Hackernoon logoIs Apple furthering the Smartphone Disintegration with WatchOS 5? by@jorge.serna

Is Apple furthering the Smartphone Disintegration with WatchOS 5?

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Jorge Serna

New features open opportunities for developers to actually embrace the device, but existing limitations are still showing

In previous posts I have talked about how Apple needs to jump into a new device cycle besides the iPhone (not because the iPhone is not performing well, but because they understand the S-curve model and they want to jump while they are on top), and that one possible bet in this space is driving independent (phone-less) usage of new devices like Apple Watch and the AirPods. I call this trend the “Smartphone Disintegration”, as it will separate funtions currently in the phone (and create new ones) and distribute them accross multiple devices that will work together.

But while the Apple Watch is an undeniable success, its ability to become an independent ecosystem is quite limited, as it is shown by big developers actually dropping support for Watch-specific apps.

Last week Apple announced the new version of their Watch operating system (WatchOS 5), so let’s see if they are addressing some of the limitations that are preventing its success as a new ecosystem.

Enabling Spotify

Something that was briefly mentioned at the end of the WatchOS section in the WWDC keynote, is that the new operating system will support applications offering background audio. To be clear, this will not allow Spotify streaming in the Watch, but it will allow synchronizing some playlists into it, and then playing them offine directly from the Watch to some AirPods. This will allow a “battery friendly” solution for people to do workouts with Spotify music without having to bring a phone.

This is a an incentive for more phone-less usage, but the way it has been provided still gives an advantage to Apple Music (that does support streaming over cellular in the Watch) and highlights that battery usage of the cellular connection is still an issue that Apple needs to address.

Walkie-Talkie

The Walkie-Talkie function is a new communication option exclusive to the Apple Watch. I have covered this in a previous post, so I will not do it again here, but the main point is that this is an experience designed to be used without a tethered iPhone. It may even become an excuse to simplify the integration with carriers to offer the cellular version of the Watch, by making normal voice calls optional.

Embracing notifications as the right application model

One of the main reasons most developers are not offering Watch-specific applications, and even shutting down the ones they created in the past is because the application model is not the right experience in the Watch.

Whether scrolling though the app list or looking for the icon in the “honeycomb” screen, opening an application in the Watch is slow and complicated. And there are not that many things that you are willing to interact with in that small screen that you would rather not just take out your phone. Of course this creates a vicious cycle, because then you know you cannot leave home without a phone if you expect to use any of these apps. The lack of the right app model, which in turn is creating the lack of apps in general, limits the ability of the Watch to become a full independent experience.

But there is an exception: notifications. You don’t need to seach for an app to interact with a notification, the notification pops at you. And then you can dismiss it, or reply to it if it’s a message. Interacting with notifications is the best experience for apps in the Watch. And this same reason was a good excuse for developers not to create Watch-specific apps: because regular phone notifications work seamlessly in the Apple Watch.

But WatchOS 5 will change that with the introduction of Interactive Notifications.

With Interactive Notifications developers can offer richer experiences associated with a notification, allowing the users to do more things with them. A reminder for a reservation allows to actually change it, or an alert can provide the excuse to trigger further actions. With this, the notifications can actually become full apps. But to get this benefits, developers need to create specific extensions. And to create this kind of extension they will need to build a Watch-specifc application. And building that app will in turn force them to think what should its behavior be when the Watch is working without the iPhone close by.

The incentive to create rich interactions in the Watch that bring more engagement to the notifications, will drive the mindset of developers to also consider phone-less usage, while creating experiences that makes more sense in your wrist.

The web in your wrist.

And not only notifications, because now links shared in messages and mail will be accesible from the Watch.

Of course this will not be a full browsing experience, but a simple view based on the responsiveness of the web page design. But regardless of that, this will bring a simple way to develop watch experiences: just with the Web.

This is how apps started in the iPhone before there was an AppStore. And this kind of experience, combined with phone-less data access, can start to create new use cases for the Apple Watch.

Siri improvements mean more apps for your wrist

While this was not announced as part of WatchOS, the new features for Siri seem to have also interesting potentials for the Apple Watch.

For instance, “Siri Shortcuts” offers app developers a way to expose part of their apps functionality to be:

  1. Invoked by voice
  2. Be integrated in the Siri face of Apple Watch
  3. Be part of additional automations created via the Siri Shortcuts App

The last aspect is an advanced feature, which I may discuss in a future post, but my focus now are the first two. Triggering app functionality by voice or through a shortcut tap from the Watch means more apps will be available in the Apple Watch without developers having to create dedicated experiences.

In fact, this characteristic means you will be able to interact with more apps directly from the Apple Watch or AirPods (and according to the keynote also from the HomePod). This model is still tied to apps running on an iPhone, which I think is more limited than the one Amazon provides for Alexa with its Skills. But this may be an intermediate approach to “Siri iCloud Apps”, that may come in the future, and that would make the iPhone optional (and so disintegrated).

iOS apps on Mac — the path to disintegration

Lastly, the keynote covered the initiative that will allow developers to have iOS apps running inside the Mac.

This may sound quite unrelated to the Apple Watch as an independent device, but the intersting angle here is that this is pushing iOS developers to think of their apps as software that may be used with a “point and click” interaction (the Mac touchpad) and not just touch. The goal of this initiative is not only increase the amount of apps available in the Mac Store, but prepare iOS developers to export their experiences to new interaction models.

If we consider that, and the fact that the Apple Watch is designed to be associated with an iOS device, may this be a hint of the model the the future AR glasses from Apple will provide to developers?

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