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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

With watchOS 3, Apple Watch gets a do-over

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

I wear an Apple Watch every day and I can’t tell you how excited I am at the prospect of using watchOS 3. It’s truly Apple’s second take on how the Apple Watch should work, based on a year of real-world use by millions of people.

It’s tough to admit that you were wrong. With watchOS 3, that’s what Apple is doing on numerous fronts. I get why someone might have thought that using the watch’s side button as a gateway to a miniature contacts list was a good idea, but in practice it was readily apparent to be a misguided use of one of the device’s only physical controls. watchOS 3 admits the mistake and re-tasks that button for something far better: a dock of important apps, already loaded and ready to run.

Sometimes you’re wrong because you have an idea that you think will work, but it just doesn’t come together or mesh with the way people want to use your product. I think that’s what happened with the Friends button. Reality collided with that vision, and reality has won. (Full credit to Apple here: I thought it was distinctly possible that they’d double down and try to tweak the Friends view rather than kill it.)

But sometimes you make what is (in hindsight) the wrong move, not out of a creative vision that was lacking, but out of fear and a lack of information. That’s part of the explanation of what happened to the Apple Watch. As Apple’s Craig Federighi admitted on stage at John Gruber’s live edition of The Talk Show on Tuesday night, Apple was deeply concerned (almost to the level of panic) about running out of battery life on the watch.

You may not remember this, but before the Apple Watch came out, there were many rumors that it wasn’t able to get through a day without a charge. It’s clear that Apple made battery life a top priority, perhaps even the top priority: This thing better last all day. And so everyone was incredibly conservative with power and memory.

The result: They overshot. Most of the people I know now report that they end their day with their Apple Watches reporting 40 or 50 percent of remaining battery life. Federighi admitted that there was a lot of extra memory and battery life available to them when building watchOS 3, because they overshot so much. And that’s why watchOS seems almost impossibly better than watchOS 2, given that it’s running on the same hardware.

More important than realizing that the hardware has more resources than are currently being tapped was Apple deciding how to apply those resources. Watch interfaces are entirely about quick glances. Nobody wants to use their watch for an extended period of time—you want to glance, maybe tap a couple of times, and then move on.

So Apple used the windfall of RAM and battery to get watch apps to load quickly, and both apps and complications to remain updated at all times. No more multi-second load times that make you give up and turn to your phone, and even more importantly, no more watch complications that show you data that’s no longer correct, because the new information hasn’t been updated in the background.

Apple has managed this in watchOS 3 by essentially creating two classes of apps: The ones that are important (as signaled by the user) are the ones that are in the new watchOS Dock (accessible by that big hardware button that used to show you your friends) or whose complications are on a watch face. The ones that aren’t in the Dock or on faces, well… they’re present, but not important.

(The honeycomb-style launch screen still exists in watchOS 3—it’s just been downgraded to a last resort. Now the Dock, which is sort of the evolution of the old Glances interface, is one of the primary ways you open a full app. The other is tapping on complications.)

There’s more, too, including the aggressive foregrounding of apps (specifically fitness trackers) when they’re active. I tried to use a few different fitness tracking and running apps with my Apple Watch, but they all seemed to get sent to the background far too aggressively. Again, that made sense if you’re Apple and trying to conserve memory and energy, but the result of the decision was a degraded experience that made it not worth running those apps.

The proof will be in the final version this fall, of course. But WWDC is also about surprises and expectation, and on that score, watchOS 3 is at the top of my list of favorite things this week. Or to put it another way, my wish list has been almost entirely fulfilled.

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