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Apple’s watchOS 2 to Gain Native Apps, Third-Party Complications

After Tim Cook told developers at WWDC that the Apple Watch was their “next opportunity to change the world,” he introduced Kevin Lynch, Apple Vice President of Technology, to describe the features slated to appear in watchOS 2, the upcoming version of the wearable’s operating system. The most significant addition, for both developers and users, is support for native Apple Watch apps, though a raft of other new features should have customers raising their wrists more often.

Native Apps — First, the geeky stuff. Third-party apps on the current Apple Watch are slow to launch, due to constraints in the current version of WatchKit, the set of libraries that Apple Watch developers have had access to so far. As we described in “First Apple Watch Apps Will Only Skim the Surface,” 20 November 2014, the first iteration of WatchKit divided a watch app in two: the code for an app’s user interface resided on the watch, but all the logic and processing took place on the paired iPhone. This back-and-forth communication takes time: time for the watch to send a data request, time for the iPhone to
process the request, time to send results back to the watch, and time for the watch to display those results.

With the forthcoming version of WatchKit, developers will be able to incorporate program logic into the app that runs on the watch, leading to apps that perform much faster and that have many more capabilities.

We wonder what impact native apps will have on the Apple Watch’s battery life, but we’re eager to find out because among the new options available to app developers are direct access to the Digital Crown, the accelerometer, the Taptic Engine, the heart rate sensor, the watch speaker, and the device’s microphone. Watch apps will also be able to play short videos, work with HomeKit to control household devices, and access HealthKit information (so, for example, exercise apps can access past readings).

What’s more, watchOS 2 also provides a way for third party developers to develop additional complications for watch faces so that, for example, a travel app could put flight times or electric car charging progress right on the watch face.

New Standard Features — The new features that come standard with watchOS 2 are many and varied.

As a smart timepiece, the Apple Watch will become even smarter, with the Digital Crown able to scroll through information shown on the watch face through a feature Apple has dubbed Time Travel. For example, if you have set up a watch face with complications to show calendar entries or world time, you can turn the Digital Crown to scroll forward in time, updating the information in those complications, much like the Digital Crown now works with the current Solar face to move the sun icon across the sky.

Speaking of faces, watchOS 2 provides several new ones to adorn your wrist. Photos allows you to select and crop one of your own photos to serve as the background for a watch face — or you can select a Photo Album face to display different random photos as face backgrounds. watchOS 2 also adds a Time-Lapse face which displays time-lapse videos from various locations around the world as backdrops, such as London (see Big Ben!) or Mack Lake (watch the moving clouds reflected in the water!).

If you are like me and charge your Apple Watch beside your bed at night, there’s the new Nightstand mode, which kicks in when you attach Apple Watch to its charger. In this mode, the face lights up to show the time whenever you touch the watch face or the Digital Crown, and you can press the side button to turn off an alarm or the Digital Crown to snooze the alarm. The Nightstand face is rotated 90 degrees from the normal watch face orientation, so your Apple Watch can be read easily when it’s lying on its side (and just when I finally worked out how to balance my Apple Watch on its strap while it’s charging so I can read the time).

Enhanced Features — Existing Apple Watch features become more powerful in watchOS 2. Take your circle of friends: Apple Watch now allows you to go beyond the limit of twelve contacts available when you press the side button by providing additional screens of contacts that you can swipe through. Furthermore, you no longer need to visit the Watch app on your iPhone to add contacts: you can add them right on the watch itself.

Other communication enhancements include the capability to answer email on your watch (thanks to Siri dictation), use multiple colors in a drawing you make on a watch (a feature I rarely use because I have so few Apple Watch-owning friends to whom I can send my cheesy doodles), and make calls using FaceTime Audio in addition to normal mobile phone calls. This last addition is also aided by the enhanced capability of watchOS 2 to connect directly to any known Wi-Fi network it detects.

Siri, already an essential interface component of watchOS, becomes even more important in version 2. Siri will now be able to do things like start workouts, control HomeKit devices, and show glances — even glances from apps on your watch that you haven’t yet enabled. Siri can also look words up in the dictionary for you, and calculate tips.

Maps has become more powerful as well, with a new feature called Transit that helps calculate the best route to a given location, and, in certain cities at least (though not yet in the greater Los Angeles area where I live), it can provide accurate bus and subway schedules — as well as provide walking directions to and from a transit stop.

The app formerly known as Passbook (it becomes Wallet in the next version of iOS) now provides support for vendor reward cards as well as credit cards, and store credit cards have been added to the bank credit cards currently managed by Apple Watch.

And, if you are worried about all the new information stored in your Wallet, be comforted in the knowledge that watchOS 2 provides an Activation Lock feature that protects your data should your watch be lost or stolen.

When and How Much — If you are an Apple developer, you can get watchOS 2 today; otherwise you will have to wait until “this fall” to update your Apple Watch with this new operating system (of course, many Apple Watch owners are already used to waiting, given the slow rollout of devices to customers following its debut). As to exactly when the update will happen, it seems likely that Apple will lump it into a big release with iOS 9.

As with all of Apple’s recent operating system updates, watchOS 2 will be free, since the company is making its money when you buy the hardware.

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