9 Years Ago, Apple Reinvented Watches as Must-Have Health and Fitness ‘Guardians’

The Apple Watch started as a fashion accessory without a purpose before morphing into a health device that many people now can’t live without.

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A persons finger pointing at the original Apple Watch, which launched 9 years ago in 2015
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The Apple Watch had a lot of hopes pinned on it when it launched in 2015. Not only was the smartwatch the first proper device of the Tim Cook era at Apple, but as a new product category, the Apple Watch suggested the possibility of a post-iPhone future for a company that had come to be defined by its touchscreen phone.

Based on initial analyst predictions, Apple was expected to sell as many as 36 million units in the first year the Apple Watch was available. In the end, Apple reportedly shipped less than half of that — only 11.6 million smartwatches. But even if the Apple Watch wasn’t a smashing success out of the gate, as Apple shifted its approach to wearables (like adding in AirPods), the smartwatch did grow in popularity. The wrist-worn computer also revealed itself to be a key component of a new area of intense interest for Apple: the future of health.

Whether as the all-in-one iPhone replacement it launched as, or the streamlined notification-and-fitness wearable it has become, one thing that’s remained consistent about the Apple Watch is its ability to offer insights about your physical activity and health. Apple once likened these features to being a “guardian” on your wrist, and as the Apple Watch turns 10 next year, they’re only going to become more important over the next decade.

Not Quite a Smartwatch Revolution

The Apple Watch was conceived to do much more than what ti currently does.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Apple introduced the Apple Watch in 2014 as its “most personal device ever,” layering the smartwatch with functionality from the iPhone like making calls, sending messages, and receiving notifications. There were also new ideas that only seemed worthwhile on a device strapped to your wrist, like activity tracking and Digital Touch (a new system for sending non-verbal communications). Those included things like sending a quick doodle, taps that would register as haptic feedback on another person’s wrist, and famously, your heartbeat. The first version of watchOS was kind of a mess, but if there’s anything that came through that initial pitch, it’s that the Apple Watch could serve as a fashion-forward intermediary between you and the things you do on your iPhone.

Reviewers who got to try the original Apple Watch were open to that idea, even if Apple’s execution was confusing and underpowered.

“By notifying me of digital events as soon as they happened, and letting me act on them instantly, without having to fumble for my phone, the Watch became something like a natural extension of my body,” Farhad Manjoo wrote for The New York Times. Though not one without “a learning curve that may deter some people.”

The original Apple Watch didn’t display the time until you looked at it to save battery.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images

In The Verge’s review, those abilities were hampered by poor performance first and foremost. “There’s virtually nothing I can’t do faster or better with access to a laptop or a phone except perhaps check the time,” Nilay Patel wrote.

The kinks were ironed out with new hardware and, critically, a complete overhaul of watchOS in the years that followed. Apple deprioritized Digital Touch, burying it in the menus of the Messages app, removed Glances (simplified versions of apps with widget-sized information), and refocused the smartwatch on the thing that made it unique: health and fitness. Other than new watch faces and the introduction of widgets, the biggest upgrades to the Apple Watch since have been the addition of new health features like sleep tracking, a built-in ECG app, heart rate variability notifications, and the ability to take blood-oxygen measurements (though new models have the feature disabled because of an injunction from the U.S. ITC concerning Apple infringing on a patent). With Fitbit in its crosshairs, the Apple Watch became a lot more like a classy fitness tracker and sold millions.

A Trojan Horse for Health

That focus on health was, if you take former Apple chief design officer Jony Ive at his word, always part of the plan. “An early and significant focus was developing both the hardware and software to form the foundation for all of the health-based capabilities,” Ive told Hodinkee Magazine in 2018.

A year later in 2019, Tim Cook put even more emphasis on Apple’s interest in a CNBC interview: “I believe, if you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ it will be about health.”

Offering a way to improve the well-being of its users has been part of Tim Cook’s playbook as Apple searches for the next iPhone-sized business. Subscription services, whether they’re Apple TV+ or Fitness+, are one attempt, but like the Vision Pro, health is something bigger, and the Apple Watch is at the center of it. Apple doesn’t just want people to buy an Apple Watch because they own an iPhone, it wants people to buy an Apple Watch because they want to live — yes, live. At least that’s what the company’s increasingly grim marketing suggests.

“I believe, if you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ it will be about health.”

Features like Emergency SOS on the iPhone (users can access satellite radios to call for help and send messages), Crash Detection (automatically contacts emergency services when your phone or smartwatch detects a car crash), and even irregular heart rhythm notifications on the Apple Watch have all saved lives. Apple’s new products are designed to act as a variety of health and safety “guardians” for different aspects of your life, and by improving the Apple Watch, those guardians only grow in number.

According to Bloomberg, Apple has considered expanding its role in health with medical clinics and health-focused subscription services. The current — and really challenging goal — is using an Apple Watch to detect high blood sugar, potentially eliminating the need to prick your finger or wear a glucose monitor to manage diabetes. In the short term, though, the company is reportedly expanding existing sleep and heart health features with a way to detect sleep apnea and high blood pressure. Lifesaving health features are a new way to get people to upgrade, but ones Apple seems to think will be successful.

Truly Standalone

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is inching the Apple Watch closer to being a standalone device.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Besides the technical challenges, which are difficult, the biggest obstacle to the Apple Watch becoming the health-tracking superstar it has the potential to be is Apple’s own business model. The Apple Watch’s role as an accessory to the iPhone has been beneficial, not just because iPhone users are incentivized to buy one based on how well they work together, but because owning one means you’re more likely to keep buying iPhones. Apple Watches don’t work with Android and Apple has no plans to ever support them (though it reportedly tried).

Apple has made small moves to make its smartwatch a distinct product from the iPhone, introducing Family Setup for parents who want their kids to have an Apple Watch without an iPhone, or selling the Apple Watch Ultra, which gets days of battery life. Unfortunately, you still need to own an iPhone to set up an Apple Watch, so the dream of it becoming more of a standalone device has yet to materialize.

If the future of the Apple Watch is as a health product, then it should be accessible without having to purchase an iPhone, and it should probably connect with more devices like the Apple Vision Pro. If the last nine years have been transforming the Apple Watch into a successful health and fitness device, the next 10 need to be spent turning it into one that can stand on its own, sales be damned.

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