The smartwatch app explosion: real or artificial?

  Pebble, Android Wear, and the Apple Watch will change the way we think about app design, but is that a good thing? Image courtesy of   Hiné Mizushima on Flickr

Pebble, Android Wear, and the Apple Watch will change the way we think about app design, but is that a good thing? Image courtesy of Hiné Mizushima on Flickr

The flood gates have opened. The whole smartwatch thing was cute at the beginning, during the launch of the Pebble Watch. Then it got more serious with Google announcing Android Wear. Now it's full on competition since the release of the Apple Watch. There's no turning back. Apps are now being designed with smartwatches in mind, and that might affect how we think of apps as a whole.

In a Tech Crunch article, Andrew Shorten notes that no longer is app design just about considering multiple screen sizes. App design has to spend multiple device categories.

Designing for devices is no longer just about fitting content into different screen sizes. It’s about creating a coherent system that spans different devices and contexts of use. And it’s about choreographing a user’s journey through that system, responding to their gestures and behaviors with appropriate animations and transitions that guide them through your application’s flow.

The number of apps available for these smartphone platforms is debatable. The pie chart below is a rough estimate based on numbers that seem to be consistent from around the web. The Apple Watch - amazingly - has about 3500 watch apps in the store. The Pebble has almost double that many (on both iOS and Android) at 6500. Android Wear numbers are a bit dodgy. Google says there are 1000+ watch faces available, and older sources on the web (2014) claim there are roughly 200-250 dedicated apps available. To be generous I pegged Android Wear (arbitrarily) at 1500 apps and watch faces. (If someone does have a better number, please leave it in the comments).

Smartwatch apps by platform

Rough estimate based on articles reporting the latest numbers.

Based on these numbers one could be led to believe that smartwatches are a huge success and that this a permanent trend. But is this really the case? If smartwatches have truly taken off, I sure don't see a lot of them, though perhaps that will change with the Apple Watch. More often than not, tech reviewers have described smartwatches as completely optional devices. They're a luxury not a necessity - see Ars Technica and TWiT. Their luxury status stems from the fact that these are only companion devices to your phone, and the problem they're trying to solve (stopping you from pulling out your phone) isn't something a lot of people see as a serious issue. 

It is for these reasons that I think the explosion of smartwatch apps doesn't represent consumer demand but rather a feeling of obligation on behalf of developers. The Apple Watch is experiencing the fastest growth so far. However, I get the impression that many developers are releasing Watch Apps because they feel they have to. It's better to have a Watch App than not have one. Comparatively, Android Wear has been out for a year, and it's already been eclipsed by the Apple Watch. This could be due the strength of Apple's development platform, or it could be completely due to Apple's marketing. If any company deserves the most credit for creating real demand it's Pebble, as they invented the category and their following is loyal. 

Nobody wants to miss out on "next big platform," which is to be expected especially if the smartwatch market goes mainstream in the next couple years. I expect there will continue to be an increasing number of smartwatch apps, but I'm skeptical that the numbers will reflect those in the smartphone world. The utility of these devices is very limited, and it's likely that only productivity, fitness, and some entertainment apps will be able to really take advantage of this form factor. However, smartwatches are compelling from a customization standpoint. The ability to download and change watch faces to reflect personal taste is something smartphones don't do as well (well, at least the iPhone), and Apple is certainly betting that this will drive it's new product category forward. Ironically, the Apple Watch is the least customizable of the bunch, as it has yet to offer the ability to download third-party watch faces.

 I don't think smartwatches are a fad, they have there place. But unless consumers seriously get behind this trend, and provide enough momentum, I get the impression that smartwatches (and their apps) will remain comparatively small markets compared to smartphones and tablets.