12 things WatchKit tells us about Apple Watch

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Apple Watch is coming, but it’ll be a digital trinket without great apps.

Fortunately, Apple’s developer resources are now live, providing insight into how the device will work should you strap one to your wrist.

Apple Watch 12 Things1. IT’S MOSTLY ABOUT SIMPLICITY

Apple’s guidelines emphasise the device’s personal, holistic, lightweight nature. It’s something “attuned to the wearer’s presence”, “[blurring]the boundaries between physical object and software”, with apps “designed for quick, lightweight interactions”. Don’t expect Bioshock on your wrist, basically.

2. YOUR IPHONE IS THE ENGINE

An iPhone is, unsurprisingly, mandatory, because it does the heavy lifting. For now, the Apple Watch is an expensive wrist-based notification centre of sorts, or is used for performing basic interactions. An Apple Watch app, says Apple, “compliments your iOS app; it does not replace it”.

3. THERE ARE TWO SCREEN RESOLUTIONS

We knew Apple Watch was coming in two sizes, but the dev literature confirms each has a unique display resolution: the 38mm model has 272 x 340 pixels; the larger 42mm one has 312 x 390. Apple pundit John Gruber reckons both will match the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6 for sharpness (326ppi); Apple adds there is “no need to create non Retina images”, so there’s no cheapo ‘chunky pixel’ Apple Watch on the way.

4. APPS OFFER THREE WAYS TO INTERACT

Information can be presented by manually launching a Watch app from the Home screen, for an “in-depth user experience”; this is where most dev efforts should be focussed. Otherwise, there are optional Glances and Notifications.

5. GLANCES ARE READ-ONLY CARDS

Apple describes a Glance as a “quick view of a focused set of content from an app” that is “timely and contextually relevant”. They are template-based, static and read-only, but can link deep into their corresponding app. You swipe up to access Glances, and then swipe horizontally between them; think a card-based iPhone/iPad Notification Center, pared down to the bone.

6. NOTIFICATIONS CAN BE ‘SHORT’ OR ‘LONG’

‘Short’ notifications are visible only briefly after the wrist is raised, showing the app’s name and icon, and a brief, to-the-point notification title. If the wrist remains raised “for a moment”, a custom ‘long’ notification can offer more information and basic interactivity, such as buttons for commenting or liking something.

7. STRICT BUT FLEXIBLE LAYOUTS

App layout is clearly defined and heavily automated. Apple states side-by-side elements are restricted to three, apps can use all space to the display edges, and positioning is relative, not fixed. Elements are laid out from top-to-bottom and left-to-right, with element groups enabling developers to add a little layout sophistication. Apps should therefore ‘just work’ on any future Apple Watch size, and never look a horrible mess. In theory.

8. APPLE WANTS TASTEFUL, ELEGANT APPS

Apple stops short of defining how a developer must design their app, but only just. Black backgrounds are heavily recommended, along with careful use of high-contrast colours; however, colour must not be used for indicating interactivity (a rule we wish would extend to iPad and iPhone…).

Typography must be legible and preferably use Apple’s built-in styles; branding should be minimised in a “refined, unobtrusive way”. This all suggests Apple Watch will be a unified, stylish experience, if perhaps lacking some heart and soul.

9. ANIMATION IS… RESTRICTED

Animation exists in Apple Watch, but the guidelines call for pre-rendered animations from a series of static images — much like an animated GIF. Dynamic animations might result in delays, apparently. There’s no mention of movie files, but then everyone had enough of stamp-sized QuickTime files in 1990s desktop browsers.

Integrated maps are static, too — devs define a set annotated snapshot, a tap on which launches Apple’s own Maps app.

10. GESTURES ARE LOCKED DOWN

You tap the screen to interact, tap hard for a context menu with up to four buttons, and use the digital crown to zoom through lists or rapidly scroll. Vertical swipes are for scrolling, and horizontal ones are for navigating page-based interfaces. Up and left edge swipes, respectively, bring up Glances and go ‘back’. And that’s it — there’s no customisation.

There’s also no multi-touch, which is probably just as well, because you’d need to file your fingers to spikes for that to work.

11. BIG DEVS ARE ON BOARD

Apple’s press release has quotes about apps from ESPN (live scores; team info; news), Instagram (latest photos; likes; comments) and American Airlines (gates; departures; boarding; in-flight info). The tip of the iceberg, we suspect; Apple Watch will almost certainly be well-supported from day one.

12. APPLE’S LOOKING AHEAD

The same press release adds: “Starting later next year, developers will be able to create fully native apps for Apple Watch”. This mirrors the iPhone’s early days: start with a very locked-down Apple experience; normalise device usage; gradually open things up. In the meantime, Apple’s recruiting an evangelist, to guide developers and “help them build platform differentiating, next generation apps for iOS, with a primary focus on Apple Watch apps”.

And anyone still thinking this all sounds a bit restrictive, be mindful of two things: first, this is a device designed for focus rather than in-depth interactions; secondly, current smartphones are significantly more capable than the original iPhone was on release. This is just the first step; who knows what the Apple Watch 3 or 4 will bring?

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