Apple Watch to get faster, smarter apps with new Watch OS update

So-called native apps will arrive on the Apple Watch, helping the device's third-party software get smarter and faster.

Developers will soon be able to bypass the iPhone and write apps directly to the Apple Watch. James Martin/CNET

Apple is finally showing developers what's under the hood of its Apple Watch.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said that an update to the Apple Watch operating system, dubbed Watch OS, will offer new tools that developers can use to tap into the smartwatch's hardware, including its sensors and heart-rate monitor.

Cook made the announcement Monday at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference before Vice President of Technology Kevin Lynch took the stage to give attendees a hands-on.

Currently, software makers have to augment iPhone software in a way that lets it mirror on the Apple Watch screen, with the iPhone doing much of the heavy lifting. The only apps that have been able to fully utilize the device have been Apple-made apps like Maps and Mail. With these new, so-called native apps, however, third-party developers can create faster and smarter software specifically for the Apple Watch.

"This new version will have great new capabilities and bring native apps right to your wrist," Cook said.

Apple will now let developers access the HealthKit platform for tapping into heart-rate data and other activity sensors; the microphone for voice functions; the digital crown for maneuvering within the software more easily; the so-called "taptic" engine that uses tailored vibrations for notifications, as well as the Force Touch function for pressing harder on the screen to activate an extra input; and the HomeKit platform for communicating with smart-home devices. The update will also bring easier video playback to the Apple Watch, and companies like looping video platform Vine will have apps coming later this year.

Getting more high-quality applications running on the Apple Watch is one of Apple's core goals for the device. The Apple Watch launched in late April with about 3,500 apps. By comparison, Google revealed in late May that developers have created about 4,000 Android Wear apps since releasing the software a year ago.

One shortcoming of the Apple Watch thus far has been its reliance on a user's iPhone. A majority of the Apple Watch's key features -- including texting, app notifications and GPS -- aren't available without a nearby iPhone. The device has also been kept locked down, much as the first iPhone was before Apple let third-party developers create software and sell it on the App Store.

Not only have native apps been off the table thus far, developers have also been restricted from creating new watch faces or helping users apply other cosmetic changes.

The limitations have made most apps, like ride-hailing app Uber and activity-tracking apps like Strava, slower and sometimes harder to use than their iPhone counterparts because the apps can't access key parts of the Apple Watch architecture. That is set to change with the Watch OS update.

"These apps today function by relying on your phone," said Lynch. "With native apps, you can move the logic to the watch so the both the logic and the UI [user interface] are there."

WatchOS will also arrive with a few cosmetic changes. While Apple isn't handing over the reins to independent artists to design watch faces, it is introducing some new ones of its own. Those include a time-lapse face featuring cities like Shanghai and London and a customization option for showing personalized information on the watch face like your photos or upcoming flight and calendar event details.

Apple is also introducing a new feature called Time Travel. With watch faces that display calendar information, the Apple Watch's rotatable crown will let you move forward and back in time to show events and other information coming up soon and those that happened in the past.

See all of today's WWDC news.

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