Where the Apple Watch could go from here

The Series 4 is a generational leap, but the Apple Watch still has plenty of room to grow.

apple watch series 4 modular infograph
Apple

Apple seems to have finally figured out exactly what the Apple Watch is for, and built just the right hardware to do it. Apple Watch isn't a little smartphone-lite on your wrist, but is now more narrowly focused on being a heath and fitness accessory that provides lots of quick, glanceable information.

The Series 4 hardware is the first true “generational” update since the original Apple Watch, and it’s a great expression of that new focus. The much faster processor makes interactions instantaneous, smooth, and precise. The upgraded sensors have the kind of fidelity and range to enable all kinds of new health and fitness tracking. The larger, higher-res display can show more complications and makes text and icons easier to read. And the upgraded mic and speakers make voice interaction truly useful.

I think we can assume Apple will introduce a Series 5 watch next year, and that it’s far too early to expect another Series 4-like overhaul. New generations of motion sensors and optical heart rate sensors don’t come along that quickly, and it doesn’t make sense to change up the display size and resolution so soon.

So where can Apple Watch go from here? I don’t know what Apple’s plans are, but I have some ideas…

Processor efficiency, not performance

I hope that the future S5 SIP (silicon in package) will be zero percent faster than the current S4. The speed improvement found in Series 4 is huge, and has finally reached that magic threshold where tapping, swiping, scrolling, and opening apps feels instantaneous. Apple should be focusing 100 percent of its efforts for the next processor on achieving the same performance with lower power drain.

apple watch series 4 chip Apple

The S4 is so fast that the S5 doesn’t need to be faster. It just needs to last longer.

The ultimate goal? Build a smartwatch that performs like the Series 4 with week-long battery life. It might take a couple generations to get there, but each step would be a worthwhile improvement. If Apple could add, say, 50 percent longer battery life every year for the next three years, each leap would enable all new Watch-using scenarios. It would be more impactful to the overall experience than higher performance.

New, lower-energy display technology

It will take more than just clever silicon engineering to take battery life from “all day” to “all week.” Apple will need to dramatically lower power use from the display, without sacrificing the current OLED display’s lovely true blacks or the 1,000 nits brightness that makes it easy to read outdoors. The Series 4 already made the switch to LTPO (low-temperature polycrystalline oxide) as a way to lower OLED power consumption, so more dramatic changes are needed to make big improvements. Working out a way to dynamically adjust refresh rate could help, but to get a really big boost, Apple is going to need to move to a new type of display technology.

oled lcd microled layers TrendForce

MicroLED displays would be thinner, brighter, and far more power-efficient than OLED.

Rumors are that Apple is investing heavily in MicroLED technology. A MicroLED display would have all the advantages of OLED—perfect blacks, great color gamut, super-fast response times, thin structure, high maximum brightness—but use a fraction of the power. It's just too difficult and expensive to mass-produce right now. The fact that the Apple Watch displays are so small makes it the perfect product to introduce MicroLEDs on, while scaling up production to iPhone-like sizes and quantities.

Blood glucose monitoring and diet help

Open the Health app on your iPhone, go to the Health Data tab, and you’ll see four big bold categories highlighted up top: Activity, Mindfulness, Nutrition, and Sleep.

health app four items IDG

The Health app prioritizes nutrition and sleep, but Apple Watch doesn’t do anything for you there.

Apple Watch has built-in features for the first two, but doesn’t really do much for the second two—those categories are only serviced by apps that integrate with the Health app. But Apple could really complete its mission in making the Apple Watch the ultimate health and fitness tool by completing the square, as it were.

A New York Times article from 2017 mentions that Apple has been researching way to perform non-invasive blood glucose monitoring. Current methods require taking small blood samples by piercing your finger, or placing sensors under the skin (calibrated with occasional finger-prick readings). It’s theoretically possible to use optical sensors and lights—hardware very much like the optical heart rate sensors already on Apple Watches—to measure blood glucose. Possible, but not easy; making such a thing reliable and accurate is said to be “years away.” Then again, nobody expected Apple to stuff an ECG into the Apple Watch by now, either.

Measuring blood glucose is a big help to diabetics, of course, but its usefulness extends way beyond that. Having your blood glucose measured all the time could be incredibly important for everyone trying to eat better, improve athletic performance, or lose/gain weight. Imagine getting a notification at 11:30 a.m. suggesting you eat a low-carb lunch because your blood sugar is above average and you’re trying to lose weight. Or a pop-up one hour before you typically go to the gym suggesting that you eat a high-carb snack to give you energy because your blood sugar is a bit low.

There’s no shortage of apps to try to help you eat better, but all they have to go on is the data you bother to input—food you eat, weight, body fat, and so on. Most of us can't be bothered to do much more than weigh ourselves every day, so relying on a bunch of user-entered data is a real weak link. If diet apps could transparently see what your current blood sugar is, and how it changes throughout the day and in response to exercise, it would totally revolutionize nutrition monitoring and recommendations.

Blood glucose monitoring is going to be tough to get right. Being a little off on a heart rate measurement won’t affect most people, but millions of diabetics could suffer serious consequences if the data they rely on is a little spotty.

Sleep tracking

You can already use your Apple Watch for sleep tracking. Apps like AutoSleep and Pillow track how long you sleep, measure deep sleep versus restless sleep, and more. They’re almost entirely automatic, but not quite as simple as an integrated Apple solution should be. I imagine that Apple is undoubtedly, at this very moment, gathering data from hundreds of volunteers around the world who wear an Apple Watch while they sleep, while using more complicated and sophisticated sleep-tracking methods as a comparison. All that data is probably being used to train a sophisticated machine learning algorithms.

fitbit sleep stages IDG

Fitbit's sleep tracking is an advantage, but one we can't imagine Apple will allow for long.

Eventually, Apple will release the feature with much fanfare, saying you never have to set or configure it, just wear your watch when you sleep and get awesome and reliable data right there in the Health app. Maybe Siri will suggest you go to bed earlier if you haven't been getting enough sleep, or could wake you up during the lightest part of your sleep cycle (as long as it's before your alarm time).

If current Apple Watches already have the hardware to do all this, what’s the hold-up? My guess is that it’s one of two things: either the testing and algorithm training is just taking longer than expected and sleep tracking will come to all our Apple Watches in watchOS 6, or Apple is waiting for to make it exclusive to future hardware with longer battery life.

I’ve had no problem charging my watch for about 90 minutes in the evening and then wearing it all night and the whole next day, but those that do more outdoor activity tracking might run out of power before the day is done. If Apple could extend battery life by just a few hours, it would probably be enough to make sure nearly everyone could reliably wear their Watch all day and all night on a single charge.

Software will lead the way

The most important improvements to Apple Watch will come as watchOS updates. Current hardware (Series 4, at least) is capable enough to run most of these updates, but Apple may want to make them exclusive to future hardware anyway. It wouldn’t be the first time it has done such a thing.

Giving watch faces some sort of dim, monochromatic, always-on face so the watch doesn’t look like a black slab on your wrist most of the time—that feels like a no-brainer. Today’s watches could do it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple was trying to get battery life up before adding a battery-draining feature like that.

Custom watch faces may never happen, but it certainly wouldn’t be difficult for Apple to release “FaceKit” tools that allow developers to design their own watch faces while making sure complications work properly and Apple's design sensibilities aren't completely abandoned.

One of the most requested software features—Android support—is just never going to happen. Apple has the most popular watch in the world and still has many millions of iPhone users to sell to.

apple event watch fall Apple

Fall Detection is the result of machine learning, lots of testing, and new sensors. Expect a lot of new and expanded features to come from using ML on huge data sets.

For the most part, I think we can expect major new software features to lean heavily on machine learning and AI. The Siri watch face got a lot better in watchOS 5, and as Siri improves in general, so too will the usefulness of having it on your wrist. But more than that, features like fall detection show how much Apple can do with machine learning. The new accelerometer plays a part, but it was training a machine learning algorithm on lots of slips and falls that allowed Apple to build very accurate and hard to fool movement profiles to identify falls. The new running cadence tracking feature is another good example.

Think about taking that general principle—training machine learning on mountains of sensor data to identify actions—and extending it throughout the Watch experience. Maybe the workout app could automatically identify common exercises and count reps, then use a smart algorithm to watch your heart rate, factor in your age, and let you know exactly how long to rest between sets. Perhaps Apple Music could build a better workout playlist for you by watching calorie burn and movement intensity, associating it with the songs you were listening to at the time, and figuring out which tunes keeps you energized.

I suspect that, two years from now, most of the reasons we love our Apple Watches will have more to do with new broadly-applicable software features focused around ever-smarter machine learning and Siri stuff, and less to do with amazing hardware advances. There will be new hardware every year, but with the possible exception of longer battery life, we’re probably still a few years away from the kind of dramatic hardware improvements we got this year with the Series 4.

  
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