Why are the apps on wearables so… meh

What is it about wearables and apps? We’ve seen the hardware improve generation over generation. The current batch of smartwatches or activity bands are far superior to their sometimes ropey predecessors. But the apps… well they kinda suck.

Why are so many developers seemingly desperate to get their app onto wearable devices only to ship a product that lacks most of the features and functionality that made their original phone-based app a success?

Look, not all of the watch apps out there are useless. Some of them are pretty good.

But others seem like little more than a box tick.

Bum notes everywhere

Music apps are a prime example. Some music streaming apps let you sync music to your watch so that you can leave your phone at home and head out on a run with your music streaming direct to your bluetooth headphones. Others don’t let you store downloaded music on your device, so you need to piggyback off your phone wifi or storage… even though the device itself does allow you to upload your own mp3s. Some of the worst offenders are little more than a glorified controller, letting you skip songs or perhaps adjust the volume.

The use cases here are blindingly obvious — if you’re downloading a streaming app onto your wearable you probably want it to do a decent job of streaming music. Being able to skip songs using your watch is a nice to have… but it’s not why people have shelled out on a smartwatch.

And then there are the missing apps. The ones that didn’t even bother with the box tick. I’m looking at you Google Play Music. Or Youtube Music. Or whatever you call yourself.

Even where the apps themselves have pretty simplistic functions they are often ignored and replaced with what is essentially a count-down timer. I had a recent experience with a taxi firm which had a watch app. But once I hailed my ride (which could only be done on my phone) I opened up the companion watch app to be greeted by a countdown timer.

It counted down to when my ride would arrive. That’s kinda useful. I guess. But there were no helpful reminders about what make, model or colour of car to expect. Or where they actually were. And it seemed like the app just took the initial predicted arrival time and counted down from that. The cab arrived 5 minutes after the watch app had told me it had arrived.

So I ended up doing what I always do. Wandering the mean streets, clutching my phone and checking it for updates. Rendering the watch app useless.

So why are developers doing this?

Is it akin to the bad old days where market fragmentation meant that every app needed an iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows, Nokia and Amazon app built for each of the major suppliers of handsets? Which inevitably left certain users with a below par product?

Apple dominate the market share. Then you have Samsung and Huawei smartwatches, Fitbit with their own devices and Google OS languishing on a range of lesser hardware. It’s understandable that building an app for a Fitbit market might not make sense. It is dominated by fitness and fitness trackers rather than being primarily a smartwatch manufacturer. And with the ongoing litigation issues facing Huawei you might not want to develop for their watches. Even then, the apps being delivered for the market-leading OS remain disastrously mixed bag.

What is driving the development of shonky wearable apps?

Could it be FOMO? Perhaps. Business owners and leaders are the ultimate decision makers on projects like this and they don’t want to singled out as the dinosaurs standing in the way of technical innovation. Perhaps a smaller competitor has a wearable app so the kneejerk reaction is to build one. Just so you’re also ‘there’.

Could it be a misguided adherence to MVPs? Are the products launched for wearables massively pared back to get them in place as soon as possible? It seems likely that at least a few of the worst offenders might have made it to MVP levels, been pushed out and then never updated because the audience didn’t exist. Though that ignores the fact that the audience might have been there, but didn’t want to use a rubbish product with a dramatically pared-back feature set.

Or… could it be a bit more murky?

Apps developed quickly and pushed out of the door underbaked to please app store masters? You don’t have to go far in the app development industry to bump into someone with stories about how an app was cobbled together to improve App Store Optimisation. Or how the allure of thousands of potential new customers could be won through reciprocal editor pick or app of the day features. Perhaps it’s just to fulfil a contractual requirement.

Maybe it’s simply that a watch is very good at being a watch. And that we don’t need to be able to order food, or discover a new band or watch Homes under the Hammer on our wrists. Sure a smartwatch tracks our steps and provides yet another channel for notifications. It tells me the time and what the weather is going to be. So why would we need it to do anything else?

Maybe we’re thinking about wearable apps wrong.

Some of the best smartphone apps out there distill their mobile app counterpart down to one tiny feature and do it blindingly well.

Take Dominos. They built a one-touch order app. Using your smartphone you can set up your favourite pizza order and confirm your delivery details. Then each time you fancy pizza you can order it with a single tap. Your favourite order is on the way. Quick. Simple. Delicious.

That’s the type of wearable app I want to build.

Or maybe I just need to give up on my dreams of being Dick Tracy.

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