What The WatchKit Developer Tools Tell Us About The Apple Watch


Apple has released its WatchKit software development kit (SDK) ahead of next year’s Apple Watch debut. Now other developers can join early partners ESPN, American Airlines and Instagram by creating their own apps for Apple’s littlest screen.

Spring-boarding off Apple’s iOS mobile platform, the SDK lets app makers code and test their Apple Watch apps. Given the timing of the kit’s release, however, it seems likely the new wearable won’t land right after the turn of the New Year. Early spring seems far more likely at this point—a leaked video transcript certainly suggests as much.

The development path carved out by the SDK presents three options for app creators:

  • Make a standard Watch App, with its own interface and features. (Though fully customizable interfaces don’t appear to be possible, at least not yet.)
  • Add snippets of info to the device’s Glances feature, to let users roll through card-like bits of swipeable data. Think news, weather, stocks, sports scores or other small, easily digestible information. ESPN has already been working on a Watch app that funnels scores and news to Glances. American Airlines will send gate changes or flight status updates to the wrist.
  • Create pop-up alerts that let users take action—like replying to a text on the wrist or silencing an incoming call with a message. Instagram has been working on an Apple Watch app that lets users like and respond to images directly through notifications, as well as view photo feeds or follow other Instagram users.

What they can’t do, however, is build a standalone Watch app, at least not yet. It’s on the road map for later on in 2015, but for now, any third-party wearable software will have to link to a companion mobile app running on an iPhone or iPad.

According to the SDK, the sizes and display resolutions of the two versions should pose no real challenge, as they merely funnel in data from the host phone or tablet. But that doesn’t mean developers can ignore the differential. The 1.65-inch tall display on the men’s version has a 312 x 390 pixel resolution; the women’s 1.5-inch screen offers 272 x 340 pixels.

For more information on the inner workings of the SDK, here are some reactions from developers who have dug into WatchKit so far. 

https://twitter.com/zkahn94/status/534786138368901120https://twitter.com/zkahn94/status/534818507041824768https://twitter.com/zkahn94/status/534780419800305664







That jibes with the Apple Watch Human Interface Guidelines, a few highlights from which super blogger John Gruber pointed out

  • The system font is named San Francisco. That rings a bell. There are two versions: San Francisco Text, for sizes 19pt and smaller, and San Francisco Display, for sizes 20pt and up. Display is set tighter; Text has bigger punctuation marks and larger apertures on glyphs like “a” and “e”.
  • From the Watch HIG: “Avoid using color to show interactivity. Apply color as appropriate for your branding but do not use color solely to indicate interactivity for buttons and other controls.” Can we get this HIG guideline on iOS next year? UPDATE: Neven Mrgan thinks Apple means “use color not just for interactivity”, not that you shouldn’t use color alone to indicate interactivity.
  • A lot of WatchKit is about offloading processing to the iPhone — the Watch is effectively a remote display for an extension running on your iPhone. This should be good for Watch battery life, but limiting when you’re not carrying your iPhone. This is not going to be a “leave your iPhone at home” device; more like “leave your iPhone in your purse or pocket.”

Ultimately, it looks like the Apple Watch will start off as little more than a pipeline for the apps running on iPhones—which, frankly, doesn’t really distinguish it that much from other smartwatches that have already hit the scene. We’ll see how many different directions developers can take this. And when the company will really let them loose. 

Photo courtesy of Apple

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