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WWDC 2019: How the Apple Watch Is Breaking Free From the iPhone

As the Apple Watch enters its fifth year on the market, the smart device is getting a little more independent, outgrowing its toddler-aged status.

Apple unveiled a host of improvements for the upcoming update of its WatchOS on Monday, from new watch faces and a female menstrual tracker to an audio books app. But several new features seemed intended to make the digital timepiece less dependent on a linked iPhone, while keeping the device ahead of rivals from Fitbit (FIT), Garmin (GRMN), and Samsung.

When it arrives for consumers in the fall, Apple’s new watch software will finally let users search for and install new watch apps, right on their wrists. Currently, Apple Watch apps are buried in a tab on iOS’s Watch app, making them difficult to find, browse, and download. And after the update watch apps will also be able to run completely independently, no longer requiring a companion iPhone app, Apple says.

“It’s super easy to discover and download great apps for the watch,” Haley Allen, Apple’s watch software program lead, said as she demonstrated the new feature at Monday’s World Wide Developer Conference in San Jose.

The move to create an app store right on the watch is the next step in allowing the watch to exist as a totally separate device, says Ben Wood, mobile and wireless industry analyst at CCS Insight. “Given that some watch variants now have built in cellular capability, it would not be a huge step to make it a completely stand alone device, if Apple chose that direction for the product,” he says.

Apple doesn’t disclose exact sales of the watch, revealing only that revenue of all its wearables, audio gear, and other accessory items totaled $20.4 billion for the past year through the end of March, up 33% from the prior 12 months. (In comparison, iPhone sales for the same period were $150.1 billion.) Apple was the world’s top seller of smart wearable devices, moving 46 million devices in 2018, research firm IDC estimated.

There are a number of ways Apple (AAPL) could expand its market of potential watch buyers beyond just iPhone owners, including by allowing users to set up the device with an iPad or even an Android phone, analyst Carolina Milanesi at Creative Strategies says.

“I know it is unlikely, but they could make it a hook for switchers,” she says, of the potential for linking Apple Watch with an Android device. “And I doubt they would be able to make the experience as sleek as they do with iPhone, so the risk of people leaving the ecosystem is small.”

The WatchOS update also gives Apple Watch enhanced power to stream audio tracks directly from the web. Currently, apps can only play audio on the watch by streaming it from a connected iPhone. But when the new software comes available, users won’t need an iPhone to listen to audio, whether it’s from live sports events, music services, or podcasts. This is particularly useful if the watch has a built-in cellular connection, a feature Apple introduced two years ago, so the wearable can play the streaming audio anywhere, regardless of Wi-Fi availability.

Apple had to figure out how to adapt its app store from the iPhone to fit on the smaller screen of the watch. The company designed the watch App Store to open with a scrolling list of popular and suggested apps. Apple also lets users search for specific apps using dictation, the “scribble” handwriting-to-text system, or by asking Siri.

The resulting tiny app store has longtime Apple analyst Katy Huberty at Morgan Stanley impressed. She also likes some improvements for developers making apps for the Mac computer. Users of both devices will likely start using—and buying—more apps, she says.

“After today’s announcements, we believe Apple Watch and Mac will more meaningfully contribute to App Store growth, while further solidifying Apple as the most attractive platform for app developers,” she writes in an investor’s note. Combined, all of Apple’s App Stores could bring in almost $4 billion this quarter for Apple, Morgan Stanley estimates, and more than twice as much for developers, who get 70% of the revenue on each sale.

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