With Apple Watch, lessons from iPad and Google Glass lead whole industries to take caution
Even as the first Apple Watches start appearing on the wrists of those lucky enough to snag one early, questions around the usefulness of the device are already popping up.
In a piece in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, Geoffrey Fowler explored the app-making combatants hoping to become the Apple Watch's "killer app." Not having an app that makes a shiny, expensive new device worthwhile for consumers can doom a piece of hardware. Google Glass suffered because there were no great pieces of software to make the product actually useful to users, possibly because it launched before augmented reality applications could have made the face computer viable. The iPad almost suffered the same fate. When it first launched, many software developers just created larger screen-size versions of their phone apps, instead of trying to figure out how best to leverage the differences between the technology built into a tablet versus the smaller mobile phone.
Companies hoping to win the app battle for the Apple Watch face a similar situation.
Matt Johnston, the chief marketing and strategy officer for application testing service Applause, sees both similarities and differences between the iPad launch and that of the Apple Watch. “I think that companies are a lot savvier about going and creating new experiences for new devices than they were when the iPad came out," Johnston said. "With the iPad, there were a lot of companies that just decided to double the size of their iPhone apps. Now, there is a lot more thoughtful planning where companies are trying to figure out what users like, especially when it comes to the user interface and user experience."
"I used to think that every company is going to have like 25 native applications for all these different device form factors," Johnston added. "I've refined my view. I don’t think they will. I think everyone will have web, everyone will have phone and tablet, and then I think it becomes vertical or brand specific."
In terms of vertical, Johnston shared some interesting takeaways that Applause has seen in the first few days since the Apple Watch has been available. First, the company has witnessed an explosion in the number of apps with Apple Watch capabilities that are being made available in the App Store. According to Johnston, the number of watch-supportive apps jumped from around 300 to more than 2,000 from Friday to Monday.
In conversations with its customers, Applause is hearing that its enterprise customers are thinking differently about how to approach the wearable. Not everyone is going to be taking on Apple Watch, with a few industries taking a wait-and-see approach. "At least with the companies we’ve talked to," Johnston said, "retailers, for instance, look at it and they don’t know what to think of it yet."
“Some of our retail customers have looked at it and said, ‘Beyond mobile payments, we don’t know what the use cases are,’” he added.
It seems that many app developers have learned from mistakes made with both the iPad launch and Google Glass. It makes total sense that retailers, media producers, and financial sector app developers are looking closely at the Apple Watch and aren't too sure how their customers will use an application built for the device -- which could be a big problem if Apple expects its watch to have as much usefulness as a mobile device.
"I found it fascinating and encouraging that I was talking to financial institutions and streaming media companies and they weren’t blindly or dumbly assuming that people were interested in watching a 30 minute show or checking bank accounts on a two inch screen on their wrist," Johnston said. "Companies are waiting to figure the watch out or wait for someone else to figure out what the killer uses are. And the truth is, there might not be killer use cases in every vertical."
That doesn't mean that the Apple Watch won't be useful to certain industries. Johnston pointed to fitness apps, navigation and location based services, and textual messages like IMs and email clients as examples of verticals that have the potential to leverage the new device in unique ways.
"Those are the three clusters/verticals that we are seeing the most traction from… contrast that with media companies and retail companies who are taking a wait and see approach to see if they can figure out the use cases that could actually benefit users."
And that distinction -- apps not all being made for every piece of hardware -- is a sign of maturity for many industries that are seeing more opportunities elsewhere to make inroads with new software.
For those worried about a tech bubble, restraint is required to not build applications for every single device just because you can. As Johnston pointed out, Applause is seeing different industries approach new opportunities in hardware while shying away from others.
"We are starting to see more mapping by device," he said, "where we might see software being built for watches with a focus on beacons being used by retailers, media companies building apps with smart TVs in mind, and navigation services being built for smart cars."
In an age where being connected to the Internet has become ubiquitous, the idea that app development will cease taking a software-for-all-devices approach seems like a smart tactic for companies both large and small.
I'm just not sure that Apple, with its high hopes for the Apple Watch, would agree.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]