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How developers are making apps for an Apple Watch they haven't seen yet

Caitlin McGarry | March 9, 2015
The Apple Watch is designed to make you healthier and help you communicate more easily, but those lofty goals can't be attained without apps to back them up. Apple has its own apps in the works, like Workout and Activity for fitness-tracking, but the company needs popular iOS app developers to extend their services to Apple Watch. The company rolled out the WatchKit SDK in November to guide programmers and designers through the process, but I was curious: How do you make an elegant app without ever having seen the watch in person?

The Apple Watch is designed to make you healthier and help you communicate more easily, but those lofty goals can't be attained without apps to back them up. Apple has its own apps in the works, like Workout and Activity for fitness-tracking, but the company needs popular iOS app developers to extend their services to Apple Watch. The company rolled out the WatchKit SDK in November to guide programmers and designers through the process, but I was curious: How do you make an elegant app without ever having seen the watch in person?

We already knew a few of the major apps that will be on board when Apple Watch ships: Instagram, American Airlines, ESPN, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts among them. Apple reportedly invited dozens of app developers to Cupertino in February to finish up their apps. But some have gone it alone in the hopes that following the WatchKit guidelines closely and sticking with simple features will win Apple's stamp of approval and a spot in the Watch app store.

Developers faced a similar dilemma when building apps for the iPad. Apple waited for more than a year after releasing the first iPhone to launch the App Store, giving developers time to see the phone in action. But iPad apps were expected to appear in the App Store when the tablet launched, like we're expecting Apple Watch apps to be available from day one.

So app makers have spent the last few months working around two major restrictions: They can't access the Watch's sensors and they can't make native apps. Every Watch app must begin with an existing iOS app. Then there's the fact that you can't test a Watch app on the actual device — at least not yet. So the developers I talked to decided to keep it simple.

Off to a light start

Aside from the whole time-keeping part, the Watch's most obvious purposes are offering information at a glance, similar to the iPhone's Today widgets, and giving you actionable notifications. Developers I spoke to plan to extend their iOS apps with glances and notifications where it makes sense, making the Watch more of an iPhone accessory than a standalone device — at least in the early days.

The Omni Group is bringing its popular personal task management app OmniFocus to the Watch to let you keep track of tasks in progress, check off completed items, and dictate reminders to Siri that you can later listen to on your phone. Like other developers I spoke to, Omni Group CEO Ken Case said designing and testing an app using only a simulator has been a challenge, so his team had to get creative.

 

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