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Apple Outlines Next Version of Apple WatchOS: What you need to know

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Yesterday at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), the company detailed the incoming mass of features across all of Apple’s platforms, from computer (MacOS) to phone/tablet (iOS/iPadOS), and yes, Apple Watch. In the case of Apple Watch, that operating system is WatchOS, and is the platform that not only Apple’s stock apps but also 3rd party apps operate from. The next version coming in a few months is WatchOS 6.

Like most software development platforms it has continued to grow each year, adding not just more apps – but more importantly more functionality. For the most part, what you heard yesterday in the keynote was likely but a fraction of the things developers will get more details on over the coming days of more nerdy presentations. Only the biggest and most sexy features manage to make it onto the keynote. Whereas the minutia of tiny tweaks that can make or break smaller apps are left for developers to uncover like a scavenger hunt throughout WWDC.

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In many ways, the wearable development patterns of Apple and Garmin are actually fairly similar these days. Both companies have developer events (Connect IQ Summit about 2 months ago for Garmin) that give you a rough idea of what’s to come with their upcoming hardware lines. Neither company tends to release meaningful new watch hardware at these events, nor give overt specifications of upcoming hardware. Instead, they outline the realm of the possible for developers, and if you piece together those clues well enough you can usually get an idea of the arc that’s coming down the road.

And both Apple and Garmin’s event features morning group workouts, for those that wish to add a bit of suffering to their schedules.

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With that, let’s dive into the details that you actually care about.

New WatchOS 6 Features:

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For this post I’ll primarily be focusing on the consumer-specific features, rather than some of the nuanced developer bits. These are features that owners of all Apple Watches except the original Apple Watch will get, starting in September. This means it’s compatible with Apple Watch Series 1, Series 2, Series 3, and Series 4. The original Apple Watch lacked a specific official ‘Series’ identifier (though is sometimes referred to as ‘Series 0’ now). In addition, you’ll need an iPhone 6s or later paired to it, as WatchOS 6 is tied to iOS13 (and phones prior to the iPhone 6s aren’t getting iOS13).

Folks that have developer accounts can download the beta today (with the usual beta caveats). As usual, expect some of this stuff to change slightly between now and final release. It always does.

Standalone WatchOS App Store‘

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This will allow apps to run independent of a companion iOS app being installed. The way it works today is that if you wanted to install the United Airlines Apple Watch App, you had to first install the United Airlines iOS (iPhone likely) app. For companies like United, this wasn’t a big deal. But for other companies that just wanted to develop a watch-only app, it meant that they also had to develop a full iOS app, which increased not just development but support also.

Now, companies can create WatchOS only apps. Further, Apple is going to have a curated (read: filtered) dedicated WatchOS app store on the watch itself, so you can search/browse for apps from your watch without (in theory) touching your phone.

Women’s Cycle Tracking:

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Like Fitbit and recently Garmin, Apple will be adding in support for tracking menstrual cycles  and related female health stats directly from the watch.  You can track symptoms such as headaches or cramps, record flow levels, as well as see cycle length and variation. In addition, it’ll also provide an alert when your fertile window or next period is set to begin. Further, it can incorporate data points from ovulation prediction kits and readings from basal body thermometers.

While all this is going to the Apple Watch, Apple’s also making this available on iOS as well, so you won’t be required to have an Apple Watch to take advantage of these features.

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The Activity App (which is where you monitor steps and daily activity), will now show longer term trending stats for nine stats, including move, exercise, stand, walking pace (new), flights and stairs climbed, and ‘cardio fitness level’. These are shown over the last 90 days or last 365 days, and will give you a directional arrow of how you’re trending during that timeframe.

Hearing Health:

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When in loud environments (such as a concert) the watch will alert you when sound levels are at certain decibel levels that can cause hearing loss, as well as showing you the duration that it becomes risky. The watch does not record or save any of this audio.

Live Music Streaming API’s:

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The watch will now allow apps to leverage a streaming audio API with the main use case here being cellular connectivity. This will allow 3rd parties to more easily stream music, podcasts, radio streams, etc… without having to re-invent the wheel.

Out of all the items here, I think this one is actually the most significant in relation to ‘challenges’ for the likes of Garmin. Not because Garmin can’t do it, but because Garmin won’t have it. It’s a core reason I think the whole implementation in the Vivoactive 3 Music LTE is somewhat flawed: You can’t stream the music, you have to pre-download it. To me, that takes away so much of the benefit. Which isn’t to say Garmin won’t ever do it, I’m sure they will. And I’m sure this very addition will spur them into figuring it out with their partners.

Random Bits:

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Then there’s a pile of little things that we don’t have a ton of information on. For example:

– Ability to get current elevation as a data field mid-workout
– Ability to use Stopwatch mid-workout
– Added hourly haptic (vibration) notifications, along with hourly chimes
– Added cellular connectivity icon to certain watch faces (aka ‘complication’)
– Added tip calculator app (for splitting bills)
– New watch faces
– New Calculator
– Redesigned Voice memos
– Apps get extended Runtime API for longer duration situations (like yoga), before a screen turns off

In addition, there’s one new bit of hardware – which is that Apple has added a seasonal band with Pride colors. Officially this is the ‘Pride Edition Sport Loop’, and all proceeds benefit the following specific LGBTQ organizations: GLSEN, PFLAG, The Trevor Project, Gender Spectrum, The National Center for Transgender Equality, and Encircle in the U.S., and ILGA internationally.

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The band is available to order from today.

Going forward:

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With Apple having passed through Apple Watch version 4 last September, they’ve set themselves up with a pretty consistent annual release cycle now, timed to the first or second week of September. The same timeframe and event they typically announce new iPhones. Last year we saw Apple update to the Series 4 with a larger display, ECG functionality and substantially better optical HR accuracy. So good I’d argue it’s the best in the industry.

Inversely however, their GPS accuracy tends to be the worst in the industry – generally cutting corners and doing other weird track smoothing stuff for no apparent logical reason (except that it looks ‘pretty’, like a Nike swoosh logo).

Apple’s continued focus this past year has been on the medical features of the Apple Watch, either through expanded ECG functionality and other medical-focused programs/trials/features, or via acquisitions in the medical field (like two weeks ago for an asthma monitoring company). We’re seeing hints of some of the sports features above that will arrive in September, but Apple also tends to hold back numerous features for Apple Watch until September. Especially any hardware driven ones.

And of course – the biggest question facing the sports tech industry is whether Apple will formalize their $199 price point for Apple Watch. They continue to permit various US sellers (namely Walmart and Best Buy) to drop the non-LTE version down to $199, but Apple themselves has never updated their own formal price on their site to indicate such. Doing so would be a serious market shift for not just themselves, but also big box retailers. It would change how they position the watch within in-store lineups against Garmin, Fitbit, and others. And it would also add significant pressure to both Garmin and Fitbit to feature-compete on a GPS and music-equipped wearable at a sub-$200 price point. Something neither company offers today.

Time will tell, but I suspect this September won’t disappoint within the wearable industry. Namely because, it rarely does.

With that – thanks for reading!

(Note: All imagery in this post from Apple’s WWDC 2019 Keynote Presentation, or Apple’s WWDC 2019 WatchOS 6 site)

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54 Comments

  1. I’ve read some people overlooking this small detail:

    You need iOS 13 on your phone to be able to use WatchOS 6 – otherwise your watch will be broken. 😉

    • David

      sorta… in order to upgrade your watch to watchOS 6 it will require your iPhone to already be running the watch app on iOS 13, so if your iPhone won’t go to iOS 13 (or hasn’t yet) you wouldn’t be able to upgrade in the first place. New versions of watchOS have *always* required the matching new version of iOS. for this year you need to have an iPhone 6 or newer I believe.

    • Graham R

      You can actually install the payload on the watch from a non 13 device, then upgrade, then not be able to pair it.
      13 is 6s and newer

      The biggest caveat is that for watchOS to move off beta you have to mail to Apple for a reflash.

  2. Eric

    Hey Ray! Just an FYI, Apple doesn’t restrict resellers’ pricing nor set it. I’ve seen this written up a few times and just want to correct it. Apple doesn’t have any brand restricted prices. These resellers use it to drive traffic as loss-leaders only.

    • Are you sure?

      Unless something has changed in the last year or so, Apple enforces MAP – Minimum Advertised Price – for their products, which effectively forces these companies hands. Technically a retailer can sell at a lower price (just like they can do so for Garmin), they just can’t advertise that price.

    • Eric

      Hmmmmm, weeeeeell, I’ll have to double-check. LOL. I “THINK” the MAP sets a bar for incentivizing for the third parties to ensure a level plying field, but doesn’t give “a thumbs up” to drop a price, if that makes sense (the reseller is free to do so to drive traffic and take a loss). I work for the fruit company, but I could be getting this wrong. I’ll check and get back.

  3. Harald

    typo: “When in loud environments (such as a concern)”

  4. Samuel

    what about the apple tv update with regard to the amount of BT devices allowed?

  5. JB

    Ray, I think this is a small typo:
    Now, companies can great WatchOS only apps, shouldn’t it be: create WatchOS only apps.

    Coincidentally I raised a question on your AW4 review and if there would be some training load metrics…

    Now, if I could create a WatchOS app, I could take Firstbeat API’s and have the firstbeat metrics integrate on the Apple watch. For a moment disregarding the license cost to Firstbeat, but that would give an app which provides same metrics as Garmin with Firstbeat enabled. Right?

    Anyone doing this already you know off?

  6. David

    it seems like watchOS 6 is a little quieter on the workout updates this year, focusing more on polish, general health updates (including much needed updates in how that data is presented and interpreted) and importantly for the future a way to create stand alone apps (the first step IMHO in making the apple watch a stand alone device that may no longer require an iPhone someday in the future.)

    after many, many years of garmin running watches i switched to the apple watch series 3 then 4 in the last 1.5 years and i haven’t looked back, its really a beautiful product for those of us who look in the mirror and if being honest with ourselves know we don’t have need of the very niche features in a garmin 935.

  7. Jay

    Any hints at updates to the Workout app? Would really like to see more data fields (like running split/lap times), button press for split (vs. double tap), more pages of metrics to scroll through, screen always on (at least in a workout), etc. None of this requires new HW, just enablement via SW.

    • JJS

      Get the workoutdoors app and you have all the features you are asking for.

    • Jay

      Thanks for the suggestion. I do own the Workoutdoors app and it does have almost everything I’m looking for (though I’d prefer a single button to the dual button press it uses to take a split/segment).

      However, while I can see all my results in the native Workoutdoors app, NONE of the lap/split/segment specific data can be exported to an external platform (Apple, Strava, Final Surge, etc.) I reached out to the developer, who stated that this capability is planned for a future release, but as it stands, the app is an island. Wish I knew that before I purchased it.

    • John

      I’ve been waiting for a data fields update for a long time as well. Not sure what Apple has to lose in allowing a little more customization for those who want to dive into a menu and choose it. They already have “segments” built in upon double tap; why can’t segment pace be displayed for intervals? It’s weird.

  8. Michael Prytherch

    I love my watch with cellular, my phone is now firmly left at home when doing a workout, what was missing was streaming, finally at last :).

    I am hoping that they changed the Activity (Workout App) to not always appear when the watch face is activated (no matter what setting you have), when playing golf it is a pain in the backside as I want the golf app to come up, but instead when an activity is running it always shows the activity screen, very annoying.

  9. Charlie Anderson

    Typo?
    “Further, it can incorporate data points from ovulation prediction kids”

    kits – not kids

  10. Jason Henley

    Here’s hoping they will allow a cellular data connectivity to 3rd party’s.

    Would be handy to leave my phone at home when I go for a ride and use my watch to pair up to my Garmin.

  11. Bob

    Any hope they will add more than one page of data in activity mode and maybe support for bluetooth power meters?

  12. okrunner

    Will the new streaming allow Amazon Music, Pandora, etc. to stream directly from the Apple Watch particularly over cellular? Any idea what we are looking at on time frame for this to occur?

    • Eric

      It will. It’s up to Amazon, Pandora, SPOTIFY (sheesh), and others to implement it with the API. So, in other words, as soon as they get on board.

  13. Steve Smales

    Hi,
    Has there been any mention of battery drain for Apple Watch 4 after the latest software update?
    I have a month old watch that’s gone from 24 hrs battery life to 10 overnight!

    • Hmm, I haven’t heard of anything widespread. Any chance an app may be the cause of it?

    • Steve Smales

      Hi, it would seem there is quite a bit across the forums about it. Latest software update to 5.2.1 taking battery life from nearly 48hrs down to ten.
      Local Apple agents here stating only fix is for factory to take watch back to the previous software.

    • Paul S.

      Must be a 4 thing. My 3LTE is the same as always. It’s usually about 75% when I put it on the charging stand at night, and that hasn’t changed with the upgrade. (Well, except yesterday, but that involved misplacing my XS on the Qi stand, a Camelbak with something inside that kept a touchscreen active, an a two hour mountain bike ride. At least I learned the “low battery on phone” prompts on my 830 work. Eventually the AW was on its own.)

      The only problem I had (watch apps not popping up when the corresponding phone app was running) was fixed on the phone side with the latest iOS.

    • Bob

      No issues on my S4LTE or my wife’s S3LTE

    • henau212

      No issues here either for S4LTE

  14. Nic Zuraw

    Shame they look so ugly still. I wish they would move on from the Casio Calculator Watch look!

  15. Pete Lambertz

    Blah, blah, blah, charge the Apple watch everyday or you’ve got nothing, which is why I sold my Apple watch after 2 months and went back to Garmin.

  16. Johann

    Can the HR data of an Apple watch be broadcasted to my Garmin bike GPS?

  17. Kyle Polansky

    I’m interested to see how accurate the SPL (sound pressure level) readings are. Every phone I’ve owned tops out at ~100db, but perhaps the Apple Watch will go higher given the focus on loud environments.

    It would be so convenient having accurate readings on your wrist as opposed to needing a specialized meter.

  18. Marek

    Anyone knows if Apple watch can connect with Concept2 ergs? I’m still not happy about Garmin in that regard. These ergs measure very well power outputs so you should be able to get VO2max, training load etc. But you get nothing … Is it really such a small market? There are so many of these ergs everywhere that I would think that lot of people would benefit from having accurate data from using those machines for training.

  19. David Rodgers

    “Inversely however, their GPS accuracy tends to be the worst in the industry – generally cutting corners and doing other weird track smoothing stuff for no apparent logical reason (except that it looks ‘pretty’, like a Nike swoosh logo).”
    Ray, when you did your mega test of swim GPS last year you said that the Apple Watch swim tracking was ‘phenomenal’, (12 mins 55 sec in the video…)
    Is their smoothing the reason the swim tracking is so good? Have you had any chance to test the Suunto 5 for swimming as yet? Any sign of Fused Track for swimming on the Suunto 9 as yet?
    Still seeking the holy grail of a good open water swim watch….
    Thanks for all your posts – keep it up!

    • Monkswhiskers

      I find the AW (3) really good at ow swimming, However, every now and then it throws a wobbler eg. I had that same issue to Ray in his swim test, just happened once in 10 swims on the same route last summer. More recently after 2 faultless swims on my local measured lake course (and after me singing its praises to the coaches there) it added 300m from nowhere before I had reached the first bouy (100m away from the start). It then seemed to average out the error over 10 laps so it was only out 5% by the end, still not bad. All in all better than a lot of the Strava tracks of various peoples watches that I see swimming the same course.

  20. klauss

    I also watched the Keynote. First I thought, it get finally cycling tracking. But never heard of this data fields… 🤣

  21. Blaine Boxwell

    re: Battery life: restarting watch -or- force closing audio apps (music/podcasts) on iPhone seems to resolve battery discharge on my watch

    re: GPS accuracy: my experience using native Workout or the Zones app is on par with my Garmin 620 (no issues). When using iSmoothRun on the same watch running the same (my usual) route, the GPS results in one particular segment are always inaccurate (I ran around the bay, not through it). I view this as an issue with a satellite as I’ve occasionally experienced an issue in that same location with other devices including Nike+ GPS watch & early iPhone.

  22. Tobias

    Is it possible to follow a preloaded track during a run or cycling activity?

    • Sam Brow

      This is possible with a third party workout app called WorkOutDoors (£5) You can import a GPX route and see it on a map on the watch, it works pretty well

  23. Johan

    Do you know if there is a fix for the bug in Apple Watch OS that makes the watch loose GPS if you bring your iPhone with you and connected. You can set the iPhone to flight-mode, but then you cant us the phone if needed.
    Being able to set the apple watch to real stand alone would fix it, but it would make sense to fix the bug itself. Any rumors about any fix for this?

    • Paul S.

      So far as I know, Apple doesn’t consider that a bug. The Watch is an appendage of the Phone, not an independent device. But there are rumors that the Watch will be set free some day, and the establishment of an app store for AW brings that day closer.

    • Andrei Baban

      what would be the downside of setting the watch in flight mode?

  24. Boris

    Hi,
    Recently noticed GPS misalignment during Tempo training on my AW4, 800m difference on 7.5km rout.
    Tried to verify this and got next:
    I disconnected iphone and the AW by shutting the BT on the phone (red icon of disconnection appeared).
    Started Endomondo app on the phone and Workout app on the AW. Did 4 tempo segments and received this 800m difference.
    Did you familiar with such issue?

    Similar run with Endomondo on both units, gave me good and precise readings.

  25. Eric

    Hey Ray! FINALLY found the info on pricing and third party resellers..”Apple cannot require resellers to raise, lower, or stabilize their retail prices. Resellers are free to determine their own resale prices.” Direct legalese from the source.