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Getting Apple Watch Apps Right Will Take a While

The bad news: There will be no fart apps.

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

The good news: Beyond the first apps, the Apple Watch’s software will certainly come along. Consider heart-rate sensors and other features that will turn the watch into a useful tool that can contribute to medical uses and ResearchKit studies. The bad news: There will be no fart apps.

Seriously, with years of iPhone app experience, Apple has created the rules for software to make the additions relatively useful. Apple has a 26-item list of things in the Functionality section of the Guidelines that declares: “2.11 Apps that duplicate Apps already in the App Store may be rejected, particularly if there are many of them, such as fart, burp, flashlight, and Kama Sutra Apps.” The hard part is coming up with a new class of apps that take the best advantage of the Watch.

The apps launched for the original iPhone were designed by Apple itself (and we have forgotten that even such a key app as Google Map for the iPhone was by Apple). It wasn’t until the introduction of the iPhone 3G in 2008 that the device was open to third-party apps, giving developers plenty of time to think of solutions. The iPhone 3G came out with 15,000 apps, but it’s telling that Smule’s $1 Ocarina was one of the most popular choices.

Of course, the availability of the iPhone produced a flood of products in the App Store. Many of the Apple Watch apps are simply small-screen extensions of popular iPhone apps. Only a relatively few really help — for example, an American Airlines offering that gives key flight information on your wrist as you dash through the terminal, providing service that is easier to get to than a similar report on a phone. Sneaking a glimpse at the score of a sports event, checking the coming of a subway train or entering a payment into a parking meter could be very helpful. And, as my partner Ben Bajarin has pointed out, the Watch will be most useful when it is kept hands-free.

On the other hand, a number of the Watch apps are silly. Green Kitchen offers recipes on your wrist. I am a big fan of the iPad for recipes, but a watch display is way too small for the job. And the two hands generally involved are going to be a problem during work that nearly always requires at least one hand in use. Getting your account information from Citibank, your financial data from Mint, and bidding on purchases through eBay are mainly silly and add, at best, very little to an iPhone.

Calculators may be the worst idea for the Watch. Of course, calculators have been available on electronic watches for a long time — Casio offered them on cheap watches 20 years ago. Meanwhile, today you can pay up to $1,200 for a 1970s Swiss Pulsar LED watch. Those watch calculators failed to work the same way the Apple Watch’s version will fail: The touchable buttons, now on screen rather than physical, are just too small.

Basically, most of the initial Watch apps are shrunken-down iPhone apps, just as the early iPhone apps imitated applications on the PC desktop or a Web service. It takes a while to do two incredible things. One is to redo how the design of the software has to be done to fit a smaller display and the different controls. This is mostly a reasonable start — the Watch apps don’t expect to use an onscreen keyboard. The harder part is to find apps on the watch that aren’t quite similar on a phone, a tablet or a PC. That will take longer.

I think health care — both do-it-yourself health and physical techniques and more professional medical apps — will probably be very important. Apple sees its software launch of HealthKit as a success, and CEO Tim Cook called the response to ResearchKit, a tool that allows medical researchers to easily collect data from participants, “simply amazing.” The Watch, for example, can be improved in these functions not only because it has better sensors than a phone, but it can be more thorough in the collection of data because it remains on the body more reliably than phones do.

As the apps get better, they should continue to drive increasing Watch sales. Initial Watch sales are going to fans who have been waiting for the product, but the volume will likely drop when these orders are filled. Eventually, it is the improved apps that will drive the sale, even as the iPhone soared once customers realized it was delivering services that weren’t practical in some other way.

Steve Wildstrom is a veteran technology reporter, writer and analyst based in the Washington, D.C., area. He created and wrote Businessweek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving Businessweek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech, and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD. He also consults for major technology companies. Reach him @swildstrom.

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