Improving the Apple Watch can begin at WWDC

The Apple Watch has its flaws, but it could be getting a lot better if improved apps live up to their promise. Here's what I expect, and what I'd still like to see improved on the Watch OS.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
6 min read

Apple Watch apps: they should be getting better, soon. Sarah Tew/CNET

I've been wearing the Apple Watch for over two months, and while its benefits have grown on me, its limitations continue to stand out. Simply put, there are aspects of the Apple Watch I wish were better. But, many of the issues I have with the watch could be improved via software -- and that might happen sooner than you expect.

Follow CNET's WWDC live blog: Monday, June 8, 10 a.m. PT

Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference kicks off on Monday, June 8, and the Apple Watch is bound to take a large role. While there are already over 4,000 Apple Watch apps, they're among the weakest links. Improving them, and improving some other features with some operating system updates, could help the watch take another step forward in 2015.

Here are the Apple Watch improvements I expect and hope to see announced in San Francisco next week.

Third-party apps will be able to use on-board watch sensors, like Apple's own fitness apps. Sarah Tew/CNET

Confirmed: A real SDK, and more advanced third-party apps

There are already thousands of Apple Watch apps, and more coming every day...but most of these apps feel really slow, slow to load, slow to pull new information.

The most obvious reason for this lack of speed is that these third-party apps aren't even allowed to "live" on the Watch itself. With the notable exception of Apple's own apps, all third-party apps to run as "extensions," pulling from an iPhone app to get any information onto the watch. The phone-to-watch process takes more time, in most cases, than simply checking the iPhone app. Moreover, these apps can't currently take advantage of the watch's onboard sensors.

That's all about to change. Speaking at the Code Conference last week, Jeff Williams -- Apple senior vice president of operations -- confirmed that an official Apple Watch app software development kit (SDK) will be announced at WWDC. That would allow third-party developers to create apps to run on the watch without a phone being connected (for calculators, games or other tools), which should consequently allow those apps to load and run faster. Possibly a lot faster.

Williams also confirmed that the new SDK will allow such apps to access to the watch's sensors and features (voice memo apps, vibrating alarms, fitness apps that use pedometer and heart rate, and more) directly, lifting the restriction that exists for non-Apple apps so far. That means you could finally see, say, a Jawbone app that uses the heartrate sensor, or a Fitbit app that uses the pedometer.

While the new SDK is great news, the resulting native watch apps may not start to appear until later this year. But it means the Apple Watch could end up getting the killer apps it so desperately needs.

Existing watch faces are good, but there's no watch face store yet. Sarah Tew/CNET

My Apple Watch WWDC wishlist

The SDK news is the only thing that Apple has already confirmed. Beyond that, everything that follows herein is strictly my personal wishlist -- the things I hope are announced at WWDC.

Wanted: A watch face store, and added complications

Apple's ten semi-customizable watch faces that come pre-installed on the Apple Watch are pretty, but the novelty wears off. You can't install other watch faces for Apple Watch...yet. It makes sense for Apple to announce to developers how and when watch faces could be put on the App Store, and do it now. Apple might curate these watch faces more than normal, but I'd love to see other watch options. So would everyone else.

The built-in "complications" on these watch faces -- those smaller readouts that complement the main timepiece -- fold in helpful info ranging from weather to calendar appointments to daily fitness progress, but they don't allow information from third-party apps, like sports scores or tweets or Facebook updates. If Apple allowed some complications to work a wider range of information into watchfaces, we'd finally have more truly smart at-a-glance time-telling.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Wanted: More battery-saving modes

The Apple Watch battery won't magically get better overnight. In fact, it's clear the watch is doing everything it can to maximize battery already. But, could there be a few more modes to squeeze out more battery life while making sacrifices? There are already a few ways to adjust the watch's functions to extend battery life: you can adjust screen brightness, turn off heart rate measurements for workouts, and put your watch in Airplane Mode, but that's about it.

Apple does have a Power Reserve feature that effectively deactivates everything and turns the Apple Watch into just a watch. But that power-down mode is so separated from everything else that it feels more like suspended animation than a truly useful feature. By contrast, Samsung's clever power-saving mode on its recent phones turns everything black and white but still allows basic phone calls.

I'd love a dial that allowed me to pick my power-sipping setting and offer a few more adjustments. If it could help the watch get even an extra half day of battery, it would be worth it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Wanted: Improved phone call controls between iPhone and Watch

The Apple Watch can receive phone calls via its speakerphone, then hand off back to the iPhone. I'd love if it also allowed you to accept a call while wearing headphones connected to your phone...but using the watch as the dashboard. It's a small but important difference. Apple Watch's upcoming software updates could take care of some call-taking tweaks in a flash. iOS 9 may add some improved watch-to-phone communications, too. And the next iPhone could add Force Touch, and Digital Touch communications that might add extra features. What I want are just some small tweaks to basically allow me to answer and transfer calls more easily.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Wanted: Make the Watch a better iPod

The Apple Watch isn't a great music player. It's capable of storing 2GB of music for playback on wireless Bluetooth headphones, but the Music app is hard to navigate, you need a pair of Bluetooth headphones nearby, and the music playback tended to get choppy when I used it to walk around. Moreover, music playback is limited to one playlist that must come from your iPhone's iTunes collection; you're out of luck if you want to listen to Spotify or any other third-party music service.

A relaunch of Apple-owned Beats is expected to dominate WWDC this year; it would be nice if the company threw in another incentive for new Beats users by supporting offline playlists on the Watch. While we're at it, why not add the ability for the Watch to stream music over Wi-Fi even when the iPhone isn't necessarily nearby? At the very least, I'd like the music playlist adding-and-syncing-to-watch process to get revamped...it's too slow and too limited right now to be useful on an everyday basis.

Wanted: Make it easier to access and load apps

The Apple Watch has a ton of features, and lots of ways to interact: a button, a wheel, a force-touch screen, and a microphone. Getting to Apple's grid of micro-apps on the watch, however, isn't easy. You have to click the crown, swipe around, and guess what each app is...because none of them are labeled. If you leave an app, it's hard to get back to it easily. (double-clicking the crown takes you to the last app, but you can't pull up others). It's a lot less intuitive than finding apps on an iPhone or iPad.

A list of favorite apps, or a better way of simply finding what you need, would help. "Glances," the swipe-up dock of little app-like information cards that's already on Apple Watch, lets you tap to open apps like a launcher. But not all apps work with Glances, and after installing ten or so it takes too much time to swipe through. Siri lets you ask for an app by name, but voice recognition isn't always perfect. I need something a little more streamlined. A favorites list, or a list-like mode. Or, simply, folders.

Time left to improve

The Apple Watch is still in its infancy. Software updates can and will happen over the following months. But will they end up addressing what I'm looking for? As always, it's a total unknown.

The Apple Watch could get software upgrades leading up to the expected September launch of the next iPhone ... which might even add promise extra types of compatibility with the Apple Watch via a Force Touch display and shared Digital Touch communication apps.

We can't count on the operating system seeing major changes until 2016. But apps, and how developers are able to approach designing them, could end up transforming the Apple Watch more than anything else. A few more great apps that truly work on their own could finally make it the wrist-worn Swiss army knife people were expecting in the first place.

I hope that's the path Apple is taking. We'll find out more in just a few days.