With WatchOS 4, The Apple Watch Might Finally Free Us From Our Phones

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The Apple Watch was supposed to be more than just a fancy fitness tracker with fashionable wrist straps when it launched in 2015. As Apple executives explained at the time, this device was supposed to save us from our phones, making our digital lives more efficient while keeping us engaged with the real world.

Things didn’t quite work out that way, as the Watch’s non-fitness elements proved less compelling than Apple imagined. Consequently, the product’s direction has changed dramatically over the past two years. With the Watch Series 2, Apple made fitness the primary selling point, and last year’s WatchOS 3 update overhauled the entire interface, demoting unpopular features and de-emphasizing third-party apps.

WatchOS 4, the upcoming software update that Apple announced this week, doesn’t seem like a major shift by comparison, at least not on the surface. But beyond its obvious new features–like a new Siri watch face, better workout tracking, and the ability to grab exercise data from gym equipment–WatchOS 4 brings lots of behind-the-scenes changes, especially for third-party apps. Together, they add up to a significant change that could bring the Apple Watch much closer to its original promise.

Faster Apps

Third-party apps on the Apple Watch used to be mostly worthless. Navigating through WatchOS to reach them was a chore, and the apps themselves were so unresponsive that taking out your phone was almost always faster and easier.

WatchOS 4 aims to be a breakthrough for standalone apps. Although Apple has allowed third-party apps to run directly on the watch since WatchOS 2, the next update will combine each app’s code and interface elements into a single process that loads at runtime. Native apps should automatically become smoother, more responsive to the touch, and faster at loading new screens as a result.

“This is going to make a huge difference in the performance of your apps,” Ian Parks, who works on the WatchOS software team, told developers during a presentation at Apple’s WWDC.

Apple is also making a few tweaks to alleviate the Watch’s navigation woes. Users will be able to sort the app dock by recency, instead of having to pick favorites, and the home screen will offer a list view as an alternative to the cumbersome honeycomb grid. Another change seems more subtle, but elicited cheers from developers at WWDC: Apps that use a horizontal page layout can launch on any page, not just the left-most one. If you’ve ever swiped right on a smartphone app to pull up a menu, this will allow Watch apps to have a similar layout.

The redesigned dock can be sorted in order of recent apps.

Meanwhile, Apple is trying to streamline its own apps as an example for developers to follow. Apple’s Workout app, for instance, will allow users to launch new exercises from within existing ones. And by default, those exercises will use whatever goal the user had set previously. What used to involve a half-dozen steps will instead require just a couple of taps.

“This is a great example of building a responsive user experience, where it’s not just about updating the data in your UI, it’s also about thinking of what the user might want to do next in your app based on what you already know,” Parks said during his developer presentation.

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