Apple CEO Tim Cook said the tech giant’s biggest contribution to humanity will be in health when he spoke to CNBC in 2019. The Apple Watch, with its ability to measure all kinds of body markers, may be the greatest contribution to this mission. But Apple also has another important purpose in mind for its almost ten-year-old smartwatch: to serve as a “key to the world”.
That’s according to Kevin Lynch, Apple’s vice president of technology, who recently sat down for a virtual interview with CNET. This direction is not new; Apple has gradually expanded the capabilities of the Apple Watch over the years, allowing it to function like a digital key to your car and home. In fact, that goal was part of the Apple Watch from the very beginning through the original model’s support for Apple Pay.
But this theme seems more prevalent than ever in WatchOS 10, the next software update that launches in the fall and arrives in public beta next month. The new software introduces updated widgets to help surface information on the watch as needed, perhaps a testament to just how much we’re doing on these tiny wrist devices today. The goal is to provide a lot of data at a glance while maintaining the aesthetics of the dial, Lynch said.
“This has been a journey for us for a number of years as we’ve really found the best path and the richest way to balance these things,” said Lynch.
WatchOS 10 widgets could make the Apple Watch easier to use
The Apple Watch has gained many new features and functionalities since its debut in 2015, especially when it comes to health. But the general interface has remained largely the same.
That’s about to change in WatchOS 10 with the introduction of widgets or info cards accessible from the watch face with a twist of the Digital Crown. You’ll be able to add widgets to display weather forecasts, reminders, and news headlines among other trivia, similar to the iPhone. This should mean significantly fewer swipe and tap operations needed to set a timer or see your next meeting.
The order of these cards will contextually change depending on factors such as the time of day similar to iPhone widgets, which Apple calls the “smart stack.” The idea is to show the right data when you need it throughout the day. For example, the weather might appear first in the morning, while a medication reminder might emerge at night.
It might seem like a small update, but it’s one that could make the Apple Watch better at delivering relevant information with minimal effort. When the first Apple Watch arrived eight years ago, some reviewers criticized the device’s software as too complicated and complex.
Those concerns have seemingly faded as the Apple Watch has become more mainstream. According to Counterpoint Research, Apple accounted for 26% of the global smartwatch market in the first quarter of 2023, more than any other company. But the arrival of these new widgets, along with other updates like redesigned apps and a shortcut that launches the Control Center menu with the side button, shows there’s more work to be done when it comes to making Apple Watch more intuitive.
Apple’s intent to make your Apple Watch unlock the world around you has long been evident; announced the ability for the watch to double as a key to your office, home, or hotel in 2021, for example. This raises the question of why Apple waited until 2023 to update the interface to make relevant information more easily accessible.
Lynch said it’s a combination of user feedback and hardware improvements that enable the machine learning needed to power the smart stack. The company also didn’t want to change the Apple Watch user interface too often or in a way that might feel jarring.
“It’s been informed by all of our experiences that we’ve had over time, obviously, with how people interact with the watch,” he said.
Apple’s approach to new features involves hardware and software
Many of the Apple Watch’s major changes boil down to how the software and hardware work together. This is especially true of the Apple Watch’s health tracking feature, which also gets an update in WatchOS 10. There are new metrics for cyclists and additional features like topo maps in Apple Maps for Hikers, a mood-tracking tool and the ability to track time spent in daylight.
In some ways, Apple takes a different approach than its competitors when it comes to how health data from the watch’s sensors is used and presented throughout the interface. Rivals like Google’s Oura and Fitbit, for example, crunch certain readings to generate a “readiness score,” which communicates whether your body is ready for a tough workout or needs a rest day.
The Apple Watch lacks an equivalent feature in WatchOS 10, and this is intentional. When asked if Apple plans recovery-related insights as a readiness score for the Apple Watch, Lynch pointed to the company’s approach to developing new features. She said Apple’s strategy focuses on solving general problems that impact a wide range of people, adding that the company is “optimistic” about gaining new health insights from the Watch’s existing sensors.
“We’re actually looking at a combination of what we can perceive and what are the major health challenges people have around the world,” she said. “And what is the intersection between what we can perceive and what are these problems?”
That doesn’t mean Apple will never offer a feature similar to the readiness score, said Deidre Caldbeck, director of marketing for Apple Watch products, who also spoke to CNET. It’s just that the company focuses its resources on features it believes will have universal impact and offer actionable insights.
“In our discussions, our debates and our decision making, we try to keep these things in mind because obviously the Apple Watch is so broadly applicable to so many people,” Caldbeck said.
It’s not just about the information that Apple can provide, but also how the data is presented. Lynch described the Apple Watch as a “support partner” that applauds your accomplishments but doesn’t shame you about missing the booth reminder. Oura takes a similar approach; the company previously told CNET that it tries to communicate “truth” and “positivity” in its notifications. The nudge you feel on your wrist and the ping you hear when you get a notification on your Apple Watch were also meticulously planned.
“We designed them by actually tapping the Apple Watch case material with a small hammer,” Lynch said. “And we recorded the ‘ding’ that made it sound like the clock was chiming.”
But one example of how Apple is leveraging watch sensors in a new way in WatchOS 10 is in the new daylight sensing feature. It uses the Apple Watch’s ambient light sensor, along with input from other sensors, to determine if a person is outdoors, Lynch said. Apple is positioning it as a way to help younger users potentially prevent nearsightedness, or myopia, since the Myopia Institute says time spent outdoors can reduce the development of the condition in children.
Apple has been researching eye health and building the Apple Watch’s ambient light sensor to help tell if someone is outside, Lynch said.
“Let’s start with the storytelling,” Lynch said. “Let’s start with, ‘Here’s a problem in the world, and let’s tell ourselves a story about maybe how the world could be different.’ So that brings us to the design and engineering and everything in between.”
The Apple Watch Competition and What’s Next
As the Apple Watch has evolved and acquired new sensors, it has become more and more focused on health. But it’s also an important part of Apple’s effort to free us from screens, a goal the company reiterated when it unveiled its Vision Pro headphones earlier this month.
Apple appears to have achieved this so far, considering the company’s wearables business is now the size of a Fortune 150 company. Yet the competition is growing; Google entered the smartwatch space with its Pixel Watch last year, and Google and Samsung joined forces in 2021 to reengineer the software that powers Android smartwatches. Samsung’s next smartwatches are expected to debut next month, complete with new software that makes sleep stats and other health insights more important.
Apple calls WatchOS 10 a “milestone” for the Apple Watch. This could reveal the role of the smartwatch in our lives at a time when we are surrounded by an increasing number of screens and sensors. American households owned an average of 16 connected devices in 2022, according to research firm Parks Associates.
Perhaps now more than ever there is a need for gadgets like the Apple Watch to help us navigate and manage those devices. WatchOS 10, with its contextual widgets, redesigned apps, and the ability to exchange contact data with iPhones through a new feature called NameDrop, looks like an attempt to do just that.
Lynch couldn’t tell what’s next when asked about other ways the Apple Watch could become a so-called key to the world around you.
But the clue may be in our pockets.
“What do you use a wallet for today and still have stuff in your wallet?” she asked. “So that would be another area to think about in terms of maybe over time, how can we reduce the amount of stuff you have to take with you.”
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