Apple’s intentions for native apps on the Apple Watch is a mystery

Apple shared a few more details about how the Apple Watch will work — see this excellent Verge article for a good summary. The most interesting part is Apple’s intention next year to enable fully native apps on the watch. This does not necessarily mean the Apple Watch will work without an iPhone, but it certainly makes that a possibility. The question though is…why?

The way Android Wear and Apple Watch (in year 1 at least) generally works is that the phone does most of the heavy lifting while the watch is merely a display that also receives inputs. It’s not unlike thin client computing, where the cloud does the work and the thin client handles output and input. This arrangement makes sense, because then the watch doesn’t need powerful chips or enormous batteries to get a good experience. This controls costs too.

The weakness in cloud computing is that a fast, consistent connection is required. Fortunately, because the phone is usually always with you alongside the watch, and because connectivity is via Bluetooth, smartwatches don’t have that issue.

So why would Apple move to a future where watch apps are standalone? Is technology progressing so rapidly that streamed computing is unnecessary? That can’t be right. Smartphones haven’t yet crossed a threshold where performance gains are unnecessary, and smartwatches are way behind smartphones.

Is it because people might want to wear an Apple wearable device but not an iPhone, like a fitness tracker for going on the run? That’s possible…but this assumes the fitness tracker needs to do more than just record the run. Why would a fitness tracker need native apps when — presumably — it doesn’t have a large screen? Where can native apps add value that syncing after the run cannot?

Or maybe the flaw is in Bluetooth? That for what Apple is envisioning, Bluetooth is an inadequate tunnel? Possible, but unlikely. Bluetooth 4.0 has a transfer rate of 3 mbps, enough for streaming video at a lower resolution. Like FaceTime. Even if it wasn’t adequate, you’d think Apple would just invent its own proprietary channel like AirPlay.

Perhaps, the initiative to go fully native is due to limitations with the way iOS handles multitasking; maybe it’s not easy for the watch to interact with all the apps idle on the phone? A system that’s so set it would be a nightmare for Apple to change? That doesn’t seem right either. Apple doesn’t usually cut corners and the reason for limited multitasking — an iPhone’s battery life — is less of a concern with each passing generation.

None of the above feel like good answers. Maybe Apple just wants to make the Apple Watch fully independent of the iPhone one day. So that a Windows Phone user can take full advantage of an Apple Watch with its native apps. Except this would come at the cost of performance and battery life. Moreover, Apple has never particularly cared about moving Apple products and services outside its own ecosystem.

So, basically, I don’t know. Any ideas?

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