WWDC 2021: watchOS 8 and health features – key takeaways

WWDC 2021: watchOS 8 and health features – key takeaways

Canalys’ views on watchOS and health announcements from Apple’s WWDC 2021 event.


Apple’s watchOS improvements can usually be categorized into three key focus areas: health and fitness, connectivity, and user experience. While improvements in health and fitness are deemed most important to the platform, it is tricky to announce new tracking metrics without unveiling new hardware that incorporates new or improved sensors, especially to track new biometrics, such as blood glucose level or blood pressure. Health and fitness improvements and updates announced at WWDC 2021 came in the form of:

  • Additional fitness tracking profiles – Tai Chi and Pilates.
  • Additional features and a new series of Apple Fitness+ workouts.
  • Expanding the Breathe app into a Mindfulness app.
  • Sleep tracking to also include respiratory rate tracking.

The added respiratory rate measurement, coupled with other metrics, such as blood oxygen level, can help identify users’ cardiovascular fitness and load, and changes that may indicate other conditions, especially issues related to sleep. Developers will be able to use the respiratory rate metric to build apps and features down the road. Notably, Apple added new tracking measurements, some of which are less common (such as walking steadiness, walking asymmetry, etc) and would require users to dig deeper into the Apple Health App in order to find out more, especially to understand how things are trending in the longer term.

Announcements on connectivity stood out more prominently, as Apple is able to flex its ecosystem muscles, showing watchOS features that use UWB technology to fulfil key use cases, such as finding items using Find My network, digital car keys, and digital keys for home, office and hotels, which can be added to the Wallet app. Like health tracking, features built on UWB connectivity are sticky and highly effective in increasing users’ reliance on their Apple Watches, compelling them to wear them regularly. UWB technology is one of the few areas that competing vendors may find hard to replicate, because it requires a seamless integration of hardware and software ecosystem, often involving third-party developers’ support to fulfil pragmatic use cases, which may have the potential to turn into killer use cases.

Other updates, such as improved customization of portrait photos for watch faces, a music app redesign, and photos from memories, are being added to improve the overall user experience. While features added on the health side of watchOS may not gather the most attention, Apple’s strategy to strongly position its devices as health companions has never been clearer, especially as the company is moving to encourage users to store medical records on iPhones. These can include immunization records and test results, which may hint at a form of vaccine passport, which will be very important as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist around the world. With Apple’s focus on data privacy and security, it is well placed to extend its lead in driving the adoption of digital health data recording and sharing on mobile devices, especially in the US market.