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watchOS 4 Focuses on Fun and Fundamentals

watchOS is in its infancy compared to Apple’s more mature operating systems, which gives Apple more leeway to change even core behavior. At its Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, Apple announced a bunch of new features for watchOS 4, due this fall and slated to run on all models of the Apple Watch.

While none appeared revolutionary, the changes should nudge the Apple Watch forward in substantive and useful ways. These refinements include improvements to the Apple Watch as an information console, fitness tracker, music player, and payment maker. Plus, the Apple Watch will be more fun to wear and show off thanks to new faces and bands.

Information Flow — One knock against the Apple Watch is its awkwardness in delivering information users need in ways that are simple and convenient.

Apple is taking another swing at this issue with the new Siri watch face, which blends the company’s intelligent assistant with its highly customizable watch interface.

With the raise of your wrist, you’ll be fed information that is relevant based on time of day, regular activities, and data generated by the watch’s various apps, such as Activity, Alarms, Calendar, Maps, Reminders, and Wallet.

Similarly, the Apple Watch will regularly display news headlines from Apple News with an emphasis on your interests. You’ll able to tap any story for a summary, or to save the full article for later iPhone reading.

This approach bears a striking resemblance to Google Now, which feeds a similar information stream to iPhone and Android smartphone owners, as well as Android Wear smartwatch users. If the Siri watch face proves at least somewhat comparable to Google Now in how it unearths relevant, actionable information, Apple Watch users are in for a pleasant surprise.

Music Machine — As a music-control device, the Apple Watch has mostly been an awkward remote control for an iPhone. With watchOS 4, Apple is hoping to improve the experience a bit.

An updated Music app on the Apple Watch will sync over from the iPhone your most-listened music. If you subscribe to Apple Music, you’ll also get your My Chill Mix, My New Music Mix, and My Favorites Mix. Apple hopes this will make it easier for Apple Watch owners to leave their iPhones behind — as when working out — and rely directly on AirPods for listening to music.

Intelligent Coach — Fitness tracking may be the Apple Watch’s most popular feature, so it made sense for Apple to give its watchOS Activity app serious attention.

For instance, Apple wants to help you fill your activity rings with more consistency. To do this, it will now send morning notifications to suggest how you can match the previous day’s activity levels, or pull off particular Achievements.

It will nudge you again in the evening as a reminder to close your circles, if you are tantalizingly close to doing so. You will receive monthly challenges that are unique to your exercise circumstances, as well. You’ll even be rewarded with the digital equivalent of pinwheel fireworks when you nail your fitness goals.

The Workout app got some attention, too, and may be more interesting to athletes than in the past. Updates include an option for pool athletes to track sets and rests, pace for each set, and distance for each stroke type.

Apple also has added motion and heart-rate algorithms for those engaged in High Intensity Interval Training workouts.

Similarly, those doing back-to-back workouts or training for triathlons can easily switch from one workout type to another, and then combine that data into one session to better analyze calorie and time measurements.

Workouts users also can designate a favorite workout type and later access it with just a tap. There’s a Do Not Disturb option for distraction-free workouts, too.

Gym-equipment manufacturers are joining the Apple Watch party, as well. At properly equipped health clubs, Apple Watch users will be able to pair their watches to treadmills, ellipticals, indoor bikes, or stair steppers from vendors such as Cybex, Life Fitness, Matrix, Schwinn, StairMaster, Star Trac, and TechnoGym.

The point of this exercise: gym-equipment and Apple Watch workout data like calories, distance, speed, incline, pace, and floors climbed will be kept in sync. Apple claims that 80 percent of gym equipment already supports this capability, although we suspect that’s overly optimistic given the cost of replacing gym machines.

Person-to-Person Payments — The Apple Watch has long served as means for making purchases at brick-and-mortar retail outlets via touch-to-pay terminals that support Apple Pay.

Now Apple is offering more Apple Pay options, including person-to-person payments within Messages or using Siri. If you get paid in this fashion, you can see that money added to your new Apple Pay Cash account. You can then use that moolah for Apple Pay retail purchases and person-to-person payments, or transfer it to a bank account.

Person-to-person payments will be available only in the United States, at first, and will work on iOS devices as old as the iPad Air 2 and the iPad mini 3.

More Faces, New Bands — In addition to the highly utilitarian Siri face, Apple is providing more whimsical faces. Pixar characters Woody, Jessie, and Buzz Lightyear are joining veteran Mickey Mouse and recent arrival Minnie Mouse.

A different watch face dubbed Kaleidoscope is exactly that – an endless series of static images transformed into mesmerizing patterns.

Lovers of complications get some goodies, as well. New options include Now Playing and Apple News.

Apple also (big surprise) has a batch of new bands. These include Sports Bands in new colors, a bright yellow Classic Buckle, and Nike Sport Band options that color-coordinate with the company’s athletic footwear. And, “as a celebration of diversity and inclusion,” Apple is now making publicly available a rainbow-colored Pride Edition Woven Nylon band that used to be an option only for Apple employees.

The bands are available in Apple’s online store now, and in brick-and-mortar outlets by next week.

Core Bluetooth — Last, but certainly not uninteresting, was Apple’s announcement that watchOS 4 would support Core Bluetooth. That means that you’ll be able to connect more Bluetooth devices directly to the Apple Watch without having to go through the iPhone.

Apple suggested that this might be useful for continuous glucose monitoring, analyzing your tennis swing via a sensor on a tennis racket, or recording wave height and calorie burn via a sensor on your surfboard. Yeah, I don’t have a sensor-enabled surfboard either.

Incremental but Solid — The announced updates to watchOS 4 are only half of the story. New Apple Watch models, possibly due within just a few months, could prove more dramatic than this week’s incremental announcements. Even so, Apple Watch users wanting evidence that their beloved gizmos will see regular improvement via software updates have reason to cheer.

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