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Apple Removes Blood Oxygen Measurement on Its 2 Newest Watches

Ruling on pulse oximeter technology means feds block imports of Series 9 and Ultra 2

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Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Apple has begun selling its latest smartwatches without a key feature previously available: the capability of measuring a person’s blood oxygen levels.

The tech titan pulled the plug on the feature after a federal appeals court reinstated a ban Jan. 17 that kept Apple from selling Apple Watch Series 9 and Apple Watch Ultra 2 models with the blood oxygen technology at the heart of an ongoing patent infringement dispute. Last month, the Biden administration refused to reverse a U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) decision banning sales of the models.

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Potential Apple Watch buyers who come to Apple’s website are informed that these latest models no longer have the blood oxygen sensor.

“There is no impact to Apple Watch units previously purchased that include the blood oxygen feature,” a company statement shared with AARP says. So current owners are apparently in the clear.

Customers who purchase watches without the feature will still see a blood oxygen icon on their wrist; however, when it is tapped, they will see: “The Blood Oxygen app is no longer available. Learn more in the Health app on your iPhone.”

In their phone’s Health app, users will see “unavailable” for Blood Oxygen and a link where they can learn more.

Blood oxygen sensor available for more than 3 years

Apple has featured a blood oxygen sensor on its smartwatches since the Apple Watch Series 6 was released in September 2020 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Doctors at that time realized that low oxygen levels could be a warning sign of severe COVID-19. Less than a year later, Irvine, California-based Masimo alleged that the tech giant had violated several of the patents Masimo filed on measuring blood oxygen levels. 

After a multiyear investigation, the commission in October agreed that one patent had been infringed. The agency prohibits Apple from importing its Apple Watch Series 9 and Apple Watch Ultra 2, which use a specific light-based pulse oximetry technology used to measure blood oxygen levels. 

Apple previously announced that the watches would no longer be available on its website after Dec. 21, but they were sold out beforehand. Remaining stock was pulled from Apple stores after Christmas Eve, but other retailers continued to sell watches already in the United States.

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Sales ban lifted for 3 weeks

Through a late December stay of a court order, Apple was able to resume selling its smartwatches with the blood oxygen app from Dec. 27 to Jan. 18. Apple had been banking on a Christmas reversal of the ITC ruling from the Biden administration. Instead, the White House kept the decision in place.

“We strongly disagree with the ... decision and resulting orders,” Apple’s latest statement reads. “Pending the appeal, Apple is taking steps to comply with the ruling while ensuring customers have access to Apple Watch with limited disruption.”

When a federal administrative law judge made an initial ruling in favor of Masimo last year, Chief Executive Joe Kiani accused Apple of taking other companies’ innovations and repackaging them. 

Older adults are a customer base 

Since the Apple Watch Series 4 debuted with fall detection in September 2018 — the feature is automatically turned on for users 55 and older — Apple has targeted boomers and older Gen X customers with health apps that take advantage of the sensors built into the device’s back. The watches can monitor heart rate, irregular heart rhythm, mobility and sleep patterns, as well as remind users to take medications and help loved ones find wearers if those users get lost.  

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About 1 in 5 adults 50 and older who go online use a smartwatch, according to Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester market researchers. That compares with about 2 in 5 adults ages 18 to 49 who use the internet. 

The action from Apple came weeks after Masimo received federal Food and Drug Administration clearance for its Masimo W1 medical watch to provide real-time monitoring of users’ oxygen saturation and pulse rate, for both prescription and over-the-counter use. Massimo expects its $499 wearable to be available this year. 

On Dec. 18, Bloomberg chief correspondent Mark Gurman reported that Apple’s engineers were working on a software fix ahead of the ban. Because repairs of Apple Watch models typically involve replacement rather than a fix, the company won’t be able to repair out-of-warranty Apple Watch Series 6 or later and Apple Watch Ultra or later models, at least in the United States, since they have working blood oxygen sensors.  

Least expensive Apple Watch remains available 

Apple continues to sell its $249 entry-level SE watch, which does not have the blood oxygen sensor.    

Forrester says Apple Watch owns about half of the U.S. wearables market for all ages, devices that include activity and sleep trackers such as lower-price Fitbits and higher-end Oura Rings, as well as Apple and Samsung Galaxy smartwatches. Google-owned Fitbit has 29 percent and Samsung has 13 percent.

For older adults, Forrester says, Apple Watch is not the dominant wearable: 39 percent use Fitbit, 34 percent have an Apple Watch and 10 percent use Samsung.

This story, originally published Dec. 19, 2023, has been updated with information on Apple starting to sell new watches without the blood oxygen feature.

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