Apple's iWatch Will Need Killer Apps

Samsung's Galaxy Gear beat Apple to the smartwatch market, but reviews have been mediocre Photograph by SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The wrist is the next frontier for technology companies. I believe this because I wear a FitBit activity tracker on my wrist; when I tap it, I am rewarded by tiny lights that blink for about two seconds, telling me how many steps I’ve walked today. While I need at least one minute to pull out my iPhone, type in my password, and open an app, I need barely three seconds to tap my FitBit and get a delightful, satisfying morsel of data.

Imagine, then, the seductive power of Apple’s much-rumored iWatch, which is expected to deliver not only blinking lights but also emoticons, photos, ringtones, tweets, and status updates. If you think the 140-character constraint of Twitter prodded us to be more creative, think of a future in which your watch supersedes your phone and delivers what you want in less than three seconds.

Apple is not the only company working to decode the smartwatch; several devices have already been released, including the Pebble, the Casio G-Shock, and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. Generally they connect to your phone via Bluetooth and alert you when you’ve received an e-mail, text message, or Facebook post. Some can play music, tell you who’s calling, and let you take the call on speaker. The Galaxy Gear also enables some popular third-party apps that include RunKeeper, for tracking your jogs, and Vivino, which lets you photograph a label on a bottle of wine and see its rating.

The reviews have been mediocre, at best. “Nobody will buy this watch, and nobody should,” the New York Times’ David Pogue wrote of the Galaxy Gear. Business Insider called it “the latest example of Samsung’s failure to truly innovate.”

Naturally, all eyes are focused on Apple, which has trademarked “iWatch” in several countries and is rumored to have a team of 100 people working on the project. Analysts believe the iWatch will be introduced sometime next year. Reports say it will run full iOS, and Apple is aiming for a four- to five-day battery life.

Any smartwatch maker needs to overcome a number of difficulties. For many tasks, a watch will be undeniably inferior to a phone. We won’t use it to write or read e-mails. Many Facebook posts will be too long to read on a watch-sized screen. Private phone calls will require some sort of attachment; consumers won’t want to use a speakerphone in public places. The device probably won’t be waterproof, so we’ll have to protect it from the rain and remove it before showering. And it’s yet another device that consumers have to keep charged.

To overcome these challenges, Apple needs apps that meet three criteria:

The iWatch apps need to function better on the wrist than on a phone. The iWatch has to be better that the phone, at least at a few tasks. Fitness tracking is one opportunity; I hate lugging my phone on a run, but I’d happily wear an iWatch. Since the device will be worn next to the skin, biometrics such as heart rate tracking will likely be incorporated as well.

An additional huge opportunity is mobile payments. Phone payments are cumbersome, especially for women, who usually carry phones in purses, not pockets. It’s easier to grab a credit card than it is to pay by phone, but an iWatch could make the process much easier.

The iWatch apps should be incredibly simple to use. Ideally, every request I send to my smartwatch will require no more than a tap—exactly like my Fitbit. At most, consumers could probably master five or six different touch commands. We won’t want to learn a different set of commands for each app. Navigation complexity is one thing that doomed the Galaxy Gear (“Tap four times with six fingers in the rhythm of Beethoven’s Fifth to call a mental health professional,” Pogue wrote.)

Voice control would let us deliver more complex instructions. But this won’t work in public or at work. It’s one thing to check e-mail during a meeting; it’s another to say “Siri, open e-mail” and bring the meeting to a halt. Voice control will be a useful tool, but the watch needs to offer a critical mass of functions that can be operated without it.

The iWatch apps should solve problems, not merely offer information. It’s unlikely that we’ll consume any information longer than 140 characters on a watch-sized screen. That means apps need to get better at knowing who we are and what we want and delivering to us with a minimum of fuss.

Let’s say I want to make a dinner reservation. I’m not going to browse Yelp or OpenTable on my iWatch, look at different menus, see when those restaurants have openings, and reserve a table. Instead, I’ll want to open an app that already knows the type of restaurant I like, or has saved a list of my favorites. It will ask me the number of people, the date, and the time, and then offer three options from which I can choose—or simply choose one for me.

Over the next year, more companies will probably introduce cool smartwatches. Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook will probably eye them with amusement. Unlike its competitors, Apple is not going to introduce a “minimum viable product” and iterate based on consumer feedback. Apple knows that to develop a truly game-changing device, it must enable the development of a robust app ecosystem. The watch’s operating system must use simple rules and processes that any app designer could incorporate into an awesome service. If it does, the device has the potential to transform the way we interact with the world.