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The Apple Watch could steal the show at Apple’s iPhone 14 . launch event

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The iPhone is still Apple’s flagship product and doesn’t come close. Don’t be distracted by all the people craving a car, wondering what Apple’s AR headset might look like, claiming the iPad is the computer of the future, or wishing Apple would continue to build a TV. The iPhone still accounts for the bulk of Apple’s revenue, and iPhone users — who also pay for iCloud and Apple TV Plus and buy cases and cables and headphones and smartwatches — account for even more. Apple has been The iPhone Company for over a decade and that won’t change anytime soon.

But the iPhone may not be the star of the show on Wednesday, when Apple holds its annual fall product showcase. We’re expecting new iPhones, yes – an iPhone 14, an iPhone 14 Pro, and an iPhone 14 Pro Max – but they seem likely to be the latest in a long line of slightly better iPhones. The iPhone is a great but thoroughly mature product, and the most insane innovations may have already happened.

Instead, keep an eye on Apple’s smaller screen, because the main device category that Apple will be talking about this week is the Apple Watch. Apple appears to be preparing to announce as many as three new smartwatch models, including an Apple Watch Pro that’s bigger (apparently much bigger), more powerful and more useful than any previous Watch version. And in the process, it could also finally advocate for the Watch as the next great Apple device.

Seven years after its original debut, Apple has turned the Watch into a super-successful iPhone accessory. But the Watch could be more, and Apple should finally make it happen. Because not all of us will be getting Apple headsets anytime soon, and good luck waiting for that car to finally ship. As the smartphone market continues to settle, and people keep their phones longer and anchored in their ecosystems, the Watch gives Apple a chance to have the next big thing already out there. The smartwatch is an old hat, but the era of the wrist computer may have just begun.

When Apple first launched the Watch, it talked about fitness, as well as communication and productivity.

Apple’s original ambitions for the Apple Watch were big – probably too big at the time. The company envisioned it as, essentially, a more human version of your iPhone. Because it’s on your wrist, you don’t have to fish it out of your pocket a hundred times a day. It has biometric sensors that help the device — and you — understand how you’re doing physically at any given time. It uses Siri to perform most simple tasks. Put those things together and you’d have a device that could be a digital partner that could improve your life, not a big flashing screen trying to suck the life out of you.

Since then, the watch has primarily become a fitness and health device. Almost every other smartwatch has changed that too. And Apple’s is an excellent one: the stories you hear about life-saving things fall detection or heart rate notifications are real, and the Fitness Plus ecosystem has become one of the best beginner training tools on the market.

Apple also continues to lean on what it does best. The new watches will reportedly have body temperature sensors, and Apple is also rumored to be working on glucose monitoring. The Watch Pro is going to be a powerful multisport fitness device in every way, taking on Garmin and Polar with a more robust body and a more refined construction. And from what we know about watchOS 9, the new software that will power these new watches, health and fitness remain the driving forces behind the devices. Apple is adding more sleep tracking, improved medication and heart rate tracking, and more granular controls and analytics for athletes. The watch remains a fitness device.

In watchOS 9, most of the key features are still fitness-related.
Image: Apple

But hold on, an Apple Watch with a bigger screen, rumored to have more buttons, and probably better battery life is coming? And maybe even satellite connection? Not only would that make the Watch a better fitness device, but it could open up some things Apple couldn’t do before. The watch’s small battery always meant you couldn’t ask it to do intense things, and the small screen made it hard to type or tap too much. But even a small expansion of both the battery and the screen could solve some of those problems. (The Watch Pro is rumored to have another button on the case, and one button can make a big difference in what a device can do.)

The Apple Watch will never be a good TikTok device or a satisfying way to watch House of the Dragon. But it doesn’t have to be that way. To deliver on its promise, the Apple Watch simply has to be a better tool for managing the fast, constant interactions we all have with technology every day. In that world, your phone becomes something you use whenever you want – to watch something, play a game, take some pictures, read the news – instead of the all-rounder device it is today. The best way to turn on your lights is just not to fish your phone out of your pocket, turn it on, unlock it, open an app, and toggle a button. There are a million such things in every iPhone user’s life, and the watch should be the answer for most of them.

These are obviously tricky problems to solve, especially on a small screen, and Apple has been working on them for a while. Checking notifications is the most important, and Apple says watchOS 9 has redesigned them to “be less distracting and still have an impact.” Apple has also redesigned the Reminders and Calendar apps, both things you should check often but rarely need a full screen of information. WatchOS 9 gives more access to voice calling apps, making Watch and AirPods a powerful communication combo.

The Watch already serves part of that purpose – some parents are buy their kids mobile connected watches instead of smartphones, for example, so they can monitor and connect with their kids without worrying about screen time and internet addiction. Apple has embraced this trend and added more parental controls and Family Sharing features to the Watch. But a healthier, more functional relationship with technology is what Apple hoped the Watch would bring to everyone.

The most powerful version of the Watch is one that is completely separate from the iPhone. Until you can set it up, download and organize all your apps, and use the watch all by yourself, it will still feel like a phone accessory. Apple has taken some steps in that direction, including with the Family Setup feature, but a fully self-sufficient smartwatch might still be too complicated and energy-intensive to do. Not to mention, Apple has exactly no reason for that to happen, as it would really like you to buy an iPhone anyway. A good middle ground might be to need an iPhone for occasional installation and maintenance, but otherwise let the watch do its job.

The other thing that has held the Watch back for a long time is that Siri isn’t very good. It works great for setting timers and doing really basic tasks, but still makes simple and unacceptable mistakes all the time. I yell “Hey Siri, remind me” about a hundred times a day on my phone, and it only spells the task right about half the time. I’ve officially given up on playing the song I’m thinking about or using it to replace web searches. In a way, though, a full-featured Watch can deliver on Siri’s promise by making all the little things easier to access and reach. It only uses buttons instead of voice commands.

If Apple doesn’t figure out how to turn smartwatches into more than just fitness equipment, the chances are that someone else will. Google is reinvesting in space, and the Pixel Watch is likely to arrive in the coming weeks. Samsung’s Galaxy Watches also continue to improve. Apple is definitely dominating the smartwatch market, but real and powerful competitors are finally starting to emerge in the space.

When Tim Cook and co. announcing the new Watch models, they will almost certainly continue to talk about them as health and fitness devices. It’s a good pitch and it works! But watch for signs that Apple knows it’s building not just a fitness tracker, but a wrist-based computer that knows who you are and how you’re doing — and that Apple is starting to figure out what to do with it. Maybe there won’t be, and maybe Apple is happy to build a great fitness tracker. But perhaps, as technology improves, screens get bigger and batteries last longer, Apple is ready to get back to building the less intrusive, more functional computing tool we’ve been waiting for.

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