and heavier on the new cellular models. The cellular model of the watch wants to go back to watchOS 2 and fix the problems they attempted to then: apps should run completely on the device and the device should be able to connect to Wi-Fi or LTE without a phone present. There are only a small handful of apps that actually have updated for the 3rd generation watch and watchOS 4. Developers found their own solution to keep up with all these changes and calm the frustrated users: don't make apps for the Apple Watch.

Remember when I mentioned all those big companies who made apps for the Apple Watch? Because they could not provide a frustration-free experience they stopped updating them. They had already been burnt on building apps for an SDK that did not even last 90 days. They had been burnt on building custom glances, only for that feature to be removed. I cannot imagine the usage of their apps proved high enough to support the apps either. Amazon, eBay, Google, and Twitter have all pulled their apps from the Watch App Store. Facebook and Instagram have been doing the bare minimum to keep their apps in the store but they have never added any features or implemented any of the new watchOS SDK frameworks to make the apps self-reliant or faster. There are fewer apps from big developers today than there were when the Apple Watch launched back in 2015.

Frustrations with app performance aside, let's take a moment to look at the Watch App Store. The Watch App Store does not update weekly. It does not update monthly. Around watchOS 2, Apple took up a big love of fitness apps and partnered with Nike for that sweet brand synergy that consumers love and decided to focus the front page of the store entirely on fitness apps. There is nothing wrong with being in shape, but they seem to have a one-track mind, and being in shape is not something for everyone. A lot of these apps promote unhealthy lifestyles and are the equivalent to a Sunday morning infomercial "Lose weight fast!" fad. Fad? I mean scam. This is Apple saying they don't need apps from big tech companies, they have fitness. Unfortunately, this also says that if your app were to provide some real utility, it would be ignored for a fitness app that just wants to ask you to unnecessarily drink more water.

There are two notable Apple Watch apps that we should also consider when talking about the problems of the Apple Watch.

Pokémon Go — You've heard of it, it's a pretty big deal. They came to the Apple Watch earlier this year with the help of Apple because they wanted to make a fitness-focused version of their app. Apple even woke up an engineer to update the Watch App Store to feature it. But the app requires your phone, and it has trouble connecting to the phone. It will crash your workout repeatedly or tell you to log in to Pokémon Go, even if the phone app is alive and working.

Lyft — Lyft has an app for the watch, I mean... I think it's supposed to be an app. The app is more simple than it should be: you can only call regular rides, not cheaper rides like a Lyft Line. You can only get a ride at the location your watch's GPS thinks you are and correcting that is not easy. You cannot tell the app where you want to go either. So most people might prefer to call Lyft from the phone and just using the watch to rate the driver. But the app itself is just a glowing Lyft logo. The app rarely will work.

This isn't to say the Apple Watch is all bad. Like I said, the watch works best when you don't think about it. This is when you are simply looking at a notification or checking your messages. The second you start to try to use apps as Apple would have described them: out and about with the LTE or Wi-Fi, you start to wonder why is this so bad and why are watch app developers leaving the platform. And the answer is simple: Apple ran them off.