Apple and developers hunt for the 'killer app' for Apple Watch

Searching for profit in native Apple Watch apps iStockPhoto

Starting June 1, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) will require new Apple Watch apps submitted to the App Store to have the ability to operate independently of an iPhone.

Apple recently announced that "all new watchOS apps submitted to the App Store must be native apps built with the watchOS 2 SDK or later."

This means Apple Watch developers will need to embrace the latest watchOS development kits or risk falling behind in the smartwatch market. 

Why did Apple make this move?

Apple wants apps specifically designed for the Apple Watch and is encouraging developers to create smartwatch apps that leverage the advanced functionality provided by the watchOS 2 SDK and other state-of-the-art development kits. 

For example, The Next Web notes apps built with the watchOS 2 SDK or later can "[take] advantage of things like WatchConnect for using an Apple Watch via known Wi-Fi signals without the need for an iPhone." 

Juniper Research global smartwatch shipments 2015

Global smartwarch shipments by region, 2015. Source: "Smartwatches: Clocking the Trend," Juniper Research whitepaper

Developers who utilize the watchOS 2 SDK or later could incorporate this functionality and other distinct features into Apple Watch apps. And ultimately, these developers could reap the benefits of the rapidly growing smartwatch market.

Market research firm Juniper Research pointed out the Apple Watch claimed 52 percent of the smartwatch market last year following its April launch. In addition, technology research provider Gartner reported 30.32 million smartwatches were sold in 2015, and this figure is expected to grow to 66.71 million by the end of next year.

"Smartwatches have the greatest revenue potential among all wearables through 2019," Gartner Research Director Angela McIntyre said in a statement. 

How do developers feel about the smartwatch market?

There has been minimal interest in a "smartwatch-first" approach among developers. 

Kate Goldberg Intersog

Goldberg (Source: Intersog)

In fact, the majority of developers continue to focus exclusively on creating smartphone and tablet apps -- but why? 

Kate Goldberg, chief operating officer at Chicago-based software development company Intersog, told FierceDeveloper she believes many consumers are dissatisfied with the current smartwatches that are available, which may be leading developers to shy away from creating custom smartwatch apps. 

"As the recent evaluations of Apple Watch suggest, most of users are highly dissatisfied with the device, as it doesn't provide any innovative functionality and basically just mirrors the smartphone and some of its features," she said. "Also, UI design of most of today's smartwatches leaves a lot to be desired and is limited due to a small screen. This may discourage businesses from developing smartwatch apps ecosystem and, thus, developers can lose interest in building such apps." 

Many developers remain unclear about what types of smartwatch apps will generate interest from consumers as well. 


"It isn't entirely clear what a 'killer app' for a smartwatch would be, so the applications we are seeing so far are mainly free extras, rather than anything which is really interesting in its own right," said Bob Summerwill, CEO of Vancouver-based and a developer for the Ethereum Foundation. 

Smartwatches represent a transformative technology, but a paradigm shift may be necessary to ensure developers recognize smartwatch consumers' expectations and utilize the right technologies to meet or exceed these expectations consistently. 

How can developers fulfill smartwatch consumers' expectations?

Developers likely will need to tailor their apps to Apple Watch and other smartwatches to garner attention from smartwatch consumers.

Today's smartwatch consumers want innovative apps designed to capitalize on the advanced functionality of smartwatches -- something many developers have failed to deliver. 

So what does it take for developers to provide engaging smartwatch apps?

A successful smartwatch developer requires a strong technical background as well as the ability to "think out of the box in critical situations," Goldberg said.

Also, this developer must look at smartwatches as standalone devices and design and launch smartwatch apps accordingly. 

"[Smartwatches] are really standalone mobile devices. If you look at specifications, they are maybe on a parallel track to mobile devices, but about four years behind," Summerwill told FierceDeveloper. "If you think of the innovative applications which have come to mobile in the past few years, given the combination of processing power and network connectivity, I think we will see a wealth of useful applications starting to appear."

What does the future hold for smartwatch developers?

Juniper Research pointed out the smartwatch ecosystem is growing rapidly, and dedicated software companies could emerge to deliver both games and productivity-based apps for smartwatches. 

Meanwhile, Apple Watch, Android Wear and other smartwatches could transform the mobile device market, and developers who embrace a smartwatch-first approach may be able to capitalize on the sector's expected growth. 

Entering the smartwatch market can be challenging, but Goldberg said building skills in machine learning and predictive analytics could help developers optimize the smartwatch development tools at their disposal. 

"Developers may leverage machine learning and data analytics to design some cool features for smartwatch apps or build smartwatch compatible chatbots that are trending right now," Goldberg said. "There's a plethora of opportunities."

Exploring ways to develop for a variety of smartwatch platforms may deliver long-lasting benefits for developers, too. 

"Developers should explore each device deeply in terms of monetization potential, audience and user demographics and support to make the right decision," Goldberg noted. 

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