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The race for Apple Watch’s killer app

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The upcoming race
As the release of the Apple Watch draws near, we’re seeing press coverage hit a frenzied pace – covering both the product, the watch’s designers, sales forecasts, and the retail displays. That’ll be fun for us as consumers. But for those of us who are in the business of building new products, the bigger news is that we have a big new platform for play with!

The launch of the Apple Watch will create an opportunity to build the first “watch-first” killer app, and if successful, it could create a new generation of apps and startups.

Why new platforms matter – the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs
Regular readers will know that I’m endlessly fascinated by new platforms. The reason is because of The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs, which claims that the aggregate performance of any channel will always go down over time, driven by competition, spam, and customer fatigue.

When you have a big new platform, you avoid all of this. So it’s not surprising that every new platform often leads to a batch of multi-billion dollar companies being minted. With mobile, it was Uber, Whatsapp, Snapchat, etc. With the Facebook platform, we saw the rise of social gaming companies like Zynga. With the web, we had the dot com bubble. It’s very possible that wearables, led by the Apple Watch, could be that big too.

With the Apple Watch, we have fresh snow:

  • Right after the launch, there’s a period of experimentation and novelty, where people are excited to try out new apps, no matter how trivial
  • A barrage of excitement from the tech and mainstream press, which will publicize all the big apps adding integration
  • A device built around interacting with notifications and “glances” which, along with the novelty effects, will cause engagement rates to be ridiculously high
  • The app store which will promote apps that integrate with the Watch in clever ways
  • Unique APIs and scenarios in health, payments, news, etc., leading to creative new apps in these categories

At the same time, there will be less competition:

  • Many apps will take a “wait and see” approach to the platform
  • Some teams won’t try at all Apple Watch, since it won’t be easy to jam their app’s value into a wearables format – for example, you can’t just cram any game on there
  • The best practices around onboarding, growth, engagement still have to be discovered – so there’s a higher chance someone new will figure it out

The above dynamics mean that the Watch launch will lead to some exciting results. Apple has been thoughtful and extraordinarily picky about bringing out new products, so with the Watch, we know they’ll put real effort and marketing prowess behind it. Combine that with the rumored ramp up to millions of units per month, and you can imagine a critical mass of high-value users forming quickly.

What kinds of apps will succeed? It’s hard to answer this question without looking at what you can do with the platform.

The Human Interface Guidelines is worth a skim
Beyond the ubiquitous buzz stories that have been released, it’s hard to have a nuanced discussion about the Apple Watch until you really dig into the details. Here to save us are two documents:

Both documents offer some tantalizing clues for the main uses for the Watch, as well as the APIs offered by Apple for developers to take advantage of. The HIG document is particularly enlightening. Going through the screenshots, here are the apps that are shown via screenshot:

  • Visual messaging
  • Weather
  • Stock ticker
  • Step counter
  • Calendar
  • Photo gallery
  • Maps
  • Time, of course :)

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For the most part, this is exactly what you’d expect. These are all apps that have existed on the phone, and the Watch serves as an extra screen. I’m sure this will only be the start.

The more interesting question is what the new Watch APIs will uniquely allow.

Apple Watch will supercharge notifications
One of the biggest takeaways in reading through the HIG is the prominence of the notifications UI. Although you might find yourself idly swiping through the Glances UI to see what’s going on, it seems most likely that one of the most common interactions is to get a notification, check it on your watch, and then take action from there. This will be the core of many engagement loops.

For that reason, Apple has designed two flavors of notifications – a “short look” that is a summary of the new notification, and a “long look” that’s actually interactive with up to 4 action buttons. Here’s a long look notification:

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Because it’s so easy to check your watch for notifications, and you’ll have your watch out all the time, I think we’ll see Apple Watch notifications perform much better than push notifications ever have. Combine this with the novelty period around the launch, and I think we’ll see reports of much higher retention, engagement, and usage for apps that have integrated Watch, and these case studies will drive more developers to adopt.

Waiting for the Watch-first killer app
Succeeding as a Watch-first app remains a compelling thought experiment. We saw that after a few years of smartphones, the question “Why does this app uniquely work for mobile?” is an important question.

Apps that were basically ports of a pre-existing website ended up duds – crammed with features and presenting a worse experience than just using the website. Contrast that to the breakthrough mobile apps that take advantage of the built-in camera, always-on internet, location, or other APIs available. Said another way, many flavors of “Uber for X” have failed because it’s unique to calling a taxi to constantly need to consume the service in new/unknown locations, and with high enough frequency for this consumption. Not every web app should be a mobile app. In the same analogy, the majority of apps in the initial release of the Watch may take it to simply be a fancier way to show annoying push notifications, and drive usage of the pre-existing iPhone app.

The more tantalizing question is what apps will cause high engagement on the Watch by itself, with minimal iPhone app interaction? That’s what a Watch-first killer app will will look like. I’m waiting with a lot of excitement for the industry to figure this out.

Good luck!
For everyone working on Watch-integrated apps, good luck, and I salute you for working to avoid the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs. If you’re working on something cool and want to show me, don’t hesitate to reach out at @andrewchen.

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