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WatchKit FAQ: What you need to know!

Time to break out the big ideas for watch-based computing: WatchKit, Apple's software development kit for creating apps for the Apple Watch, has arrived.

You'll need an iOS developer account to start developing with WatchKit and dive into the nitty-gritty technical details, but if you're merely curious as to what WatchKit will let your favorite developers create, Apple was kind enough to publish a few informational guidelines and a 28-minute video in the public-facing area of their developer center (opens in new tab).

If 28-minute videos aren't your jam, however, here's what you need to know about WatchKit — along with a few hints we picked up about the impending Apple Watch.

What can developers make with WatchKit, exactly?

Surprise: Not full-featured apps. At least, not quite yet. Like third-party keyboards, an "Apple Watch app" is currently an extension, pushed from an iPhone app to your Apple Watch. (Native Apple Watch apps will be coming sometime next year (opens in new tab).#mn_e)

WatchKit extensions render on the Apple Watch in three different ways:

  • As a small app, accessed by tapping on the app icon from the Apple Watch home screen
  • As Glances, which, like Today view widgets, are a quick way to see information from its iPhone app
  • As actionable notifications, which display alerts on the Apple Watch from the iPhone app that you can then interact with

When you tap an app icon, open a Glance, or interact with a notification, that iPhone app's WatchKit extension runs in the background, wirelessly transmitting data to the Apple Watch. The interface resides on the Apple Watch, so performance should be smooth and solid, but all the heavy lifting, including anything that requires an internet connection, is done back on the iPhone. You can execute tasks on the Apple Watch itself, or, if the developer has implemented Handoff, you can pick up your iPhone and continue your task in the full iPhone app.

How can developers get started with WatchKit?

WatchKit is designed to integrate into already-existing iOS app projects, so all you need to do as a developer is to grab the latest version of Xcode and add the Watch app target. (Though you might also want to take a look at the WatchKit documentation (opens in new tab) to help you figure out specific classes, tips, and tricks.)

You will need to make sure that your iOS app supports the iPhone before building in WatchKit frameworks; it doesn't currently appear that you can connect an Apple Watch to an iPad.

What will apps look like?

Unsurprisingly, Apple Watch apps are going to be far more limited in layout than a full-fledged iOS app, in part due to screen size. The largest Apple Watch (42mm) sports a mere 312-by-390 pixel display, which is not a whole lot of real estate for developers to build upon.

According to Apple's initial video, it sounds like apps will either be limited to a hierarchical tap-to-go-forward-or-back view or a horizontal swipe-per-page-based interface (similar to the Glances view). Developers can insert special modal overlays for specific screens, but you can't otherwise mix and match.

That said, there will still be plenty to tap, pan, and zoom around on, as WatchKit supports buttons, switches, labels, sliders, and images. In addition, developers can add a dynamically-updating date and time widget that either displays the current date and/or time, or shows a timer that counts up or down from a specific point in time.

What will apps be able to do?

Developers have access to most of the tools available to them in creating iOS apps, which should mean some flexibility and creativity in pushing miniature versions of their apps to the Apple Watch. It does sound like the main emphasis will be on tapping, notifications, and easily-available information, however.

Maps data is one area that Apple specifically called out in its introductory video: Although developers will be able to insert snapshots of a map interface based on coordinates, that interface will be non-interactive — you can't pan or zoom unless you tap on it and enter the Maps app on Apple Watch. Does this mean doom and gloom for a Google Maps app on the watch? Not necessarily — Google could continually push snapshots as you travel, for instance — but it does mean that app developers have to think more creatively about how they'll display certain information.

There's no GPS on the Apple Watch, so updating location is one of the things it will have to call back to the iPhone for. It's likely, especially in a 1.0 product, that Apple's going to want to carefully manage that activity so they can prevent excessive battery drain.

How will I be able to interact with a Watch app?

Tapping and swiping continue to be the primary way of interacting with all iOS apps, Apple Watch included. The watch has a few new swipe gestures, including a left edge swipe (to return to the previous screen) and a swipe up from the bottom (which activates Glances). Pinch-to-zoom and other multi-finger gestures don't exist on the Apple Watch; instead, you're presumably expected to use the device's Digital Crown to zoom in and out. There's also Force Touch, a long-press action that activates the menu or important contextual buttons within an app.

In an app, you'll be able to tap, swipe, and scroll as usual, along with using Force Touch to pull up menus. Glances and notifications can only be tapped.

So what are Glances, exactly?

Glances are an all-new part of iOS, exclusive to the Apple Watch, though they resemble Notification Center's Today view widgets the most. Glances let you see a single page of specific app information; you can swipe left or right to see Glances from other apps connected to your Apple Watch.

Unlike widgets, however, Glances are static, which means you can't interact with them as a user. On the developer side, they're created from specific templates that control the size and area of the screen you're using, and pull information based on time and location to make sure what they're showing you is recent and relevant.

When you tap on a Glance, you'll launch that specific app; developers can even specify where in the app you land using Handoff. (For instance, if you're viewing a to-do Glance that states you have items left to do on a Grocery list, tapping that Glance might send you directly to that list.)

Not every app needs or will have a Glance, and you'll be able to turn them off if you'd rather not see one.

What will notifications look like?

Notifications are split into two categories: Short Look and Long Look notifications. Short Look notifications contain minimal information, in part to preserve your privacy: It just displays the app icon, a quick title such as "New Message" or "New Photo", and the title of the app in the program's primary color.

If the user raises their wrist or taps on the Short Look notification, a Long Look notification appears. Long Looks are more detailed: You'll see the app icon and title at the top (in what Apple is calling the "sash"), followed by custom-designed content that displays the notification itself, along with up to four actions you can take (like replying or commenting) and a button for dismissing the notification.

What about the Apple Watch and accessibility?

Though Apple doesn't have much publicly available yet on how WatchKit and accessibility work together, given it uses iOS code as a backbone, it's likely that developers will be able to use the same frameworks to provide hearing and vision-impaired folks access to the Apple Watch.

Any new juicy details about the Apple Watch?

Not much aside from how apps themselves will work, though Apple's public documentation looks to reveal the Apple Watch's official screen sizes: the 42mm watch is 312-by-390 pixels, while the 38mm watch is 272-by-340 pixels. In addition, it looks as though the Apple Watch is using the font San Francisco as its default.

One last intriguing bit: Apple insists that app developers provide both static and dynamic versions of their Long Look notifications, for use when the watch is in a "low-power" setting. It remains to be seen whether that's a setting users can enable themselves or something the watch will attempt to do autonomously, but nifty all the same.

Pretty cool stuff, right? After this info-dump from Apple, I'm even more excited for the Apple Watch's debut next year, and very intrigued to see what developers will build with WatchKit. 2015 can't come soon enough.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

21 Comments
  • Cannot wait to get one.
  • I would have been excited about this a few weeks ago but having to charge it every night no thanks Sent from the iMore App
  • Blame battery Tech. Do you sleep with a watch on anyways? Posted from the amazing whatever device I can afford because I'm a broke college kid.
  • "... watch-based computing ..." I prefer the term "wrist-top computing" myself.
    It's more accurate. The Apple Watch is a wearable computer.
  • i know apple is always better at doing second gen. stuff... but i won't be able to wait for that!!! xD too much temptation
  • GIVE ME ONE NOW!
  • I am definitely enjoying my Pebble and its battery life, however, it will be nice to share some of the functionality the android wearables currently offer. Unfortunately, for that functionality it seems one day battery is the going standard. As long as it's easy to remove and charge it's something I can used to. Sent from the iMore App
  • I don't wear my Pebble at night, but it's nice to have a long lasting battery. I still really wish apple offered a minimal approach- thin, no health sensors, longer battery. I basically want a thinner, prettier pebble with Siri. I don't need touch screen & I don't care in the slightest to see pictures of the true phase if the flipping moon on my wrist. But apple could never make an e-ink watch. Mirosol? I guess I'll have to get my hands on it... Err... Get it on my wrist to experience it. And we'll have at least 14 days to return it. Maybe Pebble will make their next watch with a mic & speaker. Sent from the iMore App
  • I like to spend my money on a decent watch and wear it for years. The I watch will last for years but will the software? Just take a look at iPhones the software updates are not available for all their phones, forcing you to buy a new one. I have most Apple products but won't be buying the watch. Sent from the iMore App
  • Especially if one were to pay thousands of dollars. But the people who can afford to buy those will likely get a new one every year anyhow.
    .
    There's always eBay.
    .
    My $150 Pebble has lasted over a year and is actually just now working as expected bc of iOS 8 (I would get 15 repeat notifications several times a day. All better now)
    .
    I choose to spend my money on gadgets and computers instead of vacations and clothes, so I will likely upgrade at least every 2 years. Sent from the iMore App
  • Clarification - IF I get one... And if I do, it will likely be the cheapest one. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'll probably get one but it's not a question of affordability. But whether it's too much work to keep up with. Charging every night. Updates. App maintenance. It's just something else (that I don't really need) to keep track of.
  • If the watch apps are extensions of iPhone apps, then when your iPhone updates an app the watch would too at the same time (I assume) Sent from the iMore App
  • Wait, did you just say that the "software updates are not available for all their phones, forcing you to buy a new one"? That isn't what I was originally going to respond to, but then when I re-read and noticed that I realized you're just trolling. (In case you're not trolling and are actually ignorant, Apple supports *much* older phones than any of their competitors. Most Android phones, for example, *never* receive an update. Also, developers *hate* how far back Apple supports; iOS 8 still runs on the iPad 2 and iPhone 4s for God's sake! Those devices are like… well, like calculator watches compared to an iPad Air 2 or iPhone 6.) Anyway, an actual logical argument would be about the hardware, not the software. Apple comes out with a new iPhone and new iPad every year; there is every reason to believe they will do the same with the watch. However, this leads one to another conclusion: who would pay $10,000+ for a watch that gets replaced every year? The answer obviously rounds to "nobody." Following the logic forward, this means we must conclude one of two things: "Apple is really stupid, and nobody will every buy that watch" or "Apple will offer free/discounted upgrades (either trade-ins or internal-guts-swaps) for at the very least the more expensive watches." It seems most people conclude "Apple is stupid." I'm not sure why that is; it's the most valuable and most profitable company in the world. Isn't "They aren't stupid, so they will offer an upgrade path" a *far* more logical conclusion?
  • So Is there two different sized Apple Watch ?
  • Yes one is 38mm and one is 42 mm large. Sent from the iMore App
  • Thanks !
  • For all those folks that find charging a watch once a day too burdensome, I think it's fortunate you were never told that living would require you to stop and pee several times a day. I suspect that would have been a deal breaker for you. ; )
  • This is exciting because of developers. Jobs' 2007 keynote, "An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator", didn't mean much to me at the time. (I had owned flagship Nokias going back 10yrs) In hindsight, the success of the iPhone had as much to do with app developers as it had with Apple's execution. App developers focused on a single product with a single set of rules and changed the way the world does so many things. We're possibly at a similar moment with Apple Watch. Once again, not the first of its kind and could lose in a spec war. Yet with Apple's execution and an enormous iOS dev battleground focused on a single new product, Apple Watch's potential is more than what Apple Watch is, or is not, right now. Because, developers.
  • Apple bug fixes and improvement the Wi-fi, Notification Center and Exchange accounts in Mail.With the OS X Yosemite upgrade some users will be facing several issues raging from battery life to sound on supported devices.
  • Working with WatchKit has been fun; we've posted a tutorial for experienced iOS developers to get their first taste of WatchKit at dev.iachieved.it/iachievedit/