Apple is reportedly scrambling to update Apple Watch software to avoid a looming ban

Even if the Apple Watch is banned, you'll still be able to buy it from other retailers — just not Apple.

Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images

Apple is scrambling to make software updates to Apple Watch algorithms that measure blood oxygen levels to avoid an impending ban on the smartwatch in the US over a patent dispute, Bloomberg reported. Changing how the Watch measures oxygen saturation, Apple believes, could help keep the Watch on shelves during the busy holiday shopping season.

The blood oxygen sensor, which was first introduced with the Apple Watch 6 in 2020, is at the heart of a patent dispute between Apple and Masimo, another California-based company that sued Apple in 2021. Masimo claimed that Apple’s sensor violated two patents related to light-based blood-oxygen monitoring that it owned. In October, the International Trade Commission (ITC) upheld a ruling, stating that Apple did, in fact, violate Masimo’s patents.

The case then went to the White House for a 60-day Presidential Review period, which ends next week. If President Biden doesn’t veto the ITC’s decision, Apple will be banned from selling the Apple Watch 9 and Apple Watch Ultra 2, which include blood oxygen sensing. Apple is complying preemptively with the ban and will stop selling both Apple Watch models on its website on December 21 and in retail stores on December 24 in case the veto doesn’t happen.

One way Apple could keep selling the watch is to settle with Masimo, but the company’s last-minute race to make software changes to the Watch suggests that it doesn’t plan to do so. The company told Bloomberg that it plans to submit its software workaround to the ITC for approval. Masimo’s CEO Joe Kiani, told Bloomberg that he would be open to settling with Apple, but the company hasn’t called him yet. “It takes two to tango,” he said.

He also doesn’t think that a software update to the Apple Watch would resolve the situation. “I don’t think that could work — it shouldn’t — because our patents are not about the software,” Kiani said. “They are about the hardware with the software.”

Overhauling Apple Watch hardware would, of course, be a lot more challenging for Apple than tweaking its software. Even if the ITC approves any potential hardware changes, manufacturing and shipping modified versions of the two Watch models could take upwards of three months, a person familiar with how Apple operates told the publication.

Apple and Masimo have a complicated history. Apple reportedly discussed acquiring the company in 2013 and hiring Kiani to work on the medical features on its smartwatch. That deal never went through. Instead, Kiani claimed that Apple hired more than 20 Masimo engineers, doubled some of their salaries, and made them develop the same kind of medical technology they were working on at Masimo at Apple. “This is not an accidental infringement — this is a deliberate taking of our intellectual property,” Kiani told Bloomberg.

Engadget has reached out to Apple for comment on Kiani’s statements. The company has previously called the ITC’s ruling “erroneous” and plans to appeal the decision to the Federal Circuit.

It’s not clear whether Apple will get immediate relief. The silver lining for the company is that the ban only applies to Apple Watch sales through the company’s own channels — its website and its retail stores — in the US. You should still be able to buy the Apple Watch through other retailers like Best Buy, Walmart and Target.

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