Apple now enforces that any new app update must use the ‘native’ APIs for watchOS, where the app logic runs on the watch itself. This has been the model since watchOS 2. The watchOS 1 era relied on an app model where third-party code ran as an extension on the iPhone, with every user interaction requiring message passing between watch and phone over Bluetooth, if anyone has forgotten. This basically means any Watch app from 2015 that has been unmaintained can no longer reside on the App Store.
In a move that surprises almost no one, Instagram opted to ditch its Watch app entirely rather than dedicated it engineering resources to ‘modernise’ it. I expect this will be the path many developers pick, continuing the exodus of Watch apps from the store, a trend that we’ve seen for the better part of a year at this point.
I don’t want to repeat all my arguments about why WatchKit sucks; the archives exist for a reason. Simply, I love (and use) good Watch apps and WatchKit prevents developers from making good watch apps. I don’t blame these companies from abandoning watch ecosystem at the moment. If Apple doesn’t provide something better, these apps are never coming back.
For the companies that do want to stay on Watch, there is going to be a dearth of investment at least until WWDC. I think there’s a non-zero chance we see a majorly new Watch development platform in June. At least, I wouldn’t recommend to any of my clients that we start building a WatchKit app today, just in case there is a new framework in the wings.
Another facet to this story that people don’t really talk about is that you need a Watch app to offer custom Apple Watch notification interfaces for your app. The notification controller is embedded inside the Watch app binary, so if you don’t have a Watch app, you can’t provide Watch users with custom-designed alerts. This means that along with the Instagram Watch app, Watch users also lose the pretty Instagram notifications. Repeat for the other high-profile apps that have left the Watch App Store in recent months.
watchOS falls back to the generic system alerts, which lack personality, flair and functionality. It also hinders glanceability of using the Watch. Custom colours and branding allow your brain to easily discern what kind of notification you are looking at without reading the text. You’ll have to squint more at generic alerts to parse out what the device is telling you.
At a minimum, Apple needs to decouple this in watchOS 5 and allow apps to provide notification interfaces independently of a WatchKit app. People are going to say that losing custom notifications is not a big deal, but it really is. There’s a reason almost every system app uses a custom presentation for their notifications.