Apple’s heart monitoring features have just launched for its latest Apple Watch, marking its official graduation from smart gizmo and fitness wearable to health-oriented device.
The Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant revealed its intentions to support electrocardiograms — i.e., ECG or EKG — and arrhythmia detection during the Apple Watch Series 4 announcement in September. The device, which shipped with the requisite hardware — including electrodes in the backside of the watch and the digital crown — was merely waiting for the necessary software.
The watchOS 5.1.2 update, released Thursday, now employs those components, primarily to pick up on the heart’s electrical signals. Users can check their heart health by launching the ECG app and, while snugly wearing the watch, touch the crown for 30 seconds. The software reveals whether the wearer has a steady, regular pattern (sinus rhythm) or atrial fibrillation (or AFib, indicating an irregular heartbeat). Otherwise, the results come in as inconclusive, possibly from a user error or a pattern that doesn’t fit neatly into the other categories.
People can also set up a passive monitoring feature that checks for irregular heart rates every couple of hours and sends an alert if any issues crop up.
The device may seem like it’s crossing into medical equipment territory, but Apple takes great pains to stop short of touting its watch that way. In matters like this, common sense rules: No consumer wearable can take the place of professional diagnostic equipment in the hands of experienced health-care professionals.
But they can, presumably, lend a hand. Or a wrist.
Apple certainly hopes consumers find value in that. Its dominant position in the wearables market has been challenged recently. Chinese electronics giant Xiaomi has made massive global market gains and, according to IDC’s latest report, it has usurped Apple’s place as the world’s top wearables provider.
Challenged to find new growth areas, the Apple Watch maker and others such as Fitbit have been looking to expand from smart notifications and step counts to more serious health features. Another example: In addition to heart monitoring, the Apple Watch 4 includes fall detection. Once activated, the feature can tell if the user has fallen and automatically contact emergency services.
Companies such as Fossil have shown little interest in health features, beyond tracking steps and sleep, that is. But if its customers start demanding feature parity — as they have with mobile payments and standalone GPS — that might put the company in a tough spot.
As a marquee wearables partner for Google, Fossil has tied its smartwatch business somewhat to Wear OS. And with Google’s collaborations with the World Health Organization and American Heart Association to optimize fitness and encourage healthy habits, its wearables effort still skews more fitness and wellness than health care.
That likely won’t change anytime soon, judging by the company’s executive lineup. The search giant recently hired Stacey Burr, the former vice president of Adidas’ wearable sports electronics, to run Wear OS and Google Fit.
With some companies sticking with popular features and others staking out new territory, the result may be more options for a broader array of consumers and use cases. And that means wearables, in all their forms, aren’t missing a beat.