The Apple Watch is getting a much-needed update, one that promises to jumpstart the process of turning its array of apps — which are fun, but less useful than would be ideal — into more powerful, useful tools. At its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple demonstrated watchOS 2, the first major software update for the Apple Watch.
As Apple’s press release notes, watchOS 2 enables developers to build apps that run natively on the Apple Watch; tap into the Digital Crown, Taptic Engine, and heart rate sensor; and use new software APIs to build more capable apps. The update will be available to Apple Watch owners in the fall, and will also bring new watch faces, watch face complications that incorporate third-party information, and new capabilities for Mail, Friends, and Digital Touch.
watchOS 2 will be available in the fall as an update for the Apple Watch, and the iOS 9 SDK beta — which includes WatchKit for watchOS 2 — is already available to developers. Here are a few of the ways that the update is changing Apple Watch for the better.
1. Developers can build more powerful apps. . .
Developers have already created thousands of apps for Apple Watch, but watchOS 2 gives app makers access to the Digital Crown, Taptic Engine, heart rate sensor, accelerometer, and microphone. New software APIs enable them to use audio and video playback and animation. And most importantly, the apps that they build for Apple Watch can now run natively on the watch itself, instead of on the companion iPhone. That opens the door to robust third-party apps that can offer a huge array of new experiences to Apple Watch users. It could also help the Apple Watch find its killer app — the thus-far elusive app so useful and innovative that it convinces people they just have to own the wearable.
2. . . . and contribute to smarter watch faces
The ClockKit framework enables developers to represent their apps’ data as complications on the watch face. Complications put small but useful pieces of information on the watch screen that users see the most, and app users will be able to choose what third-party app information they’d like to see on the watch face.
And, speaking of watch faces, Apple Watch users will be able to turn their favorite photos into watch faces. Alternately, the new Photo and Photo Album watch faces will enable them to view photos from their favorite photo albums each time they raise their wrists. With the Time-Lapse face, users can choose from a selection of time-lapse videos that were shot over 24 hours in locations like New York City, London, and Shanghai.
3. Apple Watch can start a phone call or send a text
TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington reports that third-party apps on the Apple Watch are gaining the ability to directly dial phone numbers and to send text messages. That means that users will be able to call a restaurant found on Yelp to ask about menu options, or share interesting content from a media app with a friend, all without having to take out an iPhone to complete the task.
4. Users get more flexible ways to communicate
In addition to adding the ability to start a call or send a text from the Apple Watch, Apple’s watchOS 2 adds some other improvements to communication features across the Apple Watch. In the Mail app, users can respond using dictation, Smart Replies, or emoji. They can also create multiple Friends screens, each of which can hold 12 friends, instead of being limited to a single screen, and new friends can be added from the Apple Watch instead of on the paired iPhone. Digital Touch is also being updated, so that users can draw and send sketches using multiple colors.
Users will be able to reply to notifications from third-party apps in the same way they can reply to text messages with watchOS 1, and developers will be able to choose the preset responses on an app-by-app basis. Apps will also likely enable users to tweak the responses, so that they’ll have more flexibility in how they communicate across their favorite apps.
5. Apple Watch can record audio and play video
The watchOS 2 update will enable users to record audio right from their wrists using the wearable’s built-in microphone. They can then use the audio that they record in messages or notes. While the feature should enable users to complete standard tasks like dictating notes to Evernote, and Etherington reports that it could also lead to unique features, like recording a simultaneous voiceover while shooting a video with an iPhone (most likely while using a tripod).
Apple Watch apps can now play short video clips, which will enable users to watch short clips on breaking news, for instance, as they often do on platforms like Twitter. Vine is the first official user of the new feature, as demonstrated during the WWDC keynote, and many media companies are likely to experiment with the feature in their apps given the broad demand for video content.
6. iOS apps get upgraded on Apple Watch, too
Apple Watch also benefits from some improvements to iOS apps. Apple Pay updates add the ability to use retailers’ loyalty programs and store-branded credit cards. And Maps adds support for Transit, and enables users to view detailed public transportation maps and schedules, and to get walking directions to the nearest stations, with the entrances and exits also mapped. Transit information in Maps will be available in many major cities in the fall, including Baltimore, Berlin, Chicago, London, Mexico City, New York City, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area, Toronto, and Washington D.C., and more than 300 cities in China, including Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai.
7. A variety of small improvements rounds out the update
The new Time Travel feature enables users to scroll with the Digital Crown to explore events in the future and the past, including upcoming meetings or activities, the weather forecast for the next week, or information from third-party apps.
Siri gains new capabilities, and can start specific workouts, launch certain Glances, and reply to incoming email messages. Workouts from third-party fitness apps can contribute to users’ daily Move and Exercise goals. A new Nightstand Mode turns the Apple Watch into a bedside alarm clock, and the Digital Crown and side button serve as snooze and off buttons for the alarm. And the Activation Lock feature enables users to secure their Apple Watch with their Apple ID, which would prevent another user from wiping or activating the device if it’s lost or stolen.