"Instant" app launches and more: The seven biggest features coming to the Apple Watch in watchOS 3

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Apple's not just mickeying around with its next OS update for the Apple Watch(Credit: Apple)

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Apple kicked off its World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) today by focusing on the changes coming to their smartwatch through the upcoming watchOS 3 update. Here are seven of the highlights.

Faster app launches

App load times have long been one of the Apple Watch's big Achilles heels, but that's (finally) about to change.

Apple's vice president of technology Kevin Lynch said that watchOS 3 will bring a "serious acceleration in app launch time," stating that apps should "respond instantly." The company is accomplishing this by storing a user's favorite apps in memory so there is no launch lag time and updating apps in the background so that a user doesn't need to wait for an update when the app is launched. Lynch says this system will accelerate the speed of app access by about power of seven and indeed, that estimate seemed pretty accurate when he demonstrated the use of an app called Onefootball.

Easier navigation

The watchOS 3 platform will allow users to access apps simply by pressing the smartwatch's side button (formerly used to call up favorite contacts), which will now bring up the dock — a set of user-designated apps that can be scrolled horizontally. If scrolling one-by-one is too slow, you can also move through them by putting your finger on the dots in the navigation bar at the bottom of the screen to zip to the one you want. Also, it will now be possible to access the watch's control center by swiping up from the bottom, same as in iOS.

Scribble

Lynch also announced that it will be easier to reply to messages in watchOS 3, as responses are available directly beneath an incoming message – including pre-set smart replies – with no need to press "reply."

Perhaps the biggest announcement of the day, though, is that the Apple Watch will be incorporating a handwriting recognition interface called Scribble, bringing it up to speed with the recently-announced Android Wear 2.0. To use the feature, you write one letter at a time on the screen's face and your input is converted to text. The app works with English or Chinese, as Apple's Stacey Lysik demonstrated at the presentation.

New watch faces

The Apple watch has had a Mickey Mouse watch face for awhile now, but Lynch announced that Minnie Mouse – complete with changeable outfits – will be joining him when watchOS 3 is released.

Additionally, there will be a watch face that brings Apple's activity rings front and center. If you're not familiar with the rings, they're a visual tracker that shows your progress through your fitness goals and encourages you to close a circle by completing different activities. There's also going to be a new watch face called numerals, which will cause only the hour number to light up as the watch hands work their way around the screen throughout the day.

Furthermore, all watch faces can be more easily chosen through swiping and watch faces can be customized to display the information of your choosing such as the weather or photographs.

Emergency help

Once watchOS 3 ships, Apple Watch wearers will have a new way to access emergency services should the need arrive. Pressing and holding the side button will initiate a countdown to an automated call to 911, which will then go live through the watch – either via a tether to your iPhone or directly over Wi-Fi if you're connected.

The watch will also automatically send a message to your emergency contacts with a map of your location. Following that, the watch will display your medical ID including any information important to first responders. The feature will also work internationally, automatically connecting to the right number for emergency services wherever you may be wearing it.

Enhanced activity tracker

If closing circles every day isn't enough to get you motivated to do that extra five minutes on the treadmill, you'll be able to share your activity with your friends right from Apple Watch — and spy on them as well. You'll be able to swipe to the right of your activity rings to see those of your family and friends, sortable by the metric of your choice. So if you want to taunt your friends after getting back from a hike, you could ask to see all your friends' step count rings. If you need a bit of a boost, you can check out the workout ring of your fitness instructor.

Once that's set up, you'll be able to send smart replies to your friends or, as Apple's director of fitness and health technologies Jay Blahnick says, "you can also send smack talk in your own voice right through audio messages."

Blahnick also announced that watchOS 3 will have the ability to track the fitness patterns of individuals in wheelchairs through a special setting, thanks to research they've done with the Challenged Athletes Foundation and the Lakeshore Foundation.

Breathe

While much of the fitness functionality of the Apple Watch has been focused on physical activity, Blahnick says that watchOS 3 will bring a new app called Breathe that will help people engage in moments of deep breathing throughout the day.

The duration of the sessions can be set with the watch's digital bezel, and a visual cue will help keep your breaths on track. If you prefer to do the breathing routine with your eyes closed, the watch's haptic feedback mechanism will guide you through your inhales and exhales with gentle taps on the wrist. At the end of the breathing session, you are given your heart rate.

Lynch ended the presentation by saying that watchOS 3 will be coming as a free upgrade to all Apple Watch users this fall and that the release will make it feel like "a whole new watch."

While the Apple Watch has been by far the most commercially successful smartwatch (and second to Fitbit as the most successful wearable) it hasn't yet had the culture-shifting impact of the iPhone (or maybe even the iPad). None of today's updates reinvent the device so much as they add some minor conveniences, so it looks like the Apple Watch, and wearables in general, will continue to try to slowly pick up steam, and slowly integrate themselves into our lives, rather than repeating the (nearly) overnight shift we saw with smartphones and tablets.

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