Apple Watch’s new software could be most important news from developer event

Apple Watch may be a neat device, but it lacks a killer app. Thanks to Apple, developers now have a lot more latitude to try to create one.

At its annual WWDC developers conference in San Francisco Monday, Apple announced that it is creating a new version of WatchOS, the operating system that underlies Apple Watch. With the new version, which programmers can start testing now, they will be able to create apps that run on the device itself rather than being beamed to it from an iPhone.

For all the talk at the show about Apple’s new music service and the updates to OS X and iOS, the software undergirding Mac computers and iPhones, respectively, the watchOS announcement potentially has the most long-term significance. Opening up the Watch to outside developers could not only make the device a mainstream hit, but help establish smartwatches as a significant new market like smartphones and tablets before them.

Developers will have a lot of new options when developing apps for the Watch. They’ll be able to tap into the device’s motion sensors and its vibrating motor that can convey alerts. They’ll also be able to build apps that use its speaker, microphone, crown and heart-rate sensor, and Watch programs will be able to play videos on the device.

Perhaps most important of all, the new version of the Watch software will allow the device to connect independently to known WiFi networks, instead of needing to piggyback on an iPhone’s data connection. That’s the first step in the Watch becoming a standalone device, one that can be used whether or not you have an iPhone in your pocket.

I’m eager to see what developers come up with. The ability to tap into the accelerometer and heart-rate sensor could well turn the device into a must-have gadget for athletes or those aspiring to improve how they play particular games. The device could potentially be used to help measure swings of a golf club or a baseball bat. Meanwhile, the vibrating motor could be incorporated into a bunch of different apps, including one that might alert users that their door is unlocked when they leave the house.

The problem with the Watch right now is that it just isn’t all that useful. It’s OK for telling time, but not as good as a regular watch, because the screen is off by default. It’s good at delivering alerts, but I find that a mixed blessing; many of the notifications I get on the device interrupt conversations or trains of thought with alerts that aren’t urgent.

Beyond that, there are few apps I use regularly on the device. And none that I couldn’t live without. (Matthew Inman over at The Oatmeal has a humorous (if NSFW) take on what works well and what doesn’t on the Apple Watch as it exists now.)

Lauren Goode over at ReCode says the lack of usefulness is not specific to Apple Watch; it’s a problem the whole category of products faces right now. The question, as she puts it, is not which smartwatch you should buy, but whether you should buy one at all.

Right now, for most people, the answer to that question is probably no. But the new apps coming to the Watch could change the equation.

Photo: Apple executive Kevin Lynch demonstrates new features of the Apple Watch at the Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday in San Francisco. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

 

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  • fstein

    Remember that merchant loyalty programs for Apple Pay extends to the Watch. That makes the Watch a lot more useful. Who knows what we’ll else we’ll get from the 1 Million iOS developers.

 
 
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