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Apple watchOS through the ages

As the full release and rollout of watchOS 4 is expected to be announced at tomorrow’s Apple fall event, we take a look at its version history and WatchKit

The operating system powering Apple’s smartwatch is dubbed watchOS and was first showcased to the world on 24th April 2015. WatchKit is the framework provided by Apple to third party developers to let them develop interfaces and applications which could run on the watchOS.

The first version of the OS that powered the first Apple watch was limited in both its scope and functionality. It came with a limited set of apps and no support for third party applications, but still managed to give stiff competition to devices powered by the android wear and fitness trackers.

Over the past few years, Apple Watch has grown from something which was a glorified toy into a fully fledged smartwatch capable of not only letting read messages, set reminders and alarms, but also act as your dedicated health and fitness tracker.

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All this had been possible because of regular updates of watchOS pushed by Apple. The current series of Apple Watch is powered by watchOS v3 with the v4 recently announced at the WWDC 2017 held in June, and is slated for a release in September, later this year.

So let’s take a look under the hood of the Apple Watch and get acquainted with the software that makes it one of the best smartwatches right now.

The watchOS had an intuitive UI which is users can interact with using what Apple calls “the digital crown” – that’s just the dial on the side. The home screen features circular app icons which you can cycle through using either the crown or the touch screen. The first two version of the OS contained something called ‘Glances’ which could be accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, letting you view summarized information from various native or third party applications at a glance. Neat, right? This was replaced by a control center similar to what exists on the iOS platform.

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Apple Watch currently holds the largest share in the smartwatch market

Lets checkout the various features and highlights of each version of the OS, and see what’s yet to come.

Watch OS v1.x

The first version of the watchOS powered the first apple smart watch. Like the first version of most new tech, it was crude and rough around the edges, with some nice features but still lacking the overall cohesiveness and flexibility that is required from a wearable gadget like a smartwatch.

One could choose from 9 preset watch faces which included the chronograph, modular, utility and something called Mickey Mouse which is basically an analogue clock face with Mickey in the center using his hands to tell time.

The OS came preloaded with 20 standard applications but had no support for development of third party apps. These apps covered most of the basic needs one has from a smart watch and included Alarm, Calendar, a camera remote, Mail, Maps, Messages, Music, Timer, Stopwatch, Weather update and phone. An update to the OS came out a month later which improved the performance of the device and added some more nifty features like a calorie calculator, and a distance and pace meter, improved Siri along with additional language support.

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Manage your activities easily with Apple Watch Series 2

Watch OS v2.x

Released in September of 2015, only a couple of months after the launch of the first Apple Watch and Watch OS v1, The V2 was a big improvement over the first version with the biggest addition being support for 3rd party applications. Apple released its WatchKit framework for developers leading to a number of 3rd party apps coming out for the Watch. The official Facebook messenger app was released and it let you not only send messages, but also share audio and location straight from your wrist without having to take out your phone. Another neat application was the GoPro viewfinder which let you use your camera right from your watch.

The new update also cleared a number of issues and limitations of the previous models like the adaption of tetherless WiFi technology. Earlier you needed your iPhone to connect your watch to the internet, but not so anymore. Apple added many new watch faces and increased the customisability, letting you set any photo or album as the background of the device.

Another new feature that came with the update was the nightstand mode. Place your watch sideways while charging on your nightstand and it turns into a mini alarm, with the digital crown becoming the snooze button and the side button turning into alarms.

The Watch OS v2 also had better fitness capabilities, including a real time heart rate monitor and options to save and share workout activities between your iphone and watch.

Along with this update also came significant Siri improvements like letting you start a workout routine, get directions, do calculations and even look up words in the dictionary. The latest version also supported video playback and Facetime.

Watch OS v3.x

The third version of the watchOS was a massive improvement over its predecessors and came loaded with many new features.

A ‘Dock’ section was added that let you add 10 of your favourite and most used apps to it and can be accessed by pressing the side button. This lets you access these apps quicker than the traditional menu.

The v3 also did away with ‘Glances’ and replaced it with the Control Center similar to what you see on iOS. Swipe up from the bottom to access it and you could see the battery life, toggle between airplane mode, silent mode, do not disturb, or lock your smartwatch.

Another nice addition was the SOS feature which could be activated by holding down the side button. It is a universal feature which will work regardless of where you are, contacting the nearest emergency services if your phone is connected to the watch, or using the internet if you are on Wi-Fi.

Fitness bands give straight competition to smart watches and realising this the Apple Watch upgraded its activity app. A new feature called activity sharing let you share your activity and fitness stats as messages with your friends and families directly from your watch. Imagine setting a new track record and showing it off to your friends straight from your wrist.

The way you responded to messages was also changed with smarter and quicker ways to reply added. Shortcuts for voice message and emojis were added and something called Scribble was too, which let you reply to a message straight from your watch, by typing out one letter at a time. That might seem like a more tedious way, but well that’s one way to show off your Apple Watch-scribbling replies on your wrist, one letter at a time.

Many new faces were also added including a minnie mouse one. This update made apple watch a more practical device overall.

Watch OS v4 – the future of Apple Watch

At this year’s annual WWDC, Apple showcased watchOS 4 – the future of Apple’s smartwatch OS. The beta version was recently made available for developers, while it will be officially released en masse to the public in September this year. Here’s a rundown of the features the new update will be carrying.

Apple was the first company to add a voice enabled smart AI assistant on their smartphones. Siri has been a part of their Smartwatch since the first model came out, but it was limited in scope. With the latest release, Apple aims to change that.

The watchOS 4 will feature a Siri watch face, which will use machine learning to display relevant information and app shortcuts right on the face of your watch, based on the time of the day, your past activities and other personal information which it keeps on monitoring regularly.

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Now choose who you want to tell you the time- Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Jessie, Minnie or Mickey

Keeping up with the Disney legacy, there are a couple of other watch faces, which though not as useful as the Siri face, are cool to look at regardless and include, Woody, Jessie and Captain Buzz lightyear from the Toy Story series.

The music app is redesigned and much more feature rich now. You can scroll through the album art using the digital crown. The app will also show you Apple curated playlists according to your taste alongside the playlists and songs you most listen to.

One of the most used features of the Apple Watch has been the Activity and Workout apps that come along with it. Machine learning is being implemented everywhere and the watch is getting smarter in general. Apple claims that it will automatically detect when you are resting at the shallow end of the pool and stop the lap and start another on its own. If you workout in a gym that has NFC enabled equipment (which the chances it doesn’t, yet), you can connect your watch to the equipment and exchange data.

There are many more features and applications that are going to come out with this version of the OS like Glucose monitoring and the ability to use Apple pay straight from your watch.

This update will make Apple Watch smarter and better, giving serious competition to Android Wear 2.0 which was released earlier this year.

WATCHKIT – What it is and how the Apple Watch works

WatchKit is the framework that contains everything needed to create an application for the Apple Watch including all the necessary classes and the WatchKit extension. Before you go back and reread the sentence to understand if you read it correctly or it is a print mistake, let us tell you that it’s not a mistake, because the story is a little complicated. Let’s start again.

An application for Apple Watch has two parts – one that runs on your iPhone and the other that runs on your Watch. The part running on your watch is actually just showing you the user interface and taking your input, and sending it to its counterpart running on the iPhone, which does the whole processing.

This part that runs on your iPhone is called the WatchKit extension which communicates with the app on the watch using the WatchKit framework

Apple WatchKitThe WatchKit framework comes bundled with extensive documentation and various resources are available online that can kickstart you into developing apps for the Watch

How does watchOS fare against its competitors?

The smartwatch OS market started off with many competitors trying to gain dominance in a new market. These included Apple’s watchOS, Android Wear, Samsung’s Tizen, Pebble OS and other lesser known and now defunct OSes including Firefox OS for Wearables, and software, which can’t exactly be called operating systems, but are used to run various other fitness bands and ‘semi-smart’ watches. Around the year 2014, when the mainstream smartwatch market was born, most of these watches were merely digital watches with a touchscreen and some gimmicky features, with the OS running on them being just bare bones. Fast forward three years, we have smartwatches that come loaded with AI assistants, ability to control your smart homes and devices, reply to messages without even taking out your phone from your pocket, and also, tell the time.

These three years have also set apart the leaders from the crowd with the Apple Watch and its watchOS leading the pack, followed by Samsung’s Tizen and Android Wear.

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Global Smartwatch OS marketshare for Q1 2017

Just like their mobile counterparts, watchOS and Android Wear have some obvious differences. watchOS has a nicer and cleaner UI compared to its competitors. Android wear has more customizability options, at least in terms of watch faces, whereas in watchOS you get to select only from the preset faces, Android wear lets you install third party faces. It also added support for its voice based virtual AI assistant, the Google assistant, with its new release. Both OSes come with a growing app store and support from third party developers, and it will be at least some time before we could see a clear winner.

Surprisingly, Tizen overtook Android Wear in Global market share this year. About two years ago Samsung stopped making smartwatches running on Android wear and instead started using their home brewed Tizen OS which powered their Z series of smartphones and smart TVs. At that time, it held a measly 7% market share. Fast forward to 2017, it crossed Android Wear’s market share and powers some of the best non-apple smart watch in the market currently, namely the Samsung Gear S2 and S3 series. The OS comes with a number of neat features that help it give competition to Android Wear like inbuilt Samsung Pay, LTE connectivity, various activity and health tracking features and deep integration with Samsung Galaxy smartphones. It supports both iOS and Android devices too.

Though to compete with the watchOS, it needs to do and be more. It still lacks many features that watchOS supports like an AI powered assistant and ability to control smart home devices. Overall, the watchOS provides a more complete and feature rich ecosystem, which probably is currently the best in the market right now.

To get the latest on what to expect from tomorrow’s Apple event here to this link.


This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of Fast Track on Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Purusharth Sharma

Purusharth Sharma