SOS 'panic app' in Apple Watch marks new direction

Feature will automatically call local emergency crews, no matter what country you're in.

"I've fallen and I can't get up!" was the memorable catchphrase used to advertise a wireless medical alert for seniors that was first used in 1989 by LifeCall and later by Life Alert.

Today, anybody in the U.S. with a cell phone can call -- and usually even text -- 911 when in need of help, either in a medical emergency or when in danger.

Apple took the idea of a quick wireless call for help one step further on Monday when the company announced the SOS feature for Apple Watches, coming this fall in the new watchOS 3.

SOS will quickly let a user call for help by pressing and holding the side button on an Apple Watch running watchOS 3 "no matter where they are in the world," according to Apple publicity.

The call is made via cellular wireless through an iPhone connected by Bluetooth to the watch or through Wi-Fi if the watch is connected to a Wi-Fi network. The call will go to local emergency services, such as 999 when a user is in Hong Kong and 911 in the U.S., according to Kevin Lynch vice president of technology at Apple.

After the call is made, the watch will automatically send a map and a message to a user's emergency contacts so they know where the user is. There will also be the ability to add a user's medical ID to the watch, with information such as age and allergy information, he added.

"We're finding people who wear an Apple Watch wear it all the time," Lynch said, which gives the SOS feature the ability to be a quick-response app, referred to in the industry as a panic app.

Lynch and Apple certainly didn't headline SOS in presenting the various watchOS 3 improvements, and it is mentioned only in passing on the Apple web site. The biggest and most promoted improvements to watchOS 3 include quicker interactions, such as an app launch time that's seven times faster than before.

In fact, the biggest applause from WWDC developers for the watchOS update came when Lynch showed off a new Minnie Mouse watch face to complement the existing Mickey Mouse watch face. Users can also customize Minnie's outfit to change the color of her dress to match the color of an Apple watch band -- another big crowd pleaser.

Watch styling, watch faces, app performance and fitness and health apps were a big focus of Apple's watchOS presentation on Monday and have been a big focus for other smartwatch makers. But the SOS feature stands out as an important new direction for Apple and other smartphone makers.

"SOS is a valuable feature and I'm surprised others didn't add it to their smartwatches before this," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

"I think Apple's SOS is important as it could open up Watch to children and the elderly," he added. "It won't be long until we hear stories of people being saved by SOS."

Moorhead said SOS could be an important addition to Apple's Find My Friends feature that helps parents keep track of their children. It works through iCloud via an iPhone or iPad.

A recent survey by Ericsson found that 10% of people with wearables, including smartwatches, abandoned their devices, many within two weeks of purchase. One reason often cited was that wearables are too limited in their functionality, which includes too heavy an emphasis on fitness and health apps, instead of apps that could increase a person's safety and security -- like SOS.

When Ericsson suggested 20 different wearable applications to gauge interest in them, the survey group gave the highest ratings to apps for safety and security, like a smart locator or even a panic button capability.

Still, some observers questioned whether SOS would get people to buy an Apple Watch. The overall smartwatch category has been a disappointment to manufacturers so far, and SOS will not necessarily reach the level of a "must-have" technology.

"While the SOS function is an important capability, I wonder how many people will really buy a [smartwatch] because it can dial 911?" said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "Yes, I'll use it if I need it, but it's not my primary consideration" in buying a smartwatch.

Gold said it will take more critical functions and lower-cost smartwatches to get people to buy them in large numbers. "It will take a slow build-up of watch capabilities and new approaches over the next two to three years before we see mass adoption," he added.

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