Apple Watch Series 6 unlocks exciting future for developers

Apple unveiled its brand-new Apple Watch Series 6 on September 15 with some fanfare. This was followed the next day by the release of the Watch’s latest operating system, WatchOS 7.

This is a big deal for Apple app developers – the new hardware and software offer new features that significantly raise the bar for what is possible with the Watch. Apple has given us the tools to create more sophisticated kinds of apps, both standalone for the Watch, as well as companions for iOS.

By far the most important addition with WatchOS 7 is the newly enabled ability to build complications (i.e. watch face elements) using SwiftUI. This opens up all kinds of possibilities for how we can show information to users. There were also some great new service additions with the Family Setup and Fitness+. Finally, on the hardware side, the new blood oxygen sensor in the new Watch opens up opportunities for new apps, particularly in the health and fitness segment.

I’ll be covering a general overview of these new features, then dive into what app developers can do to take advantage of this new release, and what I think they should consider offering to their customers.

Watch Faces Are Now More Complicated… and that’s a good thing.

The most interesting part of the new Apple Watch Series 6 release is the power to create watch face complications using SwiftUI. Along with newly added complications, this expands what we can put on the watch face. It also makes the work of creating face customizations quicker and easier.

SwiftUI complications remove the difficulties we’ve had building custom elements for Watch apps or Watch companions to iOS apps. This is especially noticeable with navigation bars. Particularly, SwiftUI can now be used to build dynamic navigation bars, the same as with any other Apple platform. Even better, you can now code these elements and reuse them, something that was painful about building apps on earlier versions of the Watch.

For more information on SwiftUI, check out our SwiftUI articles here.

The complications themselves are also more refined with SwiftUI. SwiftUI can make use of the same tools we use to code other Apple apps. This includes the ability to customize templates that already existed in SwiftUI, but weren’t usable before now for the Watch. You can now also have more than one complication and watch face for an app. This has been a serious barrier before now to making more complex software. We also have more watch faces to choose from, with Apple pointing to the new Stripes, Chronograph, and Artist faces, giving more options for what we can render in a watch app.

New Blood Oxygen Sensor

The sensor on the Series 6 Watches that measures blood oxygen levels is a great addition, particularly for developers that build apps for clients in the healthcare and fitness industry. The way it works is pretty straightforward – the sensor measures the oxygen saturation levels using LEDs built into the back of the Watch.

What’s also worth considering is what’s not here (yet). The introduction of the blood oxygen sensor speaks to increasing sophistication in the Watch’s hardware, which may mean even more impressive things are to come.

For instance, what if the Series 7 Watches could help detect blood sugar levels? Then we could build apps that could assist the millions of diabetics in the world – with a watch – and transform the way they manage their own health. Again, we’re not there yet, but with this technology improving by leaps and bounds, it may be here soon.

Even more from Apple Watch Series 6?

The new Apple Watch Series 6 and has a couple of other things worth briefly noting:

Family Setup

Family Setup is a system that allows multiple Watches to connect to a single iPhone. Apple sells this with the idea that kids can communicate with their parents through the Watch, while parents can keep track of where their kids are and send them reminders.

Hardware Performance

Overall, Series 6 is a nice improvement over its predecessors in terms of power and performance. It features a new CPU, the S6, making everything run faster. While the battery hasn’t improved like we were hoping, it maintains 18 hours of battery life despite hardware upgrades and now includes fast-charging capability.

So, what does this all mean?

Several months back, I’d said that while the Apple Watch was good, it needed more improvements before it deserved great investment. With the exception of battery life, this new release demonstrates the maturity of the platform – it’s ready to stop being a curiosity worn only by early adopters and tech enthusiasts, and into something that most public consumers could benefit from having. The Apple Watch, in short, has arrived.

The Apple Watch SE will also likely contribute to bringing more users into the fold with a smaller price tag while not skimping on performance. The SE models have the same size display, while only really compromising by not having an always-on display, the newest sensors found on the Series 6 (like the blood oxygen sensor), and limits on available colours and materials.I would anticipate at least a few people go in for this, especially first-time buyers of Apple Watches or Apple products generally.

This means now is the perfect time to build an app for the Apple Watch or a companion app for iOS. Doing so has never been easier, both to build the app and to integrate it with other Apple devices. Getting started now also means getting ahead of the curve, so by the time Series 7 is released, which will likely be a refinement of the major changes delivered this year, you can take full advantage of the latest Apple has to offer.

What Can You Do Now?

Since there’s such a wide range of things you do with the new Watch, rather than try to wade through the technical possibilities, I’ve got three examples of apps that can be made with the new Watch that was not possible with older models/OS versions:

Pizza Delivery

This was a great idea that my recent guest to my podcast, Steve Lipton, casually mentioned. I think it makes a great example of a companion app that could make use of multiple complications and watch faces.

I made an order form on a watch to order a pizza. In reality, that's not something that people will be doing is sitting there, scrolling away, trying to hit buttons. They'll do that on their phones. Instead, what they'll do is look at their watch and know where when the delivery time is going to be. Steve Lipton - Episode 63

First off, given its size, you’re not likely going to enjoy trying to order a pizza on the Watch (with maybe the exception of a repeat order that the app remembered) —You’ll still be wanting an iPhone or iPad. Once the order is made, however, the companion app could tell the customer, with a glance at their wrist:

Sports Tracking App

This takes advantage of the new multiple complications and watch faces. This app could conveniently let the user know the stats of, say, an ongoing hockey game while they are out walking their dog. With a single face (perhaps Stripes, Infograph, or Modular) you could have complications showing the time, score, as well as more detailed information like who scored the last goal or is in the penalty box. With WatchOS 7, displaying this relatively large amount of fast-moving data can be achieved relatively painlessly.

Health & Fitness Monitoring App

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the potential of new health & fitness apps for the Watch, something Apple itself heavily emphasized during the release with its Fitness+ workout service,

With all these new features, you could have a watch-based ‘cardiobot’ that could track, display, and record various statistics related to the user’s heart (heart rate, blood oxygen level, ECG). This could be helpful for someone out for a run focusing on maintaining an optimal heart rate. It could be equally helpful for a more sedentary user, alerting them to make sure they’re drinking enough water, or when it would be a good idea to go out for a walk. It could even alert medical services if it detects an arrhythmia or dangerous slowing of the wearer’s heart.

The new Apple Watch shows a lot of promise

I don’t think there’s been a more exciting time to be looking at developing for the Apple Watch since it first came out. Having a tiny computer on your wrist is a great idea, but it’s taken years to make it convenient, accessible, and worthwhile for both users and developers.

Keep track of the latest in Apple Watch app development

If you want to stay up-to-date on developer-relevant news, advice, and tips about the Watch and other platforms in the Apple ecosystem, I regularly cover this through my newsletter. As a specialist iOS and Apple developer, I’m always looking to the future to see what is coming next and how we can build better apps for our customers.