Future Tense

New Apple Watch Feature Will Call 911 at the Press of a Button

Emergency calling in Apple’s new watchOS 3.

Apple

Since its debut last April, a big criticism of the Apple Watch has been that it doesn’t do enough. So with every update of its watchOS software, Apple tries to pack more functionality and gravity into the tiny device. At its developer conference Monday, the company announced new smart-home interconnectivity, a breathing-centered stress management app, improved fitness tools, and expanded payment options. And then there’s the feature that’s a matter of life and death.

“SOS” is an emergency function that calls 911 if you press and hold the Apple Watch’s side button. The call routes through your iPhone if you’re on the go, or directly from the watch if you have access to Wi-Fi. After the 911 call, “SOS” can also alert emergency contacts you’ve chosen, sending them information and a map of where you are. It’s basically next-gen Life Alert.

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Helpfully, “SOS” doesn’t just call “911”—it will contact the correct emergency service number for whatever country you’re in. This could really aid travelers in crisis who don’t know the local number off-hand.

You can see how “SOS” is going to be a boon to Apple as soon as it saves its first life. The company is presumably also genuinely interested in customers’ well-being, but when Watches start saving people who are in dire circumstances, it will add a whole new argument to why you should constantly wear a connected device. (There are already some similar emergency apps for Android Wear, Google’s smartwatch operating system.)

Still, the feature will probably create problems at some point, like involving unwanted people in a delicate situation simply because they were put on a forgotten emergency contact list years before. It will also suffer from the same location accuracy problems as normal cellphone 911 calls and VoIP 911 calls.

At the conference, Apple’s vice president of technology Kevin Lynch said, “You might be having a medical emergency, for example, or a safety situation and we’re going to be able to help with that.” It’s a weighty promise. 

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