Clothes at last: watchOS 2 unveiled

Under watchOS 1, these apps all run their functional code on the connected iPhone, not your Watch.

It now looks as if the Watch is the first ‘computer’ product that Apple has ever shipped with an operating system that remains largely non-functional, at least for the next two or three months.

Apple confirmed in the WWDC Keynote on 8 June 2015 that what it calls watchOS 2 will ship in the Autumn. In Apple’s own words, this will:

  • make “the experience of using Apple Watch apps richer and more engaging. Apps load faster, do more and employ hardware features that make Apple Watch unique.”
  • make many apps native, “which means they run entirely on your Apple Watch.”
  • allow native apps to “take advantage of features like the Taptic Engine, Digital Crown, accelerometer, heart rate sensor, speaker and microphone.”
The only fully functional part of watchOS 1 seems to be the clock, and some of the user interface. watchOS 2 should change that.
The only fully functional part of watchOS 1 seems to be the clock, and some of the user interface. watchOS 2 should change that.

This is explained in the watchOS 2 Transition Guide. Currently, under watchOS 1, apps on the Watch are little more than human interface storyboards – a bit like non-functional prototypes of apps – which have to work with functional code running on the connected iPhone.

In watchOS 2, functional code moves to the Watch itself, enabling its hardware features to be accessed fully for the first time.

watchOS 1 has very little support for any operating system functions, beyond handling user interaction in the storyboards, telling the time, and communicating with the connected iPhone. This explains why such fundamental abilities as measuring heart rate shut down when running current apps, as watchOS 1 does only a tiny fraction of what is done by iOS 8, for instance.

watchOS 2 provides the support needed to run proper apps, together with access to a fuller range of features such as graphics, location, motion, events, heart rate, HomeKit devices, maps, and more.

These are major changes, and have some significant consequences for the Watch and its users.

Until now, hardly any data has been stored on a Watch, as there was almost nothing running there to store data. Once apps can run on the Watch itself, they will need data, and will start contending for the very limited amount of storage available (total 8 GB). However watchOS 2 does not provide any facilities to back up data from the Watch, which is being left to developers to address.

With watchOS 1 apps running on the iPhone, they have full access to iCloud and other Internet resources. When watchOS 2 run on the Watch itself, their only such access will be via their companion iPhone app.

With more running on the Watch itself, there is the possibility that the Watch will have shortened endurance on its battery (shorter ‘battery life’). However under watchOS 2 apps run only when the user is interacting with the app. Once that interaction stops, following a short time delay, the app is suspended and can no longer run tasks. Apple is warning developers that longer-running tasks must still run on the iPhone, not the Watch, but it is not yet clear how autonomous watchOS 2 apps might be in the absence of interactions with their iPhone.

If anyone thought that reality distortion fields were a thing of the Steve Jobs past, this is confirmation that they are alive and thriving. Who but Apple could have released a completely new ‘computer’ product line knowing that for the first 4-6 months the only fully functional part of its operating system appears to be its clock?

I keep thinking of emperors and new clothes. Let’s hope that we can really see and use those clothes in the Autumn.