Get ready for Apple Watch 2.0

Commentary: Apple's new smartwatch is just a few months old, but it's already getting some major new changes thanks to Watch OS 2, coming later this year.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
5 min read

James Martin/CNET

Apple has recognized that the Apple Watch needs improvements. And it's not sitting still.

Today's opening keynote at the company's annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) included the usual laundry list of updates for its stable of computer and mobile operating systems ( Mac OS X El Capitan , iOS 9 ) and the launch of the a rebranded, overhauled music streaming service ( Apple Music ). But a significant chunk of time during the event was also devoted to outlining some significant improvements to Apple's newest hardware platform, the Apple Watch.

In fact, Apple officially christened the upcoming software update for its wearable as Watch OS, effectively elevating it to a platform on par with Macs and iOS devices (iPhones and iPads). Crucially, the new OS will allow for truly native third-party Watch apps -- and it's coming this fall.

The upgrade amounts to what could be a pretty significant revamp of Apple's weeks-old smart watch. In fact, in some ways, the Apple Watch software overhaul may be so much of an improvement that it may well end up feeling like the early arrival of the Apple Watch 2.

Here's why.

New features coming to Apple Watch

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Native apps: A whole new ballgame

Sitting atop the Apple Watch's list of annoyances and shortcomings was the slow response time of the vast majority of its apps.

Right now, you can't run third-party (non-Apple) Watch apps without an iPhone nearby. Current apps, thousands though there may be, are really extensions of phone apps. Moreover, they have no access to most of the Apple Watch's most important hardware features -- third-party apps currently can't access the on-board health sensors, for instance.

But that's all about to change. The new software development kit (SDK) allows app developers to finally get access to those features: the accelerometer, force touch, microphone, speaker and video, heart rate monitor and digital crown. What these apps will be used for, well, that's up to whatever people can think up. Apple's Kevin Lynch demoed a VW app that lets you unlock your car and control the car's temperature from the watch, loading more quickly than any existing third-party Apple Watch app I've used. Another, from Vine, showed looping videos and audio on the tiny Apple Watch display.

This is a huge deal. Sure, a lot of these apps could still end up feeling weird, or pointless, or like novelties, but they should all work better, do more, feel cooler. Many of them, like fitness apps, will do things with the Apple Watch that you might have thought were already possible -- companies like Jawbone and Fitbit, for instance, should be able to offer Watch-native versions of their health apps. Remote apps, games, calculators, voice memo apps... who knows? It should all be possible now, but we'll have to wait and see.

The big takeaway, though, is that the Apple Watch now has the runway needed for a real killer app -- something that was sorely lacking with the Watch's debut.

Watch this: Apple announces customizable faces for Watch OS

Watch OS 2: How Apple's making the entire Apple Watch better months later

We've become accustomed to Apple's annual operating system upgrade cycles -- that's really what WWDC is all about. But today's announcement of Watch OS 2 is something of a stunner in that it will be hitting about half a year after version 1. That shows a desire to advance the wheel of progress on Apple Watch, fast. But based on what was shown at the WWDC keynote, those promises seem backed up.

The new Watch OS will be studded with extra, potentially valuable tweaks: new watch faces, more info available at a glance, better friend management, more Maps features with enhanced public transit data, Siri hook-ins to HomeKit to control lights or appliances directly from the watch and previously missing tools like the ability to reply to emails.

There will be added watch faces, including several that use photos to customize the face with a picture of your kid, or have an updating photo album. One face uses time-lapse photography of different cities.

Email replies: Just one of the common sense fixes coming to Apple Watch Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET

The bigger deal is "complications," Apple's system of serving up bits of info on the watch faces themselves (following in the tradition of the mini-dials and active calendars on analog watches). The current faces show weather, stocks, alarms, and a few other bits of info, but third party apps will be able to hook into these too. You'll be able to see sports scores from your wrist at a glance. Or tweets. Or whether your lights are on.

A new added watch face function called "Time Travel" can be used to skip forward or back and see upcoming events, or previous ones. That type of living timeline was cleverly employed by the Pebble Time watch, and Apple's using a different approach here.

There's more: a new mode when charging that turns the watch into more of a bedside alarm clock, and improved fitness app enhancements that can fold in data from other third-party apps on the watch.

Not everything, but close

There are still some parts of the Apple Watch I'd love to see improved sooner or later. The most glaring is its one-day battery life, which still feels short. Apple today announced software tweaks to iOS 9 -- including a power save mode -- that the company claims will improve the battery life on existing iPhones; that's exactly the sort of improvement that should be fast-tracked for the Watch as well.

And it doesn't look like Apple made any significant changes to music playback on Apple Watch, even with the revamped Apple Music app on iOS. (But now that third-party apps are robustly supported, perhaps rivals like Spotify, Amazon or Google Music can fill that gap.)

While Apple hasn't addressed everything on my wish list, it's still notable how many parts have been tended to. By contrast, Android Wear, Google's wrist-worn operating system, received a handful of new tweaks and features recently that were recapped at the search giant's own I/O developer conference just two weeks ago. But those changes came after a year of Android Wear. Apple's slate of Apple Watch changes, in the span of what will be roughly six months, feels a lot faster.

Between new apps and an enhanced operating system, the Apple Watch might feel like a whole new product in the fall. It adds up to the potential for a significant step forward -- and, just maybe, the Apple Watch we all wanted to begin with.

See all of today's WWDC news.