In a recent development, Apple Watches in the U.S. may soon be devoid of their blood oxygen-measuring capabilities due to an ongoing legal battle with Masimo, a pulse oximeter manufacturer. While reports suggest that the removal is in response to the lawsuit, the question remains: was the blood-oxygen feature ever truly indispensable?
The tech giant had temporarily halted the sales of watches featuring blood oxygen functionality in late 2023. Utilizing pulse oximetry, the technology gauges the oxygen saturation levels in one’s blood, mimicking the process of finger-clip pulse oximeters in a more convenient, wearable format.
For current owners of Series 6 or later watches equipped with blood oxygen measurement capabilities, there’s no need for concern. The functionality is expected to persist, as no indications point towards a retroactive update that might strip existing devices of this feature. The impact is poised to affect only the sales of new watches in the future.
Although Apple continues to sell watches featuring blood oxygen functionality, uncertainty clouds the timeline for potential removal from the market. If acquiring an Apple watch with a blood oxygen sensor is a priority, now might be the opportune moment to make a purchase.
The legal tussle is confined to the United States and does not directly impact sales in other countries. Masimo filed a lawsuit against Apple in 2020, alleging the theft of trade secrets. The U.S. International Trade Commission sided with Masimo, leading to a temporary cessation of Series 9 and Ultra 2 sales in December 2023. Subsequently, a court ruling allowed Apple to resume sales while the case unfolded. In response, Apple announced a redesign to eliminate the blood oxygen features, gaining approval for the importation of the redesigned watches. The specifics of the redesign, whether involving physical sensor removal or software feature disablement, remain undisclosed.
Despite recent developments, the legal saga persists. Apple plans to appeal the ruling, seeking permission to continue selling watches with oxygen-sensing capabilities during the appeals process. This could potentially prolong the availability of blood-oxygen-sensing watches on the shelves for an additional year, pending legal outcomes.
The debate over the utility of pulse oximeters on watches has intensified since wearables companies hurriedly incorporated blood oxygen sensing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite their allure, the practical benefits of these features remain questionable. While the Apple Watch Series 7 demonstrated accuracy in a 2023 study, wearables’ inherent limitations pose challenges in maintaining precision during movement or low skin perfusion conditions, which includes instances when blood oxygen is below 90%.
Apple acknowledges the importance of optimal conditions for accurate readings, recommending users to stay still with their arms flat and the watch facing up. Automatic background readings, while possible, are unlikely to adhere to these ideal conditions.
Apart from accuracy concerns, the pertinent question arises: what actionable insights do users derive from blood oxygen data? Cardiologist Nauman Mushtaq expressed scepticism, stating, “I don’t think it, to be honest, does anything that is clinically meaningful for an average person.”
Unlike metrics such as exercise heart rate and cardio fitness readings that provide actionable guidance, blood oxygen readings lack the same applicability. An unexpectedly low reading necessitates a visit to a doctor for a comprehensive evaluation, making the smartwatch data inconclusive. Moreover, health concerns such as sleep apnea can be directly addressed through professional testing without the need for smartwatch monitoring.
In conclusion, the fate of blood oxygen features on Apple Watches hangs in the balance amid legal uncertainties. While some users may lament the potential loss, the practicality and clinical relevance of these features remain debatable. As the legal battle unfolds, the future of blood oxygen-measuring capabilities on Apple Watches remains shrouded in ambiguity.