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It's time for Apple Watch to leave the iPhone behind

WatchOS 6 pushes Apple's smartwatch to greater independence, but it needs to stand completely alone.

Apple's new WatchOS 6 brings a few standalone features, but it still needs an iPhone.
James Martin/CNET

This story is part of WWDC 2022, CNET's complete coverage from and about Apple's annual developers conference.

Four years in, the Apple Watch is still an accessory to the iPhone. But it's starting to find its own way. WatchOS 6, announced at Apple's WWDC this week, adds a native Watch App Store, streaming audio, more native apps and better Siri support.

I've thought about the Apple Watch becoming a more iPhone-independent device. Not because of any dream of being phone-free (I almost never find my iPhone absent from my pocket), but because not everyone owns an iPhone. And with Apple's push into serious FDA-cleared health tech, there will be cases where the Apple Watch could be used as a standalone health device.

We're not quite there yet, but in the fall the Apple Watch Series 5 -- if that's the name Apple decides to run with -- could be significantly more useful even when you don't have your phone nearby.

Now playing: Watch this: App store coming to Apple Watch

Download straight to Apple Watch

As mentioned above, WatchOS 6 does add more standalone features. These are overdue: a new App Store on the watch will allow downloads over Wi-Fi or LTE without an iPhone nearby. These apps, according to Apple, will all work in standalone mode away from the iPhone. There will also be ways of logging in to standalone apps on-watch, even though that could be a little fiddly considering the small display.

Apps will be able to stream audio in the background in standalone mode over LTE or Wi-Fi: news, music, radio, podcasts, coaching. Apple's also going to allow certain apps to run in the background without being interrupted, like ones for meditation and physical therapy. This could add up to apps that feel more essential on the go.

Apple's also added some extra standalone apps of its own: a calculator with a tip feature, a voice memo recorder, an audio book player and an ambient noise level measurement app. Siri will also show some web results on voice requests, for quick answers to questions. Right now, Siri will only search certain sources including Wikipedia and Wolfram, but many requests on-watch can't be done.

No watch face store, though

Apple still doesn't enable third party developers to make Apple Watch watch faces, even though every other major smartwatch platform (Fitbit, Wear OS, Samsung Galaxy Watch) does. Apple's never offered a clear explanation for why this is the case. Watch faces matter to me because they're the main "apps" I use on smartwatches. I download new ones for novelty. I like ones that can cater to a particular need at one time.

The new watch faces Apple added to WatchOS 6 do look beautiful though. Even so, I'd like even more options... and I'd like them to be downloaded straight on the watch.

Do what the iPhone did

The iPhone used to need a computer to set up, but those days are long gone. With a cellular connection and enough power to be a fitness iPod and more, the Apple Watch is a utility device that could easily flex out. It could be someone's replacement phone, an independent medical device in situations where there isn't an iPhone to sync back to, and maybe more. If the Apple Watch really could be a full phone and not need an iPhone to connect, and added a few more features, it might become a choice for people who don't own an iPhone, or never plan to.

That won't happen this year. The Apple Watch will be a little more standalone in 2019, but the steps toward true independence are small. For now, it's still a device that needs that iPhone.