Apple Watches running watchOS 2 Apple

Apple Watch apps will be more powerful in watchOS 2, but there's much more work to be done.

Apple promotes Apple Watch apps, but they're not good enough yet

Apple won't reveal actual sales figures for the Apple Watch, but it's clear that the company views the 8500 third-party apps available for the watch as an indicator of its success.

It's an understandable number to promote--rich app catalogs and a development community that's hungry to develop for any new platform are two of Apple's great strengths. But I'm not convinced that apps are the strength of Apple Watch, at least not at the moment.

The current implementation of apps on Apple Watch is a stopgap. They're largely projections, controlled entirely by a counterpart app running on the iPhone. If communication between the Apple Watch and iPhone is interrupted, or if for some reason the counterpart app is no longer running, the Apple Watch app simply spins forever and is useless. Even when it's functional, there can be a lot of lag.

With the next release of what Apple's now calling watchOS, due this fall, watch apps will be able to run independent of their counterpart apps. That will help a lot with app responsiveness, to be sure. Apps will also be able to query the Internet directly, giving them even more independence from the iPhone. (If you’re in a supermarket with only your watch, and that market offers free wi-fi, your watch apps will be able to grab data from the Internet. That’s not quite my-watch-is-a-cellphone cool, but it’s still cool.)

Since getting my Apple Watch, I've fallen victim to its gamification of fitness and started running again. In order to get into shape, I'm using one of those couch-to-5K programs that gradually increases your running time and distance until you're able to run five kilometers at one go. There are plenty of these apps for the iPhone, and I was anxious to see how they integrated with the Apple Watch.

The results were not good. Obviously, I couldn’t take a run with only my watch, because apps can’t run at all without the iPhone being present. The ones that did work generally wanted me to start my routine from the iPhone and only use the watch for monitoring. I did appreciate getting a tap on the wrist when it was time to run and when it was time to stop, but when I was running up a hill and sucking wind, a glance at my wrist wouldn’t tell me how much more torment I had to endure before I got a break—because by default, the Apple Watch reverts to showing you a watch face after 30 seconds of inactivity. You can change this setting in the Apple Watch Settings app, but it would be much better if specific apps (such as fitness trackers) could override the default setting when active.

The release of watchOS 2 will make some of it better, but there seems to be no change coming for the Apple Watch’s app launcher interface, which is a weird collection of little round icons. The icons are so small that it makes it quite difficult to recognize which is which, especially in bright sunlight when you’re walking or running. They’re even harder to tap, and zooming in on them with the Digital Crown is an exercise in frustration. The apps are also not organized in any way—you can drag them around in the Apple Watch app on the iPhone into any system you want, but how many of us delight in organizing app icons? I just want to find the app I’m looking for and move on with my life.

Apple would be better off chucking the entire visual app launcher and replacing it with a scrollable list of apps. I’d like the list in alphabetical order, though I could see an option to pin favorites to the top of the list. And I’d take back the Apple Watch button, which is currently used to trigger a feature I never use—the Friend finder—and instead use it to trigger an app launcher screen.

When I think about it more, I’m not entirely sure an app launcher should be anything but a last resort on the Apple Watch. With watchOS 2, developers will be able to display app information right on the watch face, using a feature called complications. Tapping on a complication should launch its companion app—meaning that if I care so much about my fitness timer, I can add it to a watch face and use that face when I go running.

Then there’s the watchOS feature called glances, which you access by swiping your finger up from the bottom of the screen. These are quick views of information from favorite apps that you can flick through from left to right. Glances are another great way to access app information quickly, and with one tap, you can launch the app that provides that particular glance.

I enjoy my Apple Watch, but watchOS is clearly a work in progress. Apple can keep crowing about how many apps currently run on it, but the fact is that right now, apps are the least compelling thing about the device. With watchOS 2 this fall, Apple’s taking a few steps in the right direction—but there are many more hills to climb before Apple Watch apps are powerful enough and easy enough to use to make them a true highlight of the device.

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