Apple Watch redesigned without blood oxygen monitoring to avoid import ban

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Apple Watch Series 9
Enlarge / The Apple Watch Series 9.

Apple

Apple has developed a backup plan for if the Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2 are import banned again. As it currently appeals the US International Trade Commission’s (ITC’s) ruling that its watches violate a patent owned by Masimo, Apple has come up with a software workaround that strips its current smartwatches of their controversial blood oxygen monitoring capabilities.

In January 2023, the ITC ruled that the Watch violated one of California-headquartered Masimo’s light-based pulse oximetry patents. The Apple Watch Series 6, which came out in 2020, was the first Apple smartwatch to use a pulse oximeter sensor.

Facing a US import ban of the current Watch Series 9 and Watch Ultra 2, both released in September 2023, Apple started pulling the smartwatches on December 21. But on December 27, Apple, which filed its appeal against the ITC’s ruling on December 26 (after US President Joe Biden declined to overrule the ITC ruling), received an emergency interim stay from the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, allowing it to continue selling the Watch.

On Monday, Masimo sent a letter [PDF] to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, as spotted by 9to5Mac, stating that US Customs and Border Protection decided on January 12 that Apple has redesigned the Watches so that they do not contain pulse oximetry functionality.

Apple accomplished this through a “software workaround” for smartwatches recently shipped to its physical stores, according to a Bloomberg report from Mark Gurman on Monday. However, the stores will not sell the redesigned watches until Apple headquarters tells them to, Bloomberg reported.

The publication noted that Apple will probably only release the Watches that can’t monitor blood oxygen levels if the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit denies Apple’s request that its stay be upheld for the duration of its appeal against the ITC ruling, which Apple expects to be at least a year, an Apple spokesperson told Ars Technica. Apple expects that ruling to come as early as today.

Currently, the Watch Series 9 and Watch Ultra 2 are still available with blood oxygen monitoring, an Apple spokesperson confirmed to Ars. But Apple hasn’t confirmed how long that will be the case, jeopardizing demand and the perceived value for Apple’s latest smartwatches.

Longer term, Bloomberg also reported that Apple is developing a software update that alters the watches’ blood oxygen monitoring app and algorithms so that users can still check out their blood oxygen but without Apple infringing on any patents.

For the ITC’s part, it responded to Apple’s requests for an extended stay on the import ban in a court filing on January 10 [PDF]. It stated that Apple has provided “a weak and unconvincing case” and that the tech giant’s arguments “amount to little more than an indisputably adjudicated infringer requesting permission to continue infringing the asserted patents.”

Prospective owners of the Apple Watch who value blood oxygen monitoring should keep an eye open for the appeals court’s ruling because it could swiftly result in Apple Watches that they’re considering buying missing a key feature.

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