There was a prevailing theme during the announcement of watchOS 3 during the WWDC 2016 keynote: speed.

The Apple Watch is useful. It is attractive. It is comfortable, and accurate. But it is not fast. Even after watchOS 2 was released last fall, with the promise of native apps, it was still not fast. And that release did nothing to assuage the critics of the Watch's interface, which was both clumsy and multifarious.

With watchOS 3, Apple addresses all of these problems. Apps load seven times faster, and are stored in memory for longer so they are easier to recall. The side button is now put to good use — so long, quick Digital Touch — with a new dock that mimics the iOS multitasking pane on the iPhone and iPad. And there are background tasks that allow apps to update before they're opened — with an indeterminate effect on battery life — so developers don't have to front-load all of their most important content.

These are all innovations on a product that is approaching its second birthday, announced at the iPhone 6 launch in September, 2014. A product criticized for its underpowered hardware and lack of GPU efficacy. Such is the virtue of time, which has given Apple a modicum of breathing room to take a step back and think about not just how the Apple Watch should function, but how its feature set should be optimized for the existing hardware, and not deferred until the next iteration.

Some of features in watchOS 3 are merely common sense: Using the curved edge of the display to quickly change watch faces over the awkward Force Touch gesture will be far more intuitive to the average user. A social element to the Activity app (which now has its own watch face) lets wearers challenge their friends. And the Workout app now pauses when you do, so you're not penalized for the stop-start runs familiar to city-dwellers.

Some people will dismiss the changes as insufficient

Some people will dismiss the changes as insufficient, since Apple didn't announce, at the very least, a watch face SDK or, at most, a complete reinvention of the Watch's core purpose, which is still to be a companion to the iPhone. The next Watch will certainly be faster, slimmer and more connected, but here we are, nearly two years later, and Apple can rightfully say it has given new life to its newest product — a prospect made even more difficult by having to work within existing hardware constraints.

We've seen this before. Pebble famously kept its original smartwatch updated for years after its release, working within the confines of its severely underpowered hardware. All but a few Android Wear watches have received every update since the platform's 2014 inception, though it remains to be seen if the same percentage will get its impending redesign. Most wearables like the Apple Watch still largely rely on the phones or hubs they tether to for primary computing, so speed improvements are often a matter of finesse than clock cycles.

watchOS 3 will ensure the next-gen Apple Watch will be in good standing both with prospective buyers and skeptical developers.

Still, it's unlikely the first generation Apple Watch will be magically transformed into a performant, lag-free product with watchOS 3. The big changes to the platform are more fundamental: The addition of a dock, which reduces the reliance on the app constellation, which has proven less than useful for app discovery. The dock also consolidates often-used apps with the little-used Glances feature, replaced by a new Control Center. These improvements also manage to standardize with the iPhone a number of familiar user experiences, which will further make the Apple Watch more understandable for new users.

These foundational improvements will be great for the Apple Watch when the software is made public in the fall. But it will do more to establish that the next version of the product will be in good standing both with prospective buyers and skeptical developers.

WWDC 2019


WWDC 2018