What I Learned While Writing Apps for the Apple Watch

It seems like I have been waiting for an app-enabled smartwatch since my calculator watch days in the early 1980s. I'm still waiting, because while the Apple Watch runs apps as extensions of the iPhone's screen, those apps still run on the iPhone. Apple has said that developers will be able to write apps that run natively on the Apple Watch, but it hasn't committed to a date. Perhaps June's Worldwide Developers Conference will shed some light on this limitation.

This is understandable, given the Apple Watch's anticipated battery life issues, which, for me, have turned out to be unwarranted. I usually go to bed with my Apple Watch's battery around 50 percent full. Still, if I ran Apple, I would be hesitant to unleash thousands of native Apple Watch apps written by developers who may never have even touched an Apple Watch. Now that developers can test their apps on actual device, we can see how the apps perform and optimize accordingly.

I have written five Apple Watch apps that are already in the app store, and I have already submitted updates that tweak them for performance. I learned a lot in the process. For starters, the screen is small, even with the larger 42 mm model that I own. There are only so many buttons you can fit on the screen. In fact, three across and three down is about the most you would want. Once I realized that, the first app I wrote was Tiny Tic Tac Toe! Some Apple Watch apps don't do anything when running on the iPhone, but I didn't want customers to be disappointed, so I made sure my Tic Tac Toe app works on iPhones and iPads even if the owner doesn't have an Apple Watch.

Tiny Tic Tac Toe

Next, I embraced the 3x3 button design and built another app that uses a similar interface. Since my first app ever, in 2008, was 100sounds, a sound effects app with hundreds of sounds, I thought I would rebuild that for the Apple Watch. That app is called TinySounds, and like Tiny Tic Tac Toe, it also works on iPhones (and iPads.) In fact, even when tapping on a sound effect on the Apple Watch, the audio plays on the iPhone. That's a limitation (or feature?) of the Apple Watch. This way, you can use the app as a "remote control" to play a sound effect on the iPhone, even if the phone is running a different app or in lockscreen mode!

My TinySounds app gives users access to 72 sounds, which corresponds to 9 categories of 8 buttons each (one button is reserved to go Back to the category view.) I might make a version that leverages the scrolling feature of the Digital Crown. One problem I ran into is that, while the app has 72 sounds, two of them were Fart and Burp. Understandably, Apple has a rule against apps that are, in their own words, "Primarily Fart apps" but clearly that wasn't my app. Still, they rejected it, until I replaced those sounds. "Overly aggressive reviewer," I'd say. Maybe they will let me add those sounds back, as it could be a fun prank but still part of a useful app. For example, at a speech you could add your own laughter or applause!


As a kid, I would perform magic shows at birthday parties, etc. I thought this would be a good opportunity to merge my passions for magic and technology and I created WatchMagic. Without giving too much away... I had to teach myself how to share data between an iPhone app and an Apple Watch app, using App Groups. That's all I'll say about that! The way the trick works is a user selects a card from the iPhone and the magician guesses the card in seconds! Now, an Apple Watch is not required, but it makes the trick a lot easier! I figure that after a few bar bets, a customer could pay for their Apple Watch using the WatchMagic app!

Watch A Mole

I leveraged my Tiny Tic Tac Toe and TinySounds app designs, and created Watch A Mole, a version of Whack A Mole for the Apple Watch! For this, I had to learn how to do animations on the watch. I also added a timer feature to the app.

Reveal A Deal

Finally, I have an existing free app called AllAccess.US. This app offers a REVEAL A DEAL virtual scratchoff feature when run on the iPhone, to give users access to local deals. The scratchoff is fun and I was hoping to let users scratch away on their Apple Watch screen to see a deal. Alas, because apps run on the iPhone and display their results on the Apple Watch, I couldn't enable a scratching feature. You are pretty much limited to button presses. So I just made the deal show up instantly, and made sure it works in Glance mode. This allows a user to show their watch to a cashier to take advantage of a deal!

I've learned a lot and will be submitting more updates with optimizations, and creating more Apple Watch apps. I wrote or started writing many of these apps before I owned an Apple Watch. Now that so many developers have the real thing in their hands (or on their wrist) I expect apps to get better, and we will really see what they can do. And when Apple finally allows native apps, our apps should be even better.





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Author Details

Todd Bernhard's picture

Author Details

Todd Bernhard

Todd Bernhard is a bestselling (6+ million downloads) award-winning (AARP, About.com, BestAppEver.com, Digital Hollywood, and Verizon) developer and founder of NoTie.NET, an app developer specializing in Talking Ringtone apps including AutoRingtone. And his profile photo is of the last known sighting of Mr. Bernhard wearing a tie, circa 2007!

An iPhone is almost always attached to his hip or in his pocket, but over the years, Mr. Bernhard has owned an Apple Newton, a Motorola Marco, an HP 95LX, a Compaq iPaq, a Palm Treo, and a Nokia e62. In addition to writing for iPhone Life, Mr. Bernhard has written for its sister publications, PocketPC Magazine and The HP Palmtop Paper.