5 Key Features of the Apple Watch (and Potential App Use Cases)

Since Apple initially announced the Apple Watch back in September, the world has had to endure months of speculation and rumors regarding which features may or may not be included on the Watch. All of those rumors were put to rest during the company’s Spring Forward Event on March 9.

Apples registered developer community had received early access to the WatchKit SDK last November, which was four to five months before the expected launch of the wearable. With its announcement last week, Apple shed new light on the features and capabilities of the first iteration, which will be available in stores on April 24.

With the recent announcements in mind, we have extrapolated what it all means for app designers and developers and hereby present 5 New Features Weve Learned About the Apple Watch.

(For more information about Apple Watch design and development, check out our guides on key design principles for Watch apps and how to develop a Watch app.)

Want to build an Apple Watch app? Find out more here.

1. 18 Hours of Battery Life

Having experienced a year of Android wearables, ranging from LG to Samsung Gear, a notable concern has been battery life. Apple had not explicitly revealed in its initial announcement how long the devices battery would last on a full charge.

We finally got the word and now know explicitly the expected period between charging your Apple Watch should be 1218 hours, which means about 23 hours when interacted with actively and continuously.

Knowing more precisely the battery capability of the device further emphasizes contextuality in designing apps, not just in terms of the type of notifications received but also the duration a user is expected to interact with one app at a time.

Apple Watch messages

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As the Apple Human User Interface Guidelines state:

“A WatchKit app complements your iOS app; it does not replace it. If you measure interactions with your iOS app in minutes, you can expect interactions with your WatchKit app to be measured in seconds. So interactions should be brief and interfaces should be simple.”

Limiting app interaction proportionally and optimally and handing off to the iPhone intelligently allows for greater battery optimization. Think of the workflow as synonymous with the old-school pagers from the 1990s where you would get a short message notification before proceeding to the nearest phone.

As future iterations see a stronger processor than the S1 with accompanying battery advancements, we may see new types of Watch apps and use cases evolve.

2. Siri at Your Command

Apple showcased Shazam, a music identification and discovery app, in order to demonstrate how the wrist device is able to listen to and recognize music through Siri and the watchs microphone.

Shazam on Apple Watch

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The significance of that demonstration is that its the first time besides messaging other users that we have seen the Watchs microphone used in an app.

So far we have not seen any evidence of this capability available in WatchKit, so it may be an exclusive arrangement with Shazam for now. But theres little doubt this is something Apple will look at opening up.

Opening up the microphone and Siri platform to third-party developers would expand interaction options beyond merely tapping buttons that are pre-defined responses to also include custom dynamic run-time messages.

The small real-estate on the Apple Watch leaves voice as the only logical direct form of communication short of using the iPhone.

Potential Use Cases:

Evernote: Use Siri to dictate a sentence (or more!) and transcribe the results into an existing or new note. The benefits of this include being able to rapidly create a document on the fly without the initial use of an iPhone.

WhatsApp: As a messaging app, you would be able to use your voice to dictate messages rapidly and send to other users. Similar to how iMessages would work, one would hold a button and talk into the microphone of the Watch, with the app confirming the correct dictation prior to sending the message. The premise is to be phone-free and to be able to communicate beyond pre-determined words and sentences on a button.

3. Digital Touch

Another form of communication besides tapping buttons or Siri-powered audio messages is through what Apple dubs a “digital touch,” which is an intuitive and intimate way of sending messages in the form of low-fidelity glyphs that symbolize a meaning.

Digital Touch on the Apple Watch

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As Apple put it, “You dont even have to use words. The Digital Touch features on Apple Watch give you fun, spontaneous ways to connect with other Apple Watch wearers, wrist to wrist.”

We learned at the Apple event on March 9 that there are, in fact, three types of digital touches:

  1. Tapping, which sends a gentle vibration to another user, synonymous with poking on Facebook
  2. Sketching, which allows the finger to sketch and share a quick glyph (as seen above)
  3. Heart-sharing, which, as the name implies, allows one user to share his or her heartbeat per minute with a loved one by pressing with two fingers

This is certainly a feature that third-party developers would love to get their hands on, and Apple opening up the capability on its SDK will introduce new and interesting apps. 

Potential Use Cases:

Facebook: The popular social media app would benefit from users being able to send quick low-fidelity emoticons and drawings to other users. Other chat apps, like Viber and WhatsApp, would just as richly benefit from having the ability to draw.

Evernote: Users would benefit from having the ability to not only dictate verbally via Siri (as we mentioned earlier), but also through quick sketches to supplement an existing note or to scribble something on a new note.

4. Custom 3rd-Party Watch Faces

When you arent playing with the various apps on your Apple Watch, you’ll be looking at the Watch face. This creates another realm for customization.

The Apple Watch already comes shipped with many faces, from the more traditional to the more modern. You can even add specific modular items from agenda to world time.

Apple Watch Faces

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Swapping faces on the Apple Watch is trivial. Although Apple hasnt yet opened up the API to create new faces beyond the dozen or so that it comes with, it’s certainly only a matter of time (get it?).

Beyond being a personalization statement for users, Watch faces can present certain useful utilities.

Potential Use Cases:

Imagine a Major League Baseball Watch face that offers the custom logo and colors of ones favorite team, along with modules that would display the latest team news and upcoming games. The benefits of this include providing a custom and personalized face as well as quick “glance-able” information on your favorite team without having to open an app.

5. Native Watch Apps

Finally, the bees knees for developers is the ability to create a fully native app on the Apple Watch.

Right now, when you look at a custom app on the Watch, what you are really looking at it is the UI, which is mostly static.

Communication between Apple Watch and iPhone

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The runtime, which decides which screens to show — such as labels and images — is actually being performed on the Watchs paired iPhone. This means users arent really experiencing a fully-native app on the Watch and creates a strong dependency on having the Watch paired with your iPhone at all times.

Apple has promised that next year we’ll be seeing fully-native apps, and the current constraint is probably due to the battery limitations of the device, which hamper how much processing can be done on the device, as well as the processor power of the Watch itself.

Having fully-fledged apps will change the landscape and nature of the apps, of course, as no longer having a paired connection with an iPhone has practical ramifications. Use cases where a user would not be able to carry a phone but would be wearing a Watch is where we will see the most innovation.

Next year, when apps go native, we can presume that the battery life will significantly improve, along with processor capacity. We will also see design shift from using the app for a handful of seconds at a time to minutes.

Although screen sizes should remain relatively the same, we will see the utility and functionality of apps change to some degree.

Potential Use Cases:

RunKeeper: Purpose apps like RunKeeper would be able to go native, meaning they will not require constant pairing with your iPhone but would be able to operate independently. That is, the Watch would be able to run code internally and store data such as your current run, allowing you to defer syncing up with your iPhone until you returned. Currently, you would need to be running with your iPhone strapped to you.

We will be seeing tons of mini-games and utility apps, which can calculate and work on their own.

Final Thoughts

A new product line for Apple certainly inspires a new way of thinking, and the first few months of playing around with the WatchKit SDK allowed developers to not only explore what is currently possible, but what is potentially possible if and when the platform opens up a bit more.

Apples Spring Forward Event this week further opened up the imaginations of developers and designers by introducing new features and capabilities that will only exacerbate the need for more of the SDK to be opened up. This is certainly a bold first iteration by Apple and future iterations will certainly see a lot of what we mentioned in our wish-list become a possibility as the device battery and processor performances increase year-by-year.

Besides the 5 New Features Weve Learned About the Apple Watch mentioned above, are there any other features Apple has mentioned that will change how Watch apps are designed and developed?

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