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Apple Watch could steal the show at Apple’s iPhone 14 launch event

The iPhone is still Apple’s most important product, and it’s not even remotely close. Don’t get distracted by all the hype for the car, wondering what Apple’s AR headset might look like, claiming the iPad is the computer of the future, or wanting Apple to go ahead and build a TV already. The iPhone still accounts for most of Apple’s revenue, and iPhone users — who also pay for iCloud and Apple TV Plus and buy cases and cables and headphones and smartwatches — account for more. Apple has been the iPhone company for over a decade and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

But the iPhone may not be the star of the show on Wednesday, when Apple holds its annual fall product showcase. We’re expecting new iPhones, yes — the iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max — but they look like the latest in a long line of slightly better iPhones. The iPhone is an amazing but fully mature product, and its most whiz-bang innovations may have already happened.

Instead keep an eye on Apple’s small screen because the most important device category Apple is talking about this week is the Apple Watch. It looks like Apple is gearing up to announce three new smartwatch models, including the Apple Watch Pro, which is bigger (obviously much bigger), more powerful, and more useful than previous Watch versions. And in the process, it might finally start making the Watch the next great Apple device.

Seven years after its original debut, Apple has turned the Watch into a super-successful iPhone accessory. But the Watch could be so much more, and Apple finally has to make it happen. Because we’re not all getting Apple headsets anytime soon, and good luck waiting until that car finally ships. As the smartphone market continues to stabilize and people keep their phones longer and remain entrenched in their ecosystems, the Watch gives Apple a chance to have the next big thing already here. The smartwatch is old hat, but the wrist-computer era may have just begun.

Apple Watch Spring Event Pictures

When Apple first launched the Watch, it talked about not only fitness but also communication and productivity.

Apple’s original ambitions for the Apple Watch were big — perhaps too big at the time. The company envisions it, in essence, as a more human version of your iPhone. Since it’s on your wrist, you don’t have to take it out of your pocket a hundred times a day. It has biometric sensors that help the device — and you — understand how you’re physically doing at any given moment. It uses Siri to complete very simple tasks. Put those things together and you have a device that’s a digital companion that helps improve your life, not a big blinking screen that tries to suck the life out of you.

Since then, the watch has become primarily a fitness and health device. So has almost every other smartwatch. And Apple is awesome: the stories you hear about life-saving fall detection or heart rate notifications are true, and the Fitness Plus ecosystem has become one of the best beginner workout tools on the market.

Apple also leans towards what it does best. The new watches will reportedly include body temperature sensors, and Apple is rumored to be working on glucose monitoring as well. The Watch Pro is, by all accounts, a powerful multi-sport fitness device that takes on the likes of Garmin and Polar with a tougher body and a more sophisticated build. And from what we know of watchOS 9, the new software that powers these new watches continues to be the driving forces behind health and fitness devices. Apple is adding more sleep tracking, better medication and heart rate tracking, and more fine-grained controls and analytics for athletes. The watch remains a fitness device.

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In watchOS 9, many of the key features are still fitness-related.
Image: Apple

But wait: Is the Apple Watch coming with a bigger screen, more buttons and better battery life? And maybe even satellite connectivity? Not only does this make the Watch a better fitness device, but it also opens up some things that Apple couldn’t do before. The watch’s small battery doesn’t always mean you can’t ask it to do serious tasks, and the small screen makes it difficult to type or tap a lot. But even a small expansion of both the battery and the display will alleviate some of those issues. (Rumour has it that there’s another button on the Watch Pro case, and that one button makes a big difference in what the device can do.)

The Apple Watch will never be a good TikTok device or a satisfying way to watch House of the Dragon. But it doesn’t have to be. To live up to its promise, the Apple Watch needs to be a better tool for managing the quick, constant interactions we all have with technology every day. In that world, your phone will change from the jack-of-all-trades device it is now to something you use whenever you want to watch something, play a game, take some pictures, read the news. There’s no better way to turn on your lights than pulling your phone out of your pocket, turning it on, unlocking it, opening an app, and toggling a button. There are a million such things in every iPhone user’s life and a watch should be the answer to most of them.

These are tricky problems to solve, especially on a small screen, and Apple has been plugging along for some time. Checking notifications is important, and Apple says WatchOS 9 will redesign them to be “effective yet less intrusive.” Apple has also redesigned the Reminders and Calendar apps, which you may need to check frequently but rarely need full-screen information. WatchOS 9 gives more access to Voice Call apps, making the Watch and AirPods a powerful communication combo.

The watch already serves part of that purpose — some parents are buying their kids cellular-connected watches instead of smartphones, so they can track and connect with their kids without worrying about screen time and Internet addiction. Apple has bucked the trend, adding more parental controls and family sharing features to the Watch. But Apple hopes the Watch will give everyone a more active, more functional relationship with technology.

The most powerful version of the watch is completely untethered from the iPhone. Until you set it up, download and organize all your apps, and use the watch entirely on its own, it continues to feel like a phone accessory. Apple has made a couple of moves in that direction, including provisioning a family setup, but a fully self-sufficient smartwatch may still be too complex and too power-hungry to pull off. Needless to say, Apple has absolutely no reason for that to happen because it still wants you to buy an iPhone. The iPhone may be needed for occasional setup and maintenance but let the watch operate on its own.

Another thing that has held the Watch back for a long time is that Siri isn’t very good. It works well for setting timers and running really basic tasks, but still makes common and unacceptable mistakes all the time. I shout “Hey Siri, remind me” into my phone about a hundred times a day and it only gets the job done half the time. I’ve officially given up on trying to play a song I thought I’d play or use it to replace web searches. In a way, a fully featured watch can fulfill Siri’s promise by making all the little things easier to access and accomplish. It uses buttons instead of voice commands.

If Apple doesn’t figure out how to make smartwatches more than fitness devices, there’s a good chance someone else will. Google is investing in the space again, and the Pixel Watch is expected to arrive in the next few weeks. Samsung Galaxy Watches also continue to improve. Apple completely dominates the smartwatch market, but real and powerful competitors are finally starting to emerge in the space.

When Tim Cook and Co. Announce new watch models, and they almost certainly continue to be talked about as health and fitness devices. It’s a good pitch, and it’s working! But keep an eye out for signs that Apple is building more than just a fitness tracker, but a wrist computer that knows who you are and how you’re doing, and that Apple is starting to figure out what to do with it. Maybe there won’t be any, and Apple will be happy to make a great fitness tracker. However, as technology improves, screens get bigger and batteries last longer, Apple is poised to bring back the less intrusive, more functional computing tool we’ve been waiting for.

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