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Apple Watch as a peripheral pandemic

Communicating with my beloved wife when she’s away from home has become a little more difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I can not blame her.

COVID-19 has made navigating the outside world more sticky and ickier due to the concern of touching potentially contaminated surfaces and a resulting desire to continuously disinfect as protection against coronavirus.

It’s hard to keep your hands clean, but you also have to worry about the iPhone. “If a cell phone is not exactly an extension of the human hand, it should be treated as one under COVID-19,” Hartford HealthCare said recently in an advice I’ve seen echo repeatedly online. “Your phone, like your hand, is a bacteria and virus magnet.”


To be fair, the US Centers for Disease Control no longer considers surface transmission as a primary vector of infection and says:

It may be possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object carrying the virus and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly eyes. This is not believed to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about how this virus spreads.

WebMD also has an article from September 3, 2020 that discusses the low probability of surface transmission. Nevertheless, the CDC still recommends daily disinfection of frequently affected surfaces, including telephones, and for electronics, users refer to the manufacturer’s instructions. As for the iPhone, Apple says:

By using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox disinfectant wipes, you can gently wipe the outer surfaces of your iPhone. Do not use bleach. Avoid getting moisture in any openings, and do not immerse your iPhone in detergents.

Not surprisingly, when my wife has done errands, she has become reluctant to dig her iPhone out of her purse to check text messages or answer a call. This makes her annoying, but understandably difficult to reach.

It recently dawned on me that the Apple Watch could be the solution. My wife has never used or expressed interest in using one. But if I persuaded her to do so, I reasoned, I would have a better shot to get in touch with her while she was out and about. All she had to do was tap the clock screen with her pinkie when I texted, called or started a Walkie-Talkie conversation with her.

Hardware hygiene would also be easier. A quick swipe with a disinfectant will do just that. Apple’s advice for disinfecting an Apple Watch is similar to that for the iPhone:

By using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox disinfectant wipes, you can gently wipe the outer surfaces of your Apple Watch, Sport Band, or metal band. Do not use fabric or leather straps. Do not use bleach. Avoid getting moisture in any openings, and do not immerse the Apple Watch in detergents.

Coronavirus combat features

This made me think about how the Apple Watch can be a useful – even important – personal technology during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In some ways, this is obvious. For example, Apple Watch talks to you about washing your hands, a highly recommended way to protect yourself from viruses (see “watchOS 7 Introduces Sleep Tracking, Handwash Detection and More”, June 22, 2020). The Handwashing Timer function prompts you to scrub for the recommended 20 seconds. A companion feature called handwash reminders pushes you to wash your hands after you get home. Activate them in the Watch app, in My Watch> Washbasin.

Hand wash reminders

I really need the hand wash timer since I am otherwise inclined to wash for only five seconds or so, as my wife with the stopwatch has informed me. The function needs work. As a household-specific dishwasher (a duty I love since it’s my tech podcast listening time), I’m annoyed at how the timer keeps kicking in while I wash up from dinner.

Hand washing reminders are also helpful. More than six months into the pandemic, I still forget to wash my hands when I get home part of the time, so I appreciate the push. But it’s not perfect – if I’ve just been walking around the neighborhood, there’s no real need to wash, not that any extra washing is a problem.

Blood oxygen tracking in the Apple Watch Series 6 could be another boon for pandemic users (see “Apple Unveils Apple Watch Series 6 and Apple Watch SE,” September 15, 2020). I have been repeatedly told to invest in a basic pulse oximeter for my fingertips, since blood oxygen monitoring is one way to monitor possible COVID-19, but procrastination is one of my superpowers. How amazing is it that I now have that opportunity on my wrist?Apple Watch O2 reading

But we should reserve the decision on this possibility at the moment. Apple does not market the Apple Watch as a medical device, and thorough studies of how blood oxygen monitoring is compared to medical devices are few. A Washington Post reviewer recently said he is not impressed with the feature, and the IEEE Spectrum website urges caution for now.

Other useful features during a pandemic

Time-tested Apple Watch features also have potential benefits in these confusing times. If your goal is to reduce the need to touch surfaces publicly – especially credit card payment terminals, along with the iPhone – Apple Watch has a lot to offer. Random users are often unaware of these features, as I have learned from many conversations with such people.

Tap to pay with Apple Pay is important. It involves using your iPhone or Apple Watch to shop at brick-and-mortar businesses, simply by bringing your device near an NFC-enabled payment terminal. Payment technology is particularly resonant during a pandemic since you usually do not touch anything (including the iPhone if you have set up your watch for Apple Pay) during such a transaction.

Apple has done a good job of popularizing Apple Pay, but I see some barriers to greater adoption. Some people worry that it is less secure than paying with a card, which is completely wrong – Apple Pay is far more secure. To this day, I can not get my wife to consider it. Apple may want to promote the security and zero touch of Apple Pay in a pandemic context.

Apple Pay can also be painful to set up, and Apple scores no points by letting iPadOS trick you into setting it up even on an iPad you never take out of the house. (You can use it for some payments in the app and online, which is why Apple does this.) Setting up Apple Pay with my credit union was a nightmare, but I have heard that the process becomes easier. Your experience will probably vary depending on which financial institution you use – the larger the bank, the more likely they are to eliminate unnecessary registration barriers.

Due to the pandemic, I’ve been taking a closer look at other Apple Watch features lately. Although I am much more iPhone-focused than my wife, I have found many ways I have migrated my on-the-go usage patterns over the clock, including:

  • Reply to texts and other messages: Before the pandemic, I rarely responded to incoming messages on my watch using an emoji or a quick text reply via voice dictation, and now I’m surprised I neglected these features.
  • Answering voice calls: There’s a cool Dick Tracy vibe with this opportunity, but I’ve been worried about being rude to those around me, so I’ve generally held back. I’m still worried about that, but the pandemic is asking me to use the feature in short sprints more often.
  • Manage tasks: I recently converted to the Reminders app. I always communicate with it through Siri on the Apple Watch.
    Google Keep on Apple Watch
  • Manage notes: I noticed a while back how my favorite notebook Google Keep had Apple Watch support (see “Google Keep Now Supports Apple Watch, Apple Notes Still AWOL,” April 18, 2019), and I use this feature much more because of the pandemic.
  • In line with podcasts: Podcast management on Apple Watch is another feature I’ve written about (see “Cloudy and Apple podcasts make Apple Watch a decent podcast player,” October 15, 2018). I have not used it as much as I would like because Cloudy, my favorite podcatcher, has not nailed its Apple Watch support completely. But because of the pandemic, I work harder.
    Cloudy on Apple Watch
  • Ordering pizza for pickup: My family tends to order the exact same Domino’s pie every time, so the pizza chain’s Apple Watch app comes in handy. It’s basically just a button that triggers my default pickup order. Nice!

Speaking of my wife

My theory that my wife would be more available when she was away from home if she wore an Apple Watch is just that, a theory. To test it, I have provided a 40 mm Apple Watch SE for her.

I honestly have no idea how this will go. My wife is far from a technical power user, and tends more towards the Luddite end of the spectrum. While she loves her iPhone, she loses only a small fraction of its capabilities, and she likes it that way. She only has a third-party app on it, Google Photos, and that’s because I installed it, so it automatically uploads her photos for storage.

She seems abstractly interested in Apple Watch’s communication capabilities, but she also seems reluctant to wear anything other than a loose bracelet on her wrist, and she has not used a traditional watch in a decade. Still, she’s a good sport to participate in my little experiment. We all need entertainment during these dark and confusing days, and this is apparently one of them for her.

I will provide updates in the comments below on how our family Apple Watch adventure unfolds.

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