While there is no denying that the Apple Watch is a hit, even if getting there has been a little bit of a slow burn. However humble its beginnings were, the device is the current standard by which all other smartwatches are judged. However, while its health and wellness features coupled with notifications are big strengths, the app situation has always been mixed, at best.
When they first released the Watch, Apple tried to play up the usefulness of apps on the small screen. However, the early versions were kneecapped by slow performance and an even slower Internet connection for updates. Even the built-in apps weren’t great. Users and developers alike abandoned all but a handful of them very quickly.
Things have improved a little over time, as watchOS 2 allowed apps to run directly on the Watch hardware and watchOS 3 brought a much improved apps interface and the ability for Watch apps to run in the background. Versions 4 and 5 have further refined these features and brought a few new ones and the Watch Series 4 added a larger screen to the mix. However, this hasn’t been enough to jumpstart the marketplace for watchOS apps. At least not yet.
Watching the WWDC Keynote last week, I thought that maybe getting a dedicated App Store and apps that can run on the Watch alone in watchOS 6 would move the needle, but according to developers, another new feature holds more promise. While SwiftUI was a major topic of discussion during the Keynote, it’s significance to watchOS wasn’t. However, it is a major turning point for the platform, as this is the first time a fully-featured UI framework has been offered on the Watch.
To get an idea of how important this is to developers, I refer you to a blog post from well known Apple dev and aficionado Marco Arment from early 2018.
WatchKit only lets us create “baby” apps. That’s all it will ever let us create.
WatchKit needs to be discontinued and replaced.
No focus on quality or expansion of WatchKit will fix this. There are only two ways to meaningfully improve Watch apps, spur third-party innovation, and unlock the true potential of the Apple Watch.
One solution is for Apple to reimplement all of its own Watch apps with WatchKit instead of their internal frameworks, which will force them to fix WatchKit’s many bugs and dramatically expand it.
The much better solution, and the one I hope they take, is for Apple to expose its real watchOS UI and media frameworks to third-party developers, as it has done on iOS.
His points come directly from real-world experience developing apps such as Overcast for the Watch. While it doesn’t sound like he held out a lot of hope for improvement at the time, it seems that Apple went even further than he asked. By jumping straight to SwiftUI, the Watch will get the latest interface features from Apple that represent its direction for the future.
According to Rene Ritchie of iMore, there are rumors that SwiftUI even got its start as the new UI interface framework for watchOS:
Rumor also has it SwiftUI was originally built by the watch frameworks lead who then took it back with him when he returned to lead iOS frameworks, and once Craig Federighi, Apple’ Senior Vice President of software engineering saw it, he wanted it everywhere.
If this is true, then it is very good news for Apple Watch fans. Craig Federighi and Co made it clear on stage that Swift and SwiftUI are the direction that coding for all Apple platforms is headed. If SwiftUI for the Watch made this big of an impression, then it must be very good.
I have been a Watch user and fan since day one and unlike many, I have continued to hold out hope for apps on the platform. There are a few that I have tried, such as Reminders and Spark Email, that are truly useful and others like CARROT Weather that are just plain fun to use on the Watch. Unfortunately, these examples are just too few and far between at the moment. However, if inferior UI frameworks have been holding app development back on watchOS, it looks like Apple has finally remedied the situation with SwiftUI. I am really looking forward to seeing what developers are able to deliver with it in the Fall.