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Commentary Wearable Tech

Apple Watch is about to get a lot better, but WatchOS 5 is still missing 2 big features

Commentary: Apple Watch gets a cool Walkie-Talkie app -- but why no watch face store?

Apple

Apple's 2018 WWDC keynote was about software, not hardware. And yes, there was a lot of news on iOS 12. But there was also a rundown on WatchOS 5, Apple's newest software update for Apple Watches. And like iOS 12, it was about small refinements, not earth-shaking changes. And no, Apple did not enable third-party watch faces for Apple Watch, as I'd hoped.

The new software, which should hit around the same time as iOS 12 -- likely in September, alongside rumored redesigned Apple Watch "Series 4" models -- will be available as a free upgrade to the Apple Watch (2017), Apple Watch Series 2 (2016) and Apple Watch Series 1 (2017). Owners of the 2015 original Apple Watch are out of luck -- even if they paid $10,000 or more.

But there are some changes that could be really helpful for Apple Watch wearers.  These seem like the best.

Apple Watch as walkie-talkie: Better than phone calls?

Possibly the flashiest WatchOS 5 feature is the new Walkie-Talkie app. After getting a chance to understand how it works at Apple's WWDC conference, it seems like a tool that could be equally good at home as on the go.

Tapping the top of the Apple Watch, suddenly it turns into a walkie-talkie. It sounds like the instant-communication wristwatch future that wearables were supposed to bring in the first place.

Apple

If someone is invited to connect, a yellow dot appears at the top of the Apple Watch display. Tap it, and the push-to-talk mode begins. Messages can be sent nearly instantly, and play back like an intercom. It feels more immediate than a phone call. It works using FaceTime Audio, according to Apple, but creating a short message instead of a continuous call. And it works over Wi-Fi, via cellular-connected watches or via Bluetooth on watches paired with a phone.

Haptic guidance: The Pace alert taps you, automatic workouts buzz you

The Apple Watch already uses subtle left- and right-turn tap patterns to guide you with walking or driving directions. And with WatchOS 5, Apple expands the use of nuanced vibrating haptics with the new Pace Alert feature. It works similarly for runners, tapping a unique pattern when runs are either above or below a goal pace. That sounds like a perfect use of a subtle alert that doesn't require looking at the watch.

Automatic workout detections, for up to eight different major exercise types, will use haptics too: Apple promises a strong buzz, something akin to a wrist-grab, to ask if a workout should be retroactively recorded.

Background audio means a lot more music and podcasts on the go

apple-watchos-5-podcasts-screen-06042018
Apple

Apple's making its own Podcasts app for WatchOS 5, adding much-overdue podcast functions to the watch. Apple's Podcasts app will also stream over Wi-Fi or cellular. But WatchOS 5 also does background audio for apps, which should work with anything from podcast apps like Overcast to Pandora, Spotify and others. But there's a catch: Those third-party apps can't stream. They'll only be able to transfer files and play them on the watch. It's still great news for the watch's evolution to an iPod-style standalone accessory, though.

Apple's new Do Not Disturb controls come to the watch

It wasn't mentioned much in Apple's keynote, but WatchOS 5 will allow notifications to be turned off for periods of time, or set to locations. It may seem like being always hooked in to a watch is a complete counterpoint to Apple's talk of reducing device addiction, but Do Not Disturb's finer controls could help the watch be less... well, pingy.

Siri Shortcuts are not the same as what the Siri watch face does

The third-party apps that gain Siri Shortcut invocations in iOS 12 will also work on Apple Watch, but it gets tricky. The app has to be installed on the watch, or your phone needs to be on somewhere to bridge the function via Wi-Fi/cellular. And the Siri watch face, which tries to surface lots of everyday habits and info in a long list of cards, doesn't use those shortcuts at all. Instead -- once WatchOS 5 hits -- it will generate its own suggestions and add third-party apps that can live in it, too. That could be a lot of stuff flying into a single watch face, but there are settings to turn off particular feeds from apps. Like everything else about Siri Shortcuts, it sounds promising, but possibly a bit overwhelming for an average user.

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Why no watch face store, or sleep tracking?

Those items above are just some of the new features coming to Apple Watch with WatchOS 5. There are other niceties, too, like Siri being activated simply from a wrist snap -- no more "Hey, Siri" needed. But I'm still stinging from what we didn't see in San Jose.

Over three years into the Apple Watch's existence, and there still isn't a way to get watch faces from third parties onboard. It's something I thought would happen. It didn't; all we got was the ability to add third-party app support to the Siri watch face (as mentioned above), and a single new official face to celebrate Pride month. Nice, but give me more.  

The dearth of custom watch faces is even odder in light of the already impressive Memoji announcement at WWDC. It's great that you can customize fun avatars of yourself for messaging -- why can't we do a version of the same thing with our watches?

And, despite Apple buying sleep-tracking company Beddit last year, sleep tracking is not an embedded feature of WatchOS 5. There are third-party apps that do some watch sleep tracking, but nothing that runs through WatchOS. Again, maybe a new Apple Watch could ring in that feature, if battery life were also improved.

Ultimately, WatchOS 5 has some clearly useful updates, but it's not the major leap forward that I thought might happen three years in. Maybe Apple's waiting for the fall, keeping a few features under wraps to announce alongside that presumed Apple Watch Series 4.

I hope so. Because in the meantime, I'm having a lot of fun playing with custom watch faces on the Fitbit Versa.

iOS 12: Siri shortcuts, group FaceTime and "Memoji" -- Animoji of you

WWDC 2018: Everything Apple just announced