It’s hard out there for an app. I mean, don’t make me pay for it — I don’t even know if I’ll like it! And stop pestering me with in-app purchases. Also, your banner ads are ridiculous. Not that I’d ever find your app in the first place.
The app economy can be an unfriendly place for developers these days. Now along comes the Apple Watch—in stores next month—to undermine the concept of an app altogether.
Yes, the Apple Watch has “apps.” But the Watch is not a platform for software that you use for an extended period of time. You won’t open on a Watch app and then spend minutes tapping around. Or at least you shouldn’t. Otherwise you might as well get out your phone.
Apps move into the background to support the actions they enable on screens further up the stack—the phone's lock screen, for example. Or a Watch.
The point of the Watch is actions, not apps. No, it’s not that hard to pull your phone out of your pocket. But once you do, a sea of choices and distractions opens before you. The Watch usefully limits those choices to what makes sense to do in the moment. It’s your phone’s notification screen ported to your wrist.
And as on the phone itself, those interactive notifications are making apps as we traditionally think of them a less prominent part of the user experience—a trend likely to march forward whether smartwatches take off or not. Apps move into the background to support the actions they enable on screens further up the stack—the phone’s lock screen, for example. Or a Watch.
Where We Are
In a mobile world that favors actions over apps, the greatest value comes in compressing the most steps into one gesture. Yesterday, I used Yo (yes, that Yo) to help me remember where I parked my car—tap twice to set the location, once to retrieve it. The execution wasn’t perfect, but it helped me to understand when I screen on my wrist might actually be useful. Instead of dithering with an app on my phone while I’m standing on a street corner, I could mash one button to make a complicated thing happen out in the world.
The point of the Watch is actions, not apps.
Some developers are already hard at work on compressing complex actions into single taps, and for good reason. While PC software is for doing things on PCs, software on mobile devices is for doing things in the world. The usefulness of mobile devices depends on context; what we do with them depends on where we are. The more efficient the interaction between that software and our environment, the more useful the device.
(Consider Uber’s “push a button, get a ride” slogan. One way of looking at the company’s massive valuation is that Uber figured out one of the most useful things you can do with a smartphone and shoved it all into one tap.)
Compared to smartphones, a watch is even more integrated to “where we are.” It’s the original, pre-digital notification screen, with one application: what time is it? The more instant interactions that can be built into the watch paradigm, the better for Apple. With each new action the Apple Watch enables, the better an experience it is to buy into.
But that same utility is not so useful for app developers. If monetizing apps is hard, monetizing actions is even harder. If ads are tough on small smartphone screens, they’re even tougher on smaller smartwatch screens. And that’s to say nothing of the 10-second time limit Apple suggests for any Watch-based interaction—not enough time to sell anything. In the meantime, the Watch creates one more reason not to engage directly with apps on the phone at all.
The great thing for users is that the Watch will impose a new rigor on developers seeking to justify their apps’ existence. They’ll need to distill their usefulness to a greater percentage of purity. Like Uber, the interactions they build may have to be magic enough to make us pay. Otherwise, in a world of actions, the app is an afterthought.