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Apple Watch excites local developers, educators

Sure, it looks cool, but let's get down to business: Can developers make a living in the Apple Watch's novel application ecosystem?

"That is," said Youngmoo Kim, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Drexel University, "the billion dollar question."

On Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook demonstrated how some of the Watch's first apps will function, and offered more details on pricing options (ranging from $349 to $10,000) and the Watch's release date (pre-order and in-store viewing on April 10, on sale April 24).

Shortly after Cook's keynote address, local developers and educators were buzzing about how app developers - and educators instructing the app developers of tomorrow - can potentially make money on the Watch's app ecosystem.

Kim, who also heads the university's ExCITe center which includes the Application Development Laboratory, said the Watch presents a great opportunity for developers.

However, it will require a different approach and mind-set.

"The Watch is really a front-end to your phone," Kim said, "and that way it becomes a very, very different way of accessing information and interacting with it."

With this smartwatch, the user is now in control: the app experience, which is to say how the user is will interact with and use the device's apps, is now front and center.

The emphasis has to be on the user experience.

"I think it definitely emphasizes an overall trend in computing," Kim said. "The computing world, and especially the computing-education world, is playing a little bit of catch-up. ... And this kicks the can even further down the road. Interacting with a really tiny screen, but doing it with gesture, with movement, with a little digital crown, those are things that we just have no experience with in the past."

Take the original iPhone: When it debuted in 2007, developers who were invited to write apps submited a lot of duds.

"Because people were experimenting," Kim said. "They took their code from their desktop app and tried to throw it on a phone and it just doesn't work that way. So it's going to be another transition like that."

Chris Schlitt is a 23-year-old recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He works as a researcher in the university's neuroscience lab, but he's also building a public transportation app specifically for smartwatches.

His idea, which started as a Kickstarter campaign to develop a SEPTA-specific smartwatch app for the Pebble smartwatch, has increased its ambition.

Schlitt hopes the app, which relaunched Monday night as "Get me there," will provide departure times for the nearest public transit stops in real-time for cities world-wide.

Several other tech companies have launched smartwatches, including Samsung and Google, but they haven't been commercially successful and they lack the Apple device's customizable features.

And for his new endeavor, Schlitt calls the Apple Watch the perfect platform. Why? Because, he said, it allows users to "touch and swipe."

"With the Apple Watch, the ability to just swipe through either vertical or horizontal will allow you to swipe through other pubic transit stops as well as different services such as trains or trolleys," he said. "Adding that extra bit of simplicity as far as navigating through the stops makes it even more simple and a lot more beneficial as opposed to the other types of smartwatch models."

But can developers like Schlitt make a living producing apps for the smart watch?

"Is the technology there for that potential? Sure," Kim said, "but I think you have to think of it in the long term."

The iPhone app store wasn't an overnight success. The number and variety of apps continued to grow until it became something users couldn't do without.

"I think the Watch has that potential," he said, "but I think that's going to be developed over time ... and people have to start buying and wearing these things. If people aren't using them, there's no reason to write apps for them."

So, will the Apple Watch be a success?

Kim said the Watch's functionality raises the ultimate question: The reminders on your wrist, the access to your heartbeat, "Are people going to find value in that?"