watchOS 6 and what it means for the future of Apple Watch

Apple Watch App Store
Apple Watch App Store (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Apple has announced their plans for watchOS 6, and here's 5… no, let's make that an even 6, things you need to know about it!

watchOS 6: App Store

Once upon a time, if you wanted an iPhone or iPad, you had to have a Mac or Windows PC to connect with in order to configure, update, and sync. Then came iOS 5, iCloud, PC Free, and if you wanted an iPhone or iPad, that was all you had to get.

Now, today, if you want an Apple Watch you still have to have an iPhone to pair it with in order to better configure, manage, and connect. But, with watchOS 6, we're talking another small step towards iPhone Free with an on-watch App Store.

You no longer have to get apps on your iPhone and transfer them over to your Apple Watch. Developers no longer even have to make iPhone apps just to make an app for your Apple Watch. Now, developers can make apps just for the Watch, and you can launch the App Store right from the carousel, browse and get apps, and download them directly to your wrist.

And, despite the small screen size, it's surprisingly usable. You can browse the curated content or search for anything you want using Siri, dictation, or scribble.

To better take advantage of their new independence, Apple has added new application program interfaces to let apps run for extended periods of time, to stream audio directly, so podcast apps, and other music and audio apps, can play content for you even if you didn't download it first.

To make them even better, Apple has introduced a new interface technology called SwiftUI, which is not only highly efficient, and legible, and offers a Playground-like dynamic development environment, but apps built with it run natively on the watch. Which means RIP WatchKit, the older, more constrained, less performant framework, and hello better, brighter app future.

Rumor also has it SwiftUI was originally built by the watch frameworks lead who then took it back with him when he returned to lead iOS frameworks, and once Craig Federighi, Apple' Senior Vice President of software engineering saw it, he wanted it everywhere.

And now it is.

watchOS 6: New Apps

watchOS 6 brings Apple's calculator app to the Watch, which considering it was available on the iPhone since day one in 2007, deserves and gets a finally. It's pretty bare bones but does have a handy tip calculator function which drew emoji and dark mode level cheers from the WWDC crowd.

It's also written in SwiftUI, which is great, because Apple engineers should always be using their own code and hitting any and all bugs before developers do.

There's no Calculator watch face, though, which is a 1980s nostalgia bummer. And there's also still no Notes app for Watch, which is every kind of bummer. Being able to voice dictate new Notes and quickly reference existing ones right on the wrist just makes the kind of ultra-mobile sense that does.

Voice Memos, which I think launched with iOS 3, is also coming over. Which is great. As is a new Audiobooks app, which is a subset of the fuller Books app on iOS and Mac. You probably don't want to read novels on your wrist, but you probably do want to throw on a set of headphones and keep on listening to them, so this also makes a ton of sense.

But just in case you're listening too loudly, there's a new noise app that doesn't just track headphone volume levels, but samples once a second to track ambient noise levels around you and warn you if they hit levels that could damage your hearing. There's even a new complication that shows you live decibel readings right on your watch face.

Yeah, with watchOS 6, Apple Watch isn't just saving lives, it's saving your ears as well.

It uses the mic on the Watch to detect decibel levels, but as per Apple's Privacy by Design policy, it doesn't record, store, or transmit any audio. If you choose to turn it on, it simply notes the noise level of one sample, then destroys it to go onto the next.

And, yeah, get ready for a lot of kids telling a lot of parents a lot of voices are raised a lot too high.

watchOS 6: Cycle Tracking

My colleague, iMore's own Lory Gil:

The new cycle tracking feature in the Health app allows women to log their cycles. With it, you can predict when your next period will start and you most fertile days. You can log your symptoms daily and view a timeline of your cycle schedule.This information can be shared with your doctor. When you set up the cycle tracking feature, you're asked about your most recent period and your typical monthly cycle and the number of days your period lasts. I use a type of birth control that stops my period completely, so I don't need to track my period. You can just skip to the next step if, like me, you don't need to track your period.You can still use the cycle tracking feature to track your cycle health. You can log additional information, like your symptoms, spotting, cervical mucus quality, sexual activity, and basal body temperature. This is all good information to keep track of, which you can share with your doctor when needed. All the ladies out there will know that, one of the first things your doctor asks you at an appointment is the first date of your last period, which we always have to try to remember (uuuhh … when was that again?). With Cycle tracking, you can just quickly call it up in the Health app.After setting up your cycle tracking in the Health app, you can set you Apple Watch to notify you of your predicted fertility days if you're trying to (or trying not to) have a baby. Apple Watch can also notify you of your next predicted period days. And these are discreet notifications. You won't get a big announcement on your watch saying, "Hey, you're about to start your period!"Apple makes a point to keep this information on-device, too. Your period schedule or whether or not you're tracking your fertility days will not leave your iPhone or Apple Watch and not be shared with other companies or advertising agencies that will then try to sell you baby clothes because they know you're trying to get pregnant (creepy).

watchOS 6: Watch Faces

With watchOS 6, Apple is introducing more new watch faces than they have since… the original watch.

There's Modular Compact which tries to give you the best of both Infograph worlds, and a new monochrome style for the existing Infograph face. There's the new gradient face, a version of which was previously exclusive to the Hermes watch. There's large numerals, which has analog hands but fills the display with a large digital hour in a variety of languages. The highly accessible and legible modern digital with its four numbers in four quadrants. California, which gives an Hermes-style display-filling analog face to every watch. And the new analog solar, which visualizes the sun's path from day to night.

It also brings back Time Travel, which lets you look backwards and forwards at state and data, and I'm still all shades of salty Apple took away. I really, really want to be able to spin back and forth through my big center calendar complication on Infographic.

You'll be able to re-order watch faces directly on your watch and, for many of the faces, if you don't want or need them filling the full rounded rectangle, you can switch them to a merely focus-filling center circle, and that opens up room for super complications in all four corners of the periphery. Including new ones like wind, and rain, decibel level, audiobooks, voice memos, and cellular connectivity.

To help with non-visual timekeeping, you'll be able to set your Watch to tap you every hour on the hour, and chime out loud if sound is on. Like bird chime. A robin. Seriously. Let's see how many noise alerts that sets off.

For half a decade, Activity Rings on Apple Watch have encouraged us to get up, get moving, and get some exercise in. But, achievement awards aside, mostly just one day at a time. Now, with watchOS 6, Apple is adding Activity Trends.

It compares 9 key metrics from the last 90 days to your performance over the last 365 days. They include exercise minutes per day, stand hours per day, stand minutes per day, distance per day, cardio levels, move calories per day, walking pace, flights of stairs climbed per day.

You can see detailed reports, including graphs, in the Activity app for iPhone. So, yeah, there are still dependencies aplenty, but the bigger screen does allow for far better, more visual representations of the data. And makes me want an iPad version real bad.

If you're trending up, the arrow points up and the caption is full of cheer and positive re-enforcement. If you're trending down, the arrow points down, and you get coaching tips to help turn that directional frown un-upside-down.

The Health app on iPhone has also been redesigned and now includes a Summary section, Favorites, so the data that's most important to you is always available and glance-able, and Highlights, which shows you what the system's machine learning thinks you need to see at any given time.

6. watchOS 6: Siri & Voice

In watchOS 6, Siri can Shazam, even over LTE. No, not turn into Captain Marvel. No, not that Captain Marvel, the big red cheese one, but the Shazam service that can identify songs for you on the go.

Siri can also speak directions in Maps, if you want it to, and show you web search results. Those are clever. Siri brings up a web view but instead of showing the actual page, it shows you the stripped down Reader view, which makes it so much more readable and usable on the small Apple Watch display.

Siri can also Find Friends in watchOS 6, offer dynamic smart replies, and put even more relevant Shortcuts into the Siri watch face.

watchOS 6: Coming Soon

watchOS 6 is coming to Apple Watch Series 1 and later this fall, and if past is any prologue, there'll probably be some additional new features for this years new versions of the Watch coming with it.

There's no watchOS 6 public beta, alas, because the Watch doesn't have a user-accessible Lightning port, which means if anything goes wrong and you need to do a hardwire restore, you need to go to Apple to do it. There is a developer beta but, seriously, if you're not making apps and you need your watch as, you know, a watch, stay clear.

I'm working on an in-depth preview for you, though, and I'll have a full review ready as soon as it ships, so hit like, hit subscribe, and then hit up the comments below and let me know what you think of watchOS 6 — what are you glad we got and what are you still missing?

Thank you so much for watching and see you next video!

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.