September 17, 2020
by Ariel Adams
Apple isn’t just the leading smartwatch maker in the world, it also arguably has the most refined, feature-laden, and well-built of mainstream consumer smartwatch products out there. As a monitoring device, Apple has continued to outfit the Apple Watch with an ever-more-impressive array of systems designed to monitor your body using on-board sensors and provide useful data to the wearer. This data isn’t just simple metrics such as your current heart rate, but a complex ability to track a users’ activity and lifestyles to help give them guidance on how to be more “well.”
In fact “wellness” is, more or less, the only (admittedly vague) term Apple is now able to apply to its Apple Watch when trying to describe what all these features are for. In many ways, the Apple Watch is actually a professional instrument that can measure vital signs and other current data about how your body is operating. Apple is restricted from making more overt references to “health” and can’t make specific medical promises due to regulations in the United States set forth by the FDA (Food & Drug Administration). This is an area of increasing complexity given technology advancements and puts companies like Apple in an interesting position. On the one hand, the Apple Watch is a tool that people or their doctors can use to help them live healthier lives, and it offers assistance in a range of medical monitoring and diagnostic contexts. On the other hand, Apple is legally barred from overtly making medical claims about the Apple Watch and must tread very carefully with regard to how its user interface manages the information that the device is collecting for the benefit of the user. The result is that the Apple Watch offers ever-increasing volumes of data about someone’s activity and body — without being able to go the extra step and tell people what they should be doing with the data, or even how to interpret it.
This status quo puts Apple in a somewhat awkward position when it comes to launching something like the much-anticipated blood oxygen monitoring system which is a new feature added in the recently debuted Apple Watch Series 6 (aBlogtoWatch article here). The Apple Watch can now infer a great deal of data by shining various LED lights (now in red, whereas previous lights were green) through your skin into your veins. You’ll be able to know your current heart rate, blood oxygen saturation level and more (such as the ECG monitor). Only Apple can’t really tell you what do with the information and, at best, can recommend that the wearer and his or her health professional can take that data and do what they will with it.
Assuming Apple wasn’t restricted from being able to make more specific health claims and recommendations, we’d start to see the Apple Watch OS evolve in a new direction, whereby an algorithm helps people with personalized tips on how to structure their life and time to increase physical fitness, reduce stress, and stay abreast of possible chronic health issues. That’s something to look forward to in the future because, for the time being, it doesn’t look like the legitimate policies of the U.S. FDA and device companies like Apple are going to be reconciled anytime soon. If you think about it, the legal restrictions make sense. For the FDA to classify a device for a particular medical use, a lot of study and due diligence is required. I also think the process is limited to certifying specific devices and for narrow, particular medical claims. The Apple Watch itself is annually updated with new versions. The software is updated more frequently than that, and the list of medically relevant utility possible with the Apple Watch is pretty long. I’m hypothesizing, but I have a feeling that what is involved in being able to make FDA-approved medical statements about the Apple Watch might not make a lot of current business sense. For now, consumers will need to educate themselves on how to use such a fancy device’s data output — and fancy the device is.
The 2020 Apple Watch Series 6 updates the core Apple Watch offering with new cosmetic options, new straps, and a host of incremental improvements such as a brighter always-on screen, a more advanced S6 chipset, and an almost confusing assortment of versions. Apple not only sells older versions of the Apple Watch — for 2020, we also have the Apple Watch SE (budget version) Apple Watch Series 6 in steel or aluminum cases. Apple Watch Nike Series 6, Apple Watch Hermes Series 6, and Apple Watch Edition Series 6 (which feature titanium cases). On top of that, the Apple Watch continues to be offered in a 44mm long or 40mm long size. I don’t even want to guess the number of new Apple Watches now available, so for simplicity purposes, I am going to collectively refer to them as the “Apple Watch Series 6” watches.
The one on my wrist is the 44mm-long version in steel, with “graphite black” polished coating. It’s got 50 meters of water resistance and has a sapphire crystal over the screen, as well as additional sapphire crystals over the LEDs on the rear of the case. Despite having even more features and a brighter screen, battery life remains at “all day.” I’m wearing the Series 6 steel on Apple’s new Braided Solo Loop strap, which is part of two new “stretch” strap styles now available for the Apple Watch. These bring me back to the once very popular Speidel Twist-O-Flex straps that I recall seeing all the time in the 1980s. These straps don’t need to be sized or closed on your wrist; they simply expand to fit over your fist and on to your wrist. How do you size them? You don’t. Apple sells a long list of sizes (more than 10 of them) for the Solo Loops straps, so you’ll need to measure your wrist in advance to get one (or when possible simply try on various sizes at Apple Stores).
A few years ago I pointed out that Apple was not as prolific as I would have liked when it came to offering more and more watch faces to promote a sense of Apple Watch wearing personalization. Unlike some competing smartwatch platforms, Apple does not allow Apple Watch users the ability to download third-party watch faces — all the available watch faces available come from Apple directly. I was put off by this at first, but over the years I’ve come to understand Apple’s reasoning, mainly that third-party watch faces tend to be of low quality, and that doesn’t work from the notably hands-on company when it comes to curating each element of its product experiences. Apple’s Watch Series 6 comes with Apple’s latest WatchOS, and that has six brand-new watch face options, along with new complications. New watch faces such as “GMT,” “Chronograph Pro,” and “Count Up” are all clearly inspired by classic wristwatch dials, an indicator that Apple is still heavily influenced by the world of traditional watches when making aesthetic and functional decisions about the Apple Watch.
The new watch faces are slick and serve an important purpose: to help give the Apple Watch Series 6 a fresh feeling for customers who just upgraded. While a lot about the Apple Watch is different on the inside, much of the wearing experience of the new models is similar to the Series 5. That is to be expected, but having a new watch face to look at does help increase the sense of novelty. Apple is also getting better and better at making watch faces that feel effectively native to its non-traditional watch dial shape. This includes authentically rectangular watch dials, as well as those that are traditionally round but cleverly use extra space above and below the main dial for the time in order to insert additional “complication” zones.
If you look closely at the features Apple adds to or promotes in the Apple Watch, you’ll get a lot of hints as to what Apple is finding its consumers are doing with the products. Fitness and activity seemed to be a major area of focus in the past, and none of that is changing in 2020. It is, however, interesting to see how Apple is making new business units out of its findings. In short, Apple’s focus on new features seems to suggest that aside from being a daily timepiece, the two most popular uses for the Apple Watch are as a fitness tracker and as a general health monitoring device. Now, let’s talk a bit about its fitness capabilities.
Small, incremental improvements in the Apple Watch for the Series 6 make it a better exercise tracking device. This includes things like continuous elevation tracking, being able to read the screen more easily in direct sunlight and, for 2020, a new service called Apple Fitness +. While not strictly for the Apple Watch (and you can’t use it just with the Apple Watch given that an additional screen is needed), one’s Apple Watch is now a useful companion when doing guided or competitive workouts. Apple Fitness + is a paid monthly subscription service that gives people access to all manner of human-guided workouts. It also allows the Apple Watch to be used as a monitor during the workouts, actively tracking your vitals and performance and giving you the ability to share this with others and to compete with them. I’m looking forward to testing this out myself, but it seems like a home run for a company poised to capitalize on the fact that millions of people who once avidly worked out using an Apple Watch in public or in communal situations, and are now forced to solo their exercise routines. The ability to use metrics to compete with others doing similar workouts is known to contribute to the social motivation that many people experience as beneficial while working out.
Also interesting is how Apple has honed the Apple Watch Series 6 message toward COVID-19 fears, or at least the lifestyle of living during a pandemic. For example, an app in the operating system helps time how long you should be watching your hands (so that it is the most effective). There is also a discussion of how the blood oxygen sensor can alert people to possible COVID-19 symptoms. This detail has been misinterpreted a bit, but it is worth noting. A side effect of many respiratory infections is a decreased ability for your lungs to absorb oxygen normally while breathing. People with disease or poorly functioning respiratory systems frequently find themselves with low blood oxygen levels (which is also the case during extremely strenuous exercise or when exercising at very high elevation). A warning from your Apple Watch that you have a low blood oxygen level simply means that your body (for one reason or another) is unable to get enough oxygen. If you have a warning about this from your watch, it doesn’t mean you have COVID-19; it could be related to other respiratory problems, as well. Apple isn’t the only company to produce a blood oxygen level sensor, but having it as part of the core kit of features in a device you are otherwise wearing is certainly a benefit. It just might not be something that has application to many users on a regular basis (whereas things such as heart rate vary more regularly for more people). In any event, Apple clearly understands that more and more people are interested in monitoring their own health and vital signs, and the Apple Watch Series 6 merely improves upon that particular arena of value for the product.
From new family features to subscription services, and a bevy of new cosmetic options, 2020 sees an already good product getting better. Apple doesn’t assume that all people with an immediately preceding Apple Watch generation to jump aboard getting the latest one. It does, however, assume that once people get into the Apple Watch ecosystem, they will stay. I haven’t seen all the data, but my guess is that Apple has an enviable level of consumer loyalty when it comes to getting an Apple Watch and then sticking with Apple Watch smartwatches moving forward. I would be curious to know how often people upgrade (my guess that people upgrade their Apple Watch every two years or so).
Apple Watch Series 6 proves just how successful the Apple Watch platform has been for Apple, and from an investor standpoint, I think the strategy has proved extremely profitable. Not only does Apple get to enjoy interest from new Apple Watch devices, but with an endless array of new straps, and now subscription services, the Apple Watch unit is likely getting closer and closer to the profitability of the Apple iPhone market (and with even more opportunities to regularly profit). That’s great for Apple, and it is great for a lot of consumers who want certain features. That said, my hope that the core Apple Watch experience will continue to be satisfying without having to invest in additional ongoing services or subscriptions. For example, in the future, I can see Apple charging an extra amount per month for insights on what the health and “wellness” metrics collected by the onboard sensors actually mean. That would involve some hefty negotiations with the FDA. Once again, technology and public policy face off, with consumers being forced to wait it out while authorities best determine how much they should rely on AI-powered life advice.
Wellness limbo is where you’ll find the Apple Watch’s health monitor device aspiration at this time. But don’t let ambiguous terminology distract from the very real appeal of how precise and consistent the Apple Watch is when it comes to being a sensor. The future of smartwatches has always been not only what they indicate but also what they are able to record. Apple continues to be the top dog when it comes to evolving what a smartwatch should be, in addition to what a smartwatch today actually is. The Apple Watch Series 6 44mm in steel (as shown) has a starting price of $749 USD. Learn more or order at the Apple Website here.