What WatchOS 9 says about the future of the Apple Watch

This story is part of WWDC 2022CNET’s full coverage of Apple’s annual developer conference.

What is going on

Apple’s WatchOS 9 update will bring new athletic performance metrics to the Apple Watch, among other significant improvements to health and fitness tracking.

Why it matters

The update could set the stage for the rumored rugged Apple Watch expected to debut this year.

What’s next

Apple will launch WatchOS 9 in the fall, possibly alongside three new Apple Watch models.

While Apple is not expected to Apple Watch Series 8 until the fall, the company gave a glimpse of what the smartwatch lineup has in store during the WatchOS 9 preview on Monday Global Developer Conference root note. One message was clear: the future of the Apple Watch is all about health and fitness.

The update brings more stats for athletic performance tracking (especially for runners), deeper sleep monitoring, and medication logging tools. It’s impossible to know what to expect until Apple announces its next smartwatch (or smartwatches). But WatchOS 9’s focus on athletic training seems to be the basis for the rumored Apple Watch Explorer Edition, which we could see later this year.

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The new software suggests Apple wants its smartwatch to appeal to professional athletes, avid exercisers and those who need to monitor heart health at the same time. The next crop of Apple Watches announced for the fall will likely come with new hardware to better support that vision — hopefully with better battery life, too.

WatchOS 9’s workout features would be great for an Explorer Edition Apple Watch

The Apple Watch Series 7 shows a training screen

The Apple Watch Series 7

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Apple sprinkled with a bunch new training tools and stats in WatchOS 9. These include new running metrics such as stride length and ground contact time, the ability to track heart rate zones, interval training, a multisport workout type for triathlons, and kickboard detection for swimmers. The announcement also comes after Apple made improvements to: the Apple Watch’s bike detection last year.

Only Apple knows what the future holds. But it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that this update is coming, as Apple is expected to launch a rugged Apple Watch designed for extreme sports this fall. Bloomberg reports that an Apple Watch with additional impact resistance similar to Casio’s G-Shock watches could be in the works. The watch is sometimes referred to internally as the Explorer Edition and may have a rubberized casing for added durability, the report said. The device is reportedly being marketed as an alternative option for athletes and hikers to the standard Series 8 and next-generation Apple Watch SE

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The Apple Watch has plenty to offer fitness enthusiasts already, with plenty of workout choices, activity goals and reminders, heart rate alerts, and stats like VO2 max and elevation. But until WatchOS 9 arrives, the Apple Watch won’t have any running-specific features that athletes might find useful. Garmin’s For example, running watches include tools such as training programs for specific types of races, pace guidance, and running stats such as cadence and stride length, among other features that vary by model.

According to Counterpoint Research, the Apple Watch is already the world’s most popular smartwatch with 36.1% of worldwide shipments in the first quarter of 2022. With the new measurements targeting runners coming in WatchOS 9, Apple could tighten its grip on the market. further strengthen by appealing to the more niche competitive sports audience.

Even with the new features in WatchOS 9, the Apple Watch still doesn’t provide as much feedback for runners as some specialty watches. But the new software certainly brings the Apple Watch closer than ever before.

What else can WatchOS 9 tell us about the future of the Apple Watch?

Apple Watch Sleep Tracking

Apple Watch’s new Sleep Stages feature in WatchOS 9

Screenshot/CNET

Apple’s emphasis on fitness was central to the WatchOS 9 announcement. But some other software updates could also point to Apple’s future direction. For example, the company did more to sleep tracking by introducing Sleep Stages, a feature that analyzes the amount of time spent in different stages of sleep. Apple is catching up in this regard; rival fitness trackers from Fitbitoura and Samsung have been supporting this feature for years.

Apple’s expansion in sleep tracking indicates that Apple Watches will be worn more often at night. That leads me to believe that Apple might be planning some sort of improvement in the Apple Watch’s battery life, though there’s no way to know for sure until the company unveils its next watch.

Apple says its smartwatch lasts 18 hours on a single charge, and anecdotally, I usually get about one to two days from it before it needs a power boost. The Apple Watch’s battery life hasn’t changed significantly in years, but Apple got around this by implementing faster charging speeds with the Series 6 and 7.

Apple will likely continue down this road instead of drastically improving the watch’s battery life. But there’s also a chance Apple will introduce a new power-saving mode with more functionality than the watch’s current power reserve feature, Bloomberg says. It was set to launch with WatchOS 9, according to the report, although Apple didn’t mention a new power-saving option at Monday’s event.

Given that battery life is one of the Apple Watch’s persistent critiques — not to mention Bloomberg’s reliable track record — I wouldn’t be surprised if this capability appears in the future. And remember: Apple introduced new WatchOS 8 features for cyclists in addition to the Apple Watch Series 7 during the fall product event in 2021. So there’s a chance Apple will announce more software features later this year.

WatchOS 9 also sends another signal that Apple is expanding its overall health and wellness efforts. A new feature called AFib History gives people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation access to more information about their condition, such as an estimate of how often their heart rhythm shows signs of A-fib. Another highlight in WatchOS 9 is the ability to track prescriptions and receive medication reminders.

These updates indicate that Apple sees its watch as a tool for tracking physical changes over time, which can be shared with doctors. And if Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal reports are correct, Apple will take that idea one step further by adding a temperature sensor to the Series 8.

Many of the Apple Watch’s major turning points have historically been tied to new hardware releases. For example, the Series 3 was the first model to support cellular connectivity, making the Apple Watch feel like a standalone product rather than an iPhone partner. The Series 4 brought ECG monitoring and fall detection, broadening the Apple Watch’s role as a health device.

WatchOS 9 isn’t quite as big a leap forward as those launches. But it will bring functionality that could be crucial in Apple’s mission to make the Apple Watch the ultimate health and fitness device. And that says a lot about Apple’s immediate and long-term plans for the Apple Watch.

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