The Apple Watch is getting a software upgrade. Today at WWDC, Apple has announced the next version of the Watch's OS, henceforth known as watchOS. It's the first major update to Apple Watch — a moment big enough that Tim Cook himself is announcing it himself at WWDC... before handing it off to Kevin Lynch for the nitty gritty details. The flagship feature? Native Apple Watch apps — but there's a lot more, too.
The developer beta is available today, and wide release is coming this fall. Yes, for free.
Apple's watchOS 2, as Lynch is calling it, adds a ton of small features in addition to native support. We're just going to list them for now:
- "New" watch faces (thank God), including Photo Album face and Time-Lapse face, a 24-hour time lapse of iconic locales shot at different places and keyed to your local time. (These watch faces were originally shown in September, as noted by Daring Fireball, but were missing at Apple Watch's launch.)
- Additionally, app developers can now make their own Complications, the unfortunately-named term for the customization options on watch faces. You can scroll forward in time via the digital crown and see things like upcoming events and temperatures. It's called... Time Travel.
- Since you're charging your Watch at night anyway, there's now a nightstand mode, which shows charge, time, and alarm. It activates when you place it on its side while charging.
- You can now use multiple colors in Digital Touch drawings (presumably if you're fast enough to make the switch before the first lines start fading into oblivion).
- Multiple screens for friends — and adding new people via your Apple Watch (instead of having to go into the iPhone Apple Watch app).
- FaceTime Audio
- Replying to email from your watch
- Fitness app can now run natively. Siri can start / stop workouts. There are new achievements, too, in case you're some kind of athletic beast that's collected them all already.
- Apple Pay will support store and loyalty cards, just like the new iOS 9.
- Maps on the Watch just got way more useful. It now supports transit directions, and Siri can get you mass transit directions.
- Speaking of Siri, it can now show you glances — "Hey Siri, show me the Instagram glances" — apparently even if it's not installed.
- Custom watch faces! The WWDC crowd is applauding for wallpaper. This is the future.
The big change — or at least, the one with the most potential to change Apple Watch's use — is native apps. Apple says there are already "thousands of apps" that are Watch compatible (which represents just a small number of the App Store's current catalog). With the new SDK, developers will be able to access a number of Watch functions. Again with the list:
- Hardware access to microphone, speaker (quick jams in a pinch), accelerometer, and the digital crown. You can also play short video.
- HealthKit. Fitness app developers take note, you can now grab real-time heart rate.
That's a lot of progress for the Apple Watch, but the real test for the hardware will be how developers now use the capabilities. While Apple has the best smartphone ecosystem, the Watch apps have so far been fairly limited. That's at least somewhat by design; the original developer kit basically required a connected iPhone to do the bulk of the work. Apple has been promising native apps for the fall, and the new SDK and OS is how that happens.