Apple WatchKit SDK: Current and Future Capabilities

By Jeff Kibuule | Jan 07, 2015

Apple’s WatchKit SDK has been available since mid-November, and developers have had enough time to give their initial response after a month or two of development time. The WatchKit SDK gives developers the chance to extend their iOS apps to the Apple Watch to bring new experiences to their users. Applications written with WatchKit currently run on the iPhone and project a simplified interface on the Watch. These apps are packaged inside pre-existing iOS apps, with management and installation of apps from a dedicated Watch app to be revealed in the future.

Apple currently allows for two different types of WatchKit apps, Glances and Notifications.

Glances

Glances provide small, short snippets of content from the primary application which a user can browse on the Watch. Apple provides several templates for developers to choose from which give a uniform look and feel to existing system apps pre-installed on the Watch. Glances are meant to be an adjunct, and aren’t a replacement for the primary iOS app. Apple cautions developers from attempting to re-create their iOS app on the Watch.

Notifications

Notifications are the second kind of WatchKit app and also come in two types: short look and long look. Short look notifications show just the app icon and app name which is visible as soon as the notification comes in. Every iOS app gets a short look notification for free without any additional developer effort. However, as a user holds Apple Watch up longer, the OS transitions the short look into a long look notification, which a 3rd party developer has the ability to customize. These long look notifications provide a way to extend the current iOS 8 notification system by allowing for up to 3 customized actions. These actions are similar to the new actionable notifications present in iOS 8, which allow for a deeper level of interaction without opening up the app. In addition, every notification has a “dismiss” action which removes the notification from both the Watch and your phone. This system lets users act on and triage notifications from the Watch without needing to take out their phone.

3rd Party and Native Mobile Apps

For the moment, fully native 3rd party applications that run only on the Watch aren’t currently available to developers to create. Apple has indicated that this functionality will be coming to the WatchKit some time this year, with most predicting availability at WWDC in summer 2015. A full release of native WatchKit apps would likely come along with the next version of iOS in fall 2015. Ideal candidates for fully native apps include social apps that let you post status updates using Siri, health/fitness apps that take advantage of sensors on the Apple Watch, or apps that use the NFC radio to act as a key for locks and doors. Of course, all of these possibilities depend on what Apple makes available to developers this year in the SDK. Experimentation will be key in finding out what works best as a fully native app vs a glance in this new form factor.

When native applications do become available, I expect a situation similar to the original SDK for the iPhone back in 2008, a smaller feature set that guides developers in the kind of apps to make. Apple has spent 3+ years working on the user experience of Apple Watch and their reputation for maintaining that experience with 3rd party apps means they will have made some tough decisions in order to ensure a high quality experience. Considerations about battery life and limited network connectivity mean that the types of apps that will work well on the Apple Watch will be limited. The size of the screen will limit the number of possible user experience scenarios for apps to follow, with interfaces needing to be equally usable on both the 38mm and 42mm band-size watches. For example, screens that would be dynamic on an iPhone such as pinch-and-zoom in Maps will appear only as static tiles on the Watch. Layout of elements is largely automatic with simple horizontal and vertical groups instead of specific X, Y coordinates. Lastly, Apple’s recent round of rejections from 3rd party developers using iOS 8 Today Widgets in novel ways indicate that Apple has a specific mindset with these new features. I expect WatchKit to be even more strict with its App Store submission rules with the goal to wring out as much battery life as possible. Given all of these likely restrictions however, Apple is the one company that has consistently pushed new markets forward with products like the iPhone and iPad and sees them as a key to success with Apple Watch.

Apple Watch is still planned to be released by Apple in Spring 2015 starting at $349. There should be a good selection of WatchKit apps available on day one from premier and top independent iOS developers. Afterwards, expect an explosion of more unique apps when developers have access to hardware to test and better understand what works well on Apple Watch.
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