The iPhone is still Apple’s most important product, and it’s not remotely close. Don’t get distracted by all the people pining for a car, wondering what Apple’s AR headset might look like, claiming the iPad is the computer of the future, or wishing Apple would go ahead and build a TV already. The iPhone still accounts for most 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 more than a decade, and that’s not changing anytime soon.
But the iPhone might 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 look likely to be the latest in a long line of slightly better iPhones. The iPhone is a terrific but thoroughly mature product, and its most whiz-bang innovations may already have happened.
Keep an eye on Apple’s smaller screen instead because the most important device category Apple will talk 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 is bigger (apparently much bigger), more powerful, and more useful than any previous Watch versions. And in the process, it could also finally start to make the case 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 needs to finally make it happen. Because we’re not all 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 stay entrenched in their ecosystems, the Watch gives Apple a chance to have the next big thing that’s already here. The smartwatch is old hat, but the wrist-computer era might be just beginning.
Apple’s original ambitions for the Apple Watch were big — probably too big at the time. The company imagined it as, in essence, a more human version of your iPhone. Since 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 physically doing at any given moment. It uses Siri to accomplish most simple tasks. Put those things together, and you’d have a device that could be a digital partner that could help make your life better, not a big blinking screen that tries to suck the life out of you.
Since then, the Watch has turned into primarily a fitness and health device. Almost every other smartwatch has turned into that, too. And Apple’s is an excellent one: the stories you hear about life-saving fall detection or heart rate notifications are real, and the Fitness Plus ecosystem has turned into one of the best beginner workout tools on the market.
Apple continues to lean into what it does best, too. The new watches will reportedly have body temperature sensors, and Apple’s rumored to be working on glucose monitoring as well. The Watch Pro is, by all accounts, going to be a powerful multi-sport fitness device, taking on the likes of Garmin and Polar with a more rugged body and a more sophisticated build. And from what we know of watchOS 9, the new software that will power these new watches, health and fitness continue to be the driving forces behind the devices. Apple’s adding more sleep tracking, improved medication and heart rate tracking, and more fine-grained controls and analytics for athletes. The Watch remains a fitness device.
But hang on: there’s now going to be an Apple Watch with a bigger screen, reportedly more buttons, and likely better battery life? And maybe even satellite connectivity? Not only could that make the Watch a better fitness device, but it could also open up some of the things Apple hasn’t been able to do before. The Watch’s small battery always meant you couldn’t ask it to do intense things, and the small screen made it tough to type or tap around too much. But even a small expansion of both battery and display could make some of those problems go away. (The Watch Pro is also rumored to have one more 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 satisfactory way to watch House of the Dragon. But it doesn’t have to be. To live up to its promise, the Apple Watch just has to be a better tool for managing the quick, constant interactions we all have with technology every day. In that world, your phone becomes a thing you use when you want to — to watch something, play a game, take some pictures, read the news — rather than the jack-of-all-trades device that it currently is. There’s just no way that the best way to turn on your lights is to fish your phone out of your pocket, turn it on, unlock it, open an app, and toggle a button. There are a million things like that in every iPhone user’s life, and the Watch should be the answer for most of them.
These are tricky problems to solve, of course, especially on a small screen, and Apple’s been plugging along at it for some time. Checking notifications is the most significant one, and Apple says watchOS 9 redesigns them to be “less interruptive while still being impactful.” Apple also redesigned the Reminders and Calendar apps, both things you need to check often but rarely need a full screen of information from. WatchOS 9 gives more access to voice call apps, which would make Watch and AirPods a potent communication combo.
The Watch is already serving some of that purpose — some parents are buying their kids cellular-connected watches instead of smartphones, for instance, so they can track and connect with their kids without worrying about screen time and internet addiction. Apple has leaned into this trend, adding more parental controls and Family Sharing features to the Watch. But a saner, more functional relationship with technology is the thing Apple hoped the Watch would provide for everyone.
The most powerful version of the Watch is one that’s totally untethered from the iPhone. Until you can set it up, download and organize all your apps, and use the Watch entirely on its own, it will continue to feel like a phone accessory. Apple’s made a couple of moves in that direction, including with the Family Setup provisioning, but a fully self-sufficient smartwatch might still be too complicated and too power-hungry to pull off. Not to mention, Apple has precisely no reason to make that happen because it would still really prefer you buy an iPhone. A good middle ground might be to require an iPhone for occasional setup and maintenance but let the Watch operate on its own otherwise.
The other thing that has long held the Watch back is that Siri isn’t very good. It works fine for setting timers and executing really basic tasks but still makes simple and unacceptable mistakes all the time. I shout “Hey Siri, remind me to” at my phone about a hundred times a day, and it spells the task right only about half the time. I’ve officially given up trying to get it to play the song I’m thinking of or using it to replace web searches. In a way, though, a fully featured Watch can fulfill the promise of Siri by making all the little things easier to access and accomplish. It’ll just use buttons instead of voice commands.
If Apple doesn’t figure out how to turn smartwatches into more than fitness devices, there’s an increasingly good chance that someone else will. Google is reinvesting in the space, and the Pixel Watch is likely coming in the next few weeks. Samsung’s Galaxy Watches continue to improve as well. Apple absolutely dominates the smartwatch market, but there are real and powerful competitors finally starting to appear in the space.
When Tim Cook and co. announce the new Watch models, they’ll almost certainly continue to talk about them as health and fitness devices. It’s a good pitch, and it’s working! But keep an eye out for signs that Apple knows it’s building not just a fitness tracker but a wrist computer that knows who you are and how you’re doing — and that Apple is starting to figure out what to do with that. Maybe there won’t be any, and maybe Apple is happy just building a great fitness tracker. But maybe, 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.