WWDC Preview Part 2: Is the Apple Watch About to Reach Full Devicehood?

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Picking up from Part 1 of my WWDC Preview, let’s take a look at the Apple Watch. The Watch and watchOS have grown up quite a bit since their release in 2015. Four years have brought much more speed and stability, a better app experience, a smart focus on health and wellness features and even LTE and the ability to use an independent data connection.

However, while the Apple Watch Series 4 is a maturing device, it still reminds me of the iPad 2. That device represented a maturing of Apple’s tablet into something that could do much more. However, the device wasn’t capable of anything right out of the box. Like the earlier iPhones, the iPad 2 still required a connection to iTunes to set the device up. Rather than being an independent computing device, it was still somewhat of a large Apple accessory.

The Watch is currently in that same boat. Forget the issue of full cross-platform compatibility, as that is unlikely to ever happen. Even with that off the table, the Apple Watch still requires a one-to-one relationship with an iPhone to work at all. Getting an LTE Apple Watch doesn’t get you around this right now. It only buys you a small and very conditional amount of independence from your phone. The iPhone is still a very necessary part of the equation, making the Watch an expensive accessory for it.

With the Watch not only developing quickly but also selling very quickly, it may be time for Apple to take the next logical step in the evolution of the device: full independence. I don’t think this is just a logical step, but a necessary one in the long run. Just as sales of the iPhone are leveling off, the Apple Watch is finding another gear and putting Apple at the head of the wearables pack. Rather than keeping the device subservient to the iPhone, this may be the time to for Apple to set it free. The Apple Watch and other wearables that follow may be able to fuel Apple’s ecosystem going forward with the same kind of “halo effect” that the iPhone provided them for many years.

So what will this require? First, the device would have to be capable of being set up independently of another Apple device. The most likely scenario would be to still allow setup with an iPhone, but to also allow it to be done via the Watch using iCloud. It might not be as easy, but it will open up the Watch to non-Apple users. This, in turn, will likely bring some of those users over to the iPhone and other Apple devices.

To be honest, I don’t see that step coming tomorrow. Since not all Watches have LTE, Apple would also have to open up control of WiFi connections. This would allow users who don’t have cellular to get a Watch on the Internet for setup. Neither this or independent setup have been rumored at all, so maybe next year.

However, another key element of Apple Watch independence is likely coming tomorrow: a dedicated App Store that is accessible from the Watch. This should increase interest in using apps on the Watch, even if just a little. Right now, a user has to go to the Watch app on their iPhone to search for and install apps on the device, which can be cumbersome. It’s also very easy to forget about. Having the ability to discover and download apps right from the Watch should get more people at least paying attention to them. Hopefully, this in turn will fuel more interest from developers in making apps that are useful on the small screen. It wouldn’t hurt for Apple to follow the advice of many devs and also increase the capabilities of WatchKit to help them.

Another necessary step I would like to see along with the App Store is the ability for the Watch to make more use of its LTE capability. If there is going to be an App Store, then the Watch also needs the ability to download apps below a certain size if there isn’t an iPhone present. Along the same lines of increasing the value and capability of apps on the Watch, it would be nice if we could choose to enable apps to update and work using LTE if the the Bluetooth connection to the iPhone isn’t sufficient. I know this will have an impact on battery life, but I for one would like the option to trade some battery life for a more self-sufficient device. I make it through most days with 50-60% left, so I have enough to make this viable.

As laid out above, the pace of development in watchOS has been really fast over its first four years. I don’t expect that to change tomorrow. Even though Apple is currently sitting atop the wearables market, competitors like Huawei and Samsung are still putting out products and are still growing themselves. Apple can’t afford to sit back and take it easy, especially with potentially bigger projects like AR Glasses coming in the not-too-distant future.

With that in mind, expect plenty of new additions to watchOS in the coming year. There will be new apps and almost certainly new health and fitness-related features unveiled tomorrow. However, it is the increase of freedom and platform-independence that I will be paying special attention to.

James Rogers

I am a Christian husband and father of 3 living in the Southeastern US. I have worked as a programmer and project manager in the Commercial and Industrial Automation industry for over 19 years, so I am hands on with technology almost every day. However, my passion in technology is for mobile devices, specifically Apple's iOS and iPadOS hardware and software. My favorite is still the iPad.

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