Apple’s Workaround for the ITC’s Import Ban on Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2: Disabling the Blood-Oxygen Sensor in Software

Scharon Harding, reporting for Ars Technica:

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.

That’s a good summary of Apple’s workaround from a writer who understands what she’s talking about. Apple will disable blood-oxygen monitoring via software.

Compare and contrast with Aaron Tilley’s report for The Wall Street Journal, under the jacktastically-wrong headline “Apple to Remove Blood-Oxygen Sensor From Watch to Avoid U.S. Ban” (News+ link):

Apple is removing a blood-oxygen sensor from some of its smartwatches to get around a patent dispute related to the technology, a step likely to avoid further sales disruptions but one that may raise questions about the company’s push into health. [...]

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which is responsible for enforcing import bans, on Friday approved technical changes to the watches, including the removal of the blood-oxygen sensor, according to a Masimo filing on Monday. A decision on Apple’s request for a permanent stay on the U.S. ban during its appeal is expected in the coming days.

Ars includes a link to Masimo’s filing; the WSJ does not. Needless to say, Masimo’s filing does not say that Apple is removing the blood-oxygen sensor from these watches, because they’re not. They’re just disabling the sensors via software for watches sold in the U.S. — the only country where the import ban applies.

This is no little mistake on Tilley’s and the Journal’s part. Disabling a feature via software is one thing, and not that big a deal. Designing, engineering, and manufacturing entirely different hardware models without the physical sensors would be extraordinary. That’s just not how Apple works — they’re not set up to change manufacturing like that. Plus, if Apple merely disables the sensor via software, they can re-enable it via a software update in the future, once the dispute is settled. If they were to start selling Series 9 and Ultra 2 watches that didn’t have the sensor, those watches would never gain the functionality, even after the dispute is settled.

Aaron Tilley isn’t just a tech reporter for the Journal: his entire beat is covering Apple. And he seemingly has no idea how the company functions, because if he did, he’d have quadruple checked this “they’re removing the sensors” take before publishing it. But here it is a day after publication and his report has yet to be corrected. Pure jackassery.

Tuesday, 16 January 2024