Apple Watch Wakes Up to Sleep Tracking

Overdue feature rolling out with watchOS 7

Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) hit the headlines last week, bringing a slew of developments to its operating systems including iOS, iPadOS, macOS and tvOS. But the platform I was keeping a really close eye on was watchOS. I was on the lookout for any hints that could indicate the possible feature set of the Apple Watch Series 6, which is expected to launch later in 2020, most likely in September along with the newest iPhones.

Although WWDC 2020 devoted a relatively short amount of time to watchOS 7, it provided some clues about the future direction of the Apple Watch.

The most telling announcement was the addition of sleep tracking to watchOS. This is a feature that’s been conspicuously absent from the device, mainly because of battery life restrictions, I believe. On its website Apple says its “goal for battery life is 18 hours after an overnight charge” making it unlikely that wearers can get through an entire day and night on one charge. Apple also says that charging takes about 1.5 hours to 80% and about two hours to 100%.

It may be that Apple has avoided sleep tracking so far to avoid highlighting this shortcoming. If that’s the case, I believe the decision to enable sleep analysis indicates that the next-generation Apple Watch will marry a greatly enhanced battery life and rapid charging, enabling near-continuous wear for at least a couple of days. Poor battery life has long been one of the drawbacks of the Apple Watch, so such improvements would prove popular with customers.

Sleep tracking also adds another tool to the health-monitoring capabilities of the Apple Watch, which is increasingly marketed as an all-round health-guardian device. WWDC 2020 didn’t offer any hints about new health sensors on the Watch Series 7 as this would be a hardware, rather than software, announcement and could dampen demand for its current portfolio. However, I’d be extremely surprised to see Apple’s new wearable launch without any new health-tracking sensors, and measurement of skin temperature could be a particularly timely addition given the ongoing health crisis as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On that topic, Apple announced automatic hand-washing detection on watchOS 7, which harnesses the Watch’s motion sensors, microphone and on-device machine learning to detect hand-washing sounds and motions. Users are automatically given a 20-second countdown, with prompts to keep washing if they try to finish before time is up. The Watch can also remind wearers to wash their hands when they return home. I’m sceptical about the need for this particular application of advanced machine learning and about the “well done!” message shown when users complete a wash, which carries a slightly patronizing tone. Nonetheless, Apple will almost certainly highlight this as an important use of its technology for the good of public health.

Further changes to watchOS are largely incremental. Apple promised that Watch faces will become more personalized and customizable, bringing more “complications” — additional dials and micro-updates for things like temperature, sports performance, time zones and more — than ever before. The Activity app will be rebranded as Fitness and will include new workouts such as dance. Cycling directions will also be a new addition to the Watch, integrating with deeper investment that Apple is making to its Maps to support bikes. All these updates promise to make the device more usable and useful in day-to-day life for many people.

It’s fair to say that overall, it wasn’t a blockbuster set of announcements for watchOS, and I was surprised to see no progress on a more fully featured standalone mode, or the ability to sync with other devices such as the iPad. However, the developments further polish an operating system that’s streets ahead of the competition, cementing the Apple Watch’s position as one of the most capable and complete wearables on the market.

Sleep tracking is a welcome and long-overdue addition that provides a further string to the Watch’s bow. If the Series 6 supports this with enhanced battery life, then one of the biggest weaknesses of the Watch will finally have been overcome. In the race for wearables dominance, all eyes will be on Apple come September.