Outcast is a Good Example of What Apple Watch Apps Can Be

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Photo Source: Crunchy Bagel

The situation with Apple Watch apps got some unexpected attention this week thanks to articles from noted Apple enthusiasts Marco Arment and John Gruber. In my opinion, it is good to get people thinking and talking about this again, because apps often seem to be the forgotten aspect of Apple’s sleeper-hit wearable platform. However, while I am glad to see attention being paid to this subject, I disagree with both of these articles, especially Mr Gruber’s.

I have been intrigued with the concept of apps built for a wrist-based platform since the Apple Watch was first announced, even if the execution has been largely lacking to date. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think the current situation with apps being written off or forgotten is entirely Apple’s fault for overselling the capability of third party apps for watchOS 1 at launch. One area where I do agree with John Gruber’s assessment of this situation is that Apple should have just left third party apps out of the initial release of the Watch and watchOS 1. He mentioned this on his podcast this week, and compared the situation to Apple’s initial release of the iPhone and its limitation of web apps. I don’t think holding this feature, which obviously wasn’t ready for prime time, back would have hurt sales of the first Apple Watch at all.

Because the Watch was Apple’s first new hardware platform since the iPad, developers rushed to get their iOS apps ported over to the new platform at or close to launch. I can understand this because, if the Watch was a fast hit the same way that the iPad was, being there early makes a HUGE difference. The problem was that the Watch wasn’t a massive hit right out of the gate. The success has been a slow and steady build, and has gained steam with better and faster hardware and a more capable OS that has come over the last two and a half years.

The bigger problem for developers was that third party apps for watchOS 1 just weren’t capable of delivering a good experience. They were painfully slow and just didn’t offer that much utility independent of the iPhone. They other issue is that few developers really thought about how to design apps that would be useful on the wrist apart from the iPhone. Serving up the same interface and data isn’t that compelling, and caused most apps to be immediately dismissed and deleted.

Apple quickly moved to make things better by allowing native apps that could run directly on the Watch in watchOS 2, which was a solid step. They have continued to build upon this with the addition of the Dock, which keeps up to 10 apps updated in the background, in watchOS 3. We also have better Complication refreshing and management, insuring that we have fresh data on the Watch face today. Now we also have the addition of LTE, which hasn’t been fully leveraged for third party apps yet, but has a lot of potential to open the door to new and better opportunities for developers on the Watch.

Unfortunately for Apple, many developers either abandoned their Watch apps in place, or pulled them from the App Store completely. Even some who have stayed active in the App Store and provided some updates still haven’t fully embraced the newer features of watchOS 3 and above. Did Apple miss their one shot by blowing it on apps right out of the gate, or is there still an opportunity to get devs to take a second look?

The “experts” weigh in

While John Gruber’s short witeup on Daring Fireball was in response to Marco Arment’s article a day before, I’ll address it first. I frankly think he is completely out to lunch in saying that Apple should just abandon third party apps on the Watch. His clear opinion is that they have no use, and he writes the platform off as nothing more than a fitness tracker and notification interface.

While the Watch may excel in these areas today, there is still so much potential in others, such as advanced health monitoring and management, and also as a broader third party app platform. I absolutely couldn’t disagree more with his opinion, and think that this is the kind of shortsighted approach and lack of vision that Apple needs to avoid, as it would cripple and limit the Apple Watch platform going forward.

Everyday users may not be thrilled with third party apps overall right now, but there are several in the workout and fitness space, Nike+ Run Club and Zones, that have proven to be very capable and popular. There are also several others that have proven useful on the smaller screen, such as Marco Arment’s own Overcast. CARROT Weather (and their other apps, as well) is another absolute stand-out on the Watch, as are Drafts, Just Press Record, and Fantastical. If for no other reason than to handle a few dedicated tasks and power Watchface Complications, which are used every time a user looks at their Watch, we NEED third party apps on this platform.

Next we have Marco Arment’s article from earlier this week, which takes Apple to task for the limitations of WatchKit. I actually agree with his premise that Apple needs to expand the capability of WatchKit and fix existing bugs. However, considering the high demands that anything done on the Watch places on battery life, I doubt we will see third party developers get access to the full frameworks that Apple uses for its own Watch apps for a while yet. Apple has been pretty conservative in their approach to Watch battery life, with Apple Music streaming over LTE being one of the few stock features they offer that drains the battery too quickly to be practical in regular use.

The bottom line is this- I don’t think Apple trusts developers to manage battery life well with full access to the entire Watch platform, and I don’t think they want to play the role of a nit picky babysitter, having to reject apps right and left because of poor power management, either. This arrangement isn’t as much of an issue on the iPhone and iPad, because their batteries provide a larger margin of error that the Watch just doesn’t have.

Being the gatekeepers of the App Store, the powers that be at Apple know that they will take the blame for poor battery life, not developers. For this reason, I understand why they give third party devs a more limited framework, especially when it comes to UI. It makes sense to keep things in check, at least until battery technology and efficiency catch up with this tiny form factor. That said, I do agree with Arment that Apple must give developers enough access and capability to allow them to make apps that stand out and deliver useful functionality.

I have to take Mr Arment to task for one thing. I have heard him complain about how hard it is to make a great Watch app. I have listed to him gripe about adding any kind of native playback capability to his Overcast app. Despite his complaints about the shortcomings of WatchKit, it seems that the team at Crunchy Bagel, developers of the Apple Watch podcast app Outcast, have completely outdone him in this regard. It seems that it isn’t completely impossible to deliver a “great” app experience on the Watch.

Filling the Podcast gap

One huge complaint after the release of the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE and the addition of native Apple Music streaming a few months later was that Podcasts were completely disregarded. The whole purpose of Apple Music streaming was to give people who want to use their Watches independently of their phones more features and capabilities. This was really added with exercise in mind, which is great. We already know how strong the Apple Watch is as a fitness tracker and health monitoring device. However, Apple completely overlooked how popular Podcasts are and how many people prefer to listen to them while working out, rather than music.

Apple omitting their Podcast app on the Watch is a head-scratching mystery, but this is a hole in watchOS that I expect them to fill when 4 is announced at WWDC. However, this is also an opportunity that has opened a door for developers to walk through ahead of them. I applaud the team at Crunch Bagel for taking up the challenge and honestly speaking, lapping the competition with a good and feature rich wrist-based podcast player.

I won’t go into great detail here (I may actually do a review of the app in the near future), but I have been very impressed with how easy this app is to use, and how capable it is. All of the playback features work just as they should. This app has the same limitation that you can’t change the volume (as does every third party app that plays sound), but everything else that you would expect is here.

Since I use Overcast, I was able to export an OMPL file with my podcasts listed and import it into Outcast (Most third party podcast players have this capability, but Apple’s Podcasts sadly does not). Once I had them on board, I could go and download episodes directly to my Watch, with through my iPhone connection, or via LTE (which is MUCH faster).

Even if you can’t import your podcasts into Outcast, the search features set it apart from any other watchOS solution that I’ve tried to date. It has an extensive category search available, making it easy to find podcasts on your favorite topics.

There is also a Search feature, with both voice and Scribble available to enter search terms. Not bad.

I did run into one issue, where the app would not connect to my Apple AirPods to playback my selected podcast. I couldn’t get a pair of Bluetooth headphones connected to my Watch to work, either. It turns out that there is a bug with the latest watchOS betas that causes this. Crunchy Bagel had the solution (change the playback speed to 1.1X or above) on their Twitter feed, and I was up and going after that. I appreciate that they went the extra mile to solve a problem that really isn’t their problem.

Great apps are out there

I bring up Outcast, as well as other apps like CARROT Weather and Just Press Record, to point out that there ARE quality apps available for the Apple Watch today. I don’t deny that it is more difficult than it should be for devs to create them, but some already do exist, and that shouldn’t be dismissed. There is absolutely no reason to do away with third party apps, as John Gruber grumpily suggests. These and many other apps prove that he just don’t know what he’s talking about with the Apple Watch right now. That opinion is two years out of date, and it shows.

And while Marco Arment has some very valid arguments, I think it is unrealistic to expect Apple to open the Watch floodgates to devs when we all know what will happen and who will get blamed as a result. Not all developers are as conscientious about quality as he seems to be. I’m sure he could handle that responsibility, but Apple doesn’t have the luxury of creating tiers of developer access to the platform.

I think Mr Arment also may want to step back and look at what a few other developers have been able to accomplish in areas where he is complaining. Maybe a little more creative thinking, as Crunchy Bagel has shown with Outcast, would serve his Overcast app on the Apple Watch well. We all know that this guy really knows his stuff, but I find it difficult to take all of the complaints about limitations without a grain of salt when someone else is delivering a better product with the same framework.

Next steps

The quality apps for the Watch that exist today can be a precursor to something much greater if….. That part is up to Apple. The “if” is always their department, isn’t it. Apple has already given developers a measure of independence with LTE. They will also be requiring developers to move forward and build their apps with watchOS 3 and above in mind, from here on out. These are solid foundational steps, but they can’t be the end of the road.

Now Apple needs to take that next step forward and start bringing all of these technologies together. This move, or at least a big step toward it, needs to come at WWDC this June. With a little more flexibility and bug killing, Apple can deliver a version of WatchKit that finally unlocks the dormant potential for apps on the Apple Watch. Apps like Outcast illustrate that potential, but Apple needs to make it easier for any developer to deliver this level of app, without workarounds, tricks and limitations.

What do you think about apps on the Apple Watch? Do you use them and Complications, or have you written them off? If you do use them, what are some of your favorites? Let me know in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.


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6 thoughts on “Outcast is a Good Example of What Apple Watch Apps Can Be”

  1. Insightful post. Here’s my take as an Apple Watch focused developer.

    Apple blocking 3rd parties for WatchOS1 could have killed the ecosystem. When the AppleWatch was announced, I wrote the AppleWatch companion to Tempo.AI, which was released on Day 1. Around the same both Samsung and Garmin had contracted with us to write an app for their platform. Although I’m not free to discuss details, I can say that the development experience with Apple’s support was pretty smooth, whereas the other was problematic.

    Due to my experience with Apple’s platform, I decided to strike out on my own to develop for the Apple Watch. At the time, I was not alone. There was some wishful thinking on my part, and I suspect many other developers. I thought that the development platform would track in the same direction as the iPhone, where iOS 1.1.1 would only support web apps, and iOS 2.1 had some fairly robust APIs.

    But, WebOS 2.0 was still too limited. There was no way to track touches or draw pixels. So, I gave up and focused on other projects. This was the case for many other WatchOS developers. The watch was seen as a peripheral, not a platform. A once strong WatchOS meetup group, in San Francisco, went dormant.

    That all changed in WebOS 3.0. It support both touch location AND sprite kit. That means you can write OpenGL-like shaders that respond directly to touch. Plus, synchronizing data between watch and phone became significantly easier. Suddenly, a peripheral became a platform.

    This all caught me by surprise. I had skipped the WWDC 2016 sessions. I had stopped wearing a watch. It was only after updating to WatchOS 3, that I learned what WatchOS 3. So, I looked the new APIs, and thought to myself: “whoah!” At that point, I dropped everything and started to work full-time on a personal timeline, using the Apple Watch as the primary affordance.

    Then WatchOS 4 came along, which opened up more API’s. So, it appears that WatchOS is following the same trajectory as iOS, where Apple conservatively opens up new APIs. With that in mind here is my wish lists for WatchOS 5:

    3rd party Watch faces

    That’s it; that’s all I need. Most of the transition from “dumb peripheral” to a “smart platform” are already there.

    1. Thank you, Warren. I really appreciate you sharing your experience of having “boots on the ground” actively developing for watchOS.

      Based on what you are saying, I can assume you would disagree with John Gruber’s statement that apps should be done away with. However, I am curious what you think of Marco Arment’s comments. It sounds like you think they may be a bit overplayed, but I would like to hear your opinion on the matter.

      Thanks again, and I please don’t be a stranger. I appreciate knowing what a developer thinks about Apple Watch, and development for Apple products, in general.

      1. Hi James. I was scratching my head over Marco Arment’s comment about standard templates. Perhaps for complications? It is possible to render a full screen X-Large complication, which can be updated periodically. As for the format of the app itself, there was some limitations for WatchOS 1 and 2. But, with SpriteKit, I can write just about visual UI I want with shaders.

        The two items on my wish list are: 1) WatchFace, 2) force touch

        I can understand why Apple wanted to control the look of its watch faces. Before the Apple watch, I’ve seen so many 3rd party faces that were the opposite of “functionally beauty”. But now, it has become an issue about persistence.

        On the iPhone, our app uses force touch on a dial to bookmark an event. The dial looks and feels just like the watch. Would be great to share the exact same gesture between devices.

        Beyond that, I’m hard pressed to know that Marco Arment was referring to.

  2. As voice interfaces for both input and output become more common and important, I think Watch apps will have many more opportunities. For example, a better turn-by-turn navigation app seems a natural and would be very useful.

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