Why companies need to start developing apps for Apple Watch

With the Apple Watch now available, companies are falling over themselves to push out apps for the wearable device

Companies are hurrying to develop applications for the Apple Watch following the much-touted launch of the wearable device.

Being first to market allows organisations to capitalise on first-mover advantage and show they are ahead of the pack, which sends a clear signal to the market and customers that the company is an innovator.

It is no surprise, therefore, that companies have jumped on the Apple Watch bandwagon, with apps for the smartwatch being released daily.

Among those that have already launched apps for the Apple Watch are Ocado and Booking.com.

Paul Clarke, director of technology at Ocado, says the online retailer is interested in using wearables to improve customer experience, describing it as a “waypoint on the journey, not an endpoint”, and saying the device marks a major enhancement on what came before. “We need to be on the journey to where it's going,” he adds.

Being among the first app designers to figure out how to add desirable functionality to a new wearable device form-factor also demonstrates creativity and technical know-how. 

Stuart Frisby, principal designer at online travel company Booking.com, says the Apple Watch “pushes the envelope”.

Smartwatches need a different user experience

Smartwatches, like the Apple Watch, have smaller screens and are designed to be used in an entirely different context to smartphones. While someone may browse a smartphone for an entire train journey, the watch needs to be optimised for brief, intermittent activity. 

Smartwatches: Fortune favours the early adopter

Ocado's director of technology, Paul Clarke, believes wearable technology is an area where fortune will favour early adopters and experimenters. 

“It's really important to start getting your feet wet. It will be a transformational technology and one people will not be able to opt out of,” he says.

Clarke predicts the internet of things (IoT) will dwarf the mobile phone revolution. Wearables are one important aspect of this.

When assessing IoT and wearable technologies he recommends CIOs and CTOs look beyond the obvious, at “how these devices can touch the lives of customers, employees, smart offices and smart factories”.

Above all, Clarke urges organisations to encourage and foster experimentation. “If you wait for maturity you’ll miss the boat,” he warns.

But, above all, businesses looking to develop apps for the Apple Watch need to start with principals. 

Clive Howard, principal practitioner analyst at Creative Intellect, recommends that companies considering developing a smartwatch app ensure the product adds value to the user. 

“The app designer needs to consider the functionality that can be achieved on a wearable device. If it's not unique to a wearable, then it probably doesn't need to be a wearable application,” he says. 

Specifically, Howard recommends that application designers consider the context of use, such as what situation the user will be in.

Expanding on Ocado's Apple Watch application user experience, Clarke says: “We wanted to do something to take advantage of the unique features of the watch, rather than copy what you’d do on a phone, such as alerts and using voice or a small number of clicks.”

Ocado looked at tasks customers would want to do on a watch when they couldn't use their phone, such as voice activation and status updates. 

One of the functions the Ocado Apple Watch app offers is instant order. 

“We use predictive analytics to look at historical purchasing and to learn what you want in your basket. We have a pretty good idea of what you want and, within 15 seconds, we can add the items to your basket,” says Clarke.

We wanted to to take advantage of the unique features of the watch, rather than copy what you’d do on a phone

Paul Clarke, Ocado

Another app attempting to work in a wearable context is Booking.com's Booking Now for iOS. The app was released in early 2015 and has been enhanced for the Apple Watch. 

Booking.com’s Frisby says the Apple Watch poses unique challenges from a user interface perspective. But it is a challenge the travel bookings company has stepped up to in a bid to demonstrate innovation.

“We realised the watch is a more personal device,” says Frisby. “We want to be respectful of customers' time. The app makes less sense if you are planning a summer vacation three months away.”

This means Booking.com has tried to develop the app in a way that adds enough value without inundating the user. 

“We aim to remove travel frustrations such as figuring out how long you have before check-in, remembering your room number, or how long it takes to get to the airport,” says Frisby. “Every time we send something to the watch it has to add value.”

The user experience is based on the fact that the user will only glance momentarily at the watch face. Frisby says the information displayed needs to add value instantly, and the application must be streamlined as users want to do less. 

Developing apps for the Apple Watch

In Frisby’s experience, the Apple Watch software development kit (SDK), while limited in its richness, benefits the app developer. 

Read more about the Apple Watch

“There are some constraints that come from the watch. If there were no limits to what I could change or make, the user would be inundated with irrelevant content and end up with battery life issues,” says Frisby. 

Instead, he says Booking.com’s application relies on a solid back-end system, where the iPhone does the heavy lifting, such as downloading and resizing images, which are then transferred over Bluetooth to the Apple Watch.

Ocado’s Clarke admits his team needed to overcome a few challenges during development of the Ocado Apple Watch app. 

“We had to modify the iPhone app and put it through Apple's approval process,” he says. 

Among the technical issues were how to make the smartwatch and iPhone talk to one another and the design for the new watch controls, since Apple uses the watch's crown for scrolling and selection.

Given the Apple Watch is connected to the iPhone, developers need to be aware of what happens if the iPhone doesn't work. 

“You now need to consider how to fail gracefully,” says Frisby.

As smartwatches are a new device type there is little experience of how to develop apps cross-platform for Apple and Android Wear devices. 

“You will need to build to the device and forget things like responsive design that adapts for different device sizes,” says Creative Intellect's Howard. “Screens can be square or round and vary in size. Maybe you could build an app that works across a couple of variants, such as both sizes of the Apple Watch, but you can't build one user interface for all Android Wear devices.”

Smartwatches in the enterprise

Outside the mass consumer market, Apple Watch and other smartwatches could add value across industry sectors.  

One of the big opportunities is health, with both fitness and healthcare support applications available for users.  

Medopad has developed a platform and iPad application to support clinicians. Its latest product is an Apple Watch app, which is the company’s first product aimed at patients. The app is designed to be used by chemotherapy patients as a way to monitor treatment and side-effects. 

Every time we send something to the watch it has to add value

Stuart Frisby, Booking.com

“The Apple Watch provides an easy way to report symptoms,” says Dan Vàhdat, CTO at Medopad. 

Data collected on the watch is transmitted via the iPhone to the user's doctor. 

With some courses of cancer treatments costing upwards of £25,000, Vàhdat says the app enables a doctor to check if the patient is taking their medication, but this is entirely reliant on the user interacting with the app. 

One company in the US, called Proteus Digital Health, has developed a smart pill, which transmits a signal when it is ingested. Vàhdat believes it is entirely possible for a smartwatch to be used to capture such signals, enabling doctors to track when the patient has taken the smart pill medication.

Ocado’s Clarke is also looking at wearables and the internet of things (IoT) suited to the business environment. “We have looked at all kinds of devices, such as Google Glass, and built projects around them,” he says. 

The retailer's warehouses are highly sensored environments using machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. But the question of deploying this technology widely is one that inevitably comes down to cost. 

“The durability of consumer devices may not cope with the industrial environment,” says Clarke.

Read about Apple Watch apps from banks

  • US bank Citi is quick off the mark with a mobile app for the Apple Watch that lets customers check balances.
  • Allied Irish Bank is developing an app for the Apple Watch to allow customers to check their balance and find the nearest cash machine.
  • Nordea Bank promotes its digital ambitions with an app for the Apple Watch.
  • Tesco Bank is the latest company to enable customers to access mobile banking services using an Apple Watch.
  • Finance software house Misys launches a prototype banking app for the Apple Watch that will be available off-the-shelf.

Another problem for Ocado is battery life. The retailer runs operations 24/7, but Apple Watch battery life is stated as 18 hours.

But devices in the consumer space do tend to migrate to the enterprise. 

“Tablets started as consumer devices. Now ruggedised tablets are commonplace in industrial environments,” says Clarke.

He believes there is definitely a use case for smartwatches at Ocado: “Our engineers need their hands free. This can be achieved either by having a device on their wrist or using haptic (touch) feedback to feel information.”

So should a CIO or CTO embark on a smartwatch application development project?

As with Booking.com, Clarke sees the Apple Watch as a way for Ocado to demonstrate innovation. Regarding the Ocado Apple Watch App, he says: “This is not an end point. It’s about future ideas.”

Nigel Beighton, vice-president of technology at Rackspace, who worked as CTO at Lastminute.com in the early 2000s, believes anybody not thinking about wearables is not thinking about the market properly. 

“Those who are in the businesses of developing mobile apps have to think about smartphones, tablets and wearables and how they work together, otherwise you aren’t going to be successful,” says Beighton.

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