Apple disables blood oxygen features on its Watches to skirt sales ban

The Apple Watch Ultras are displayed during a launch event for new products at Apple Park in Cupertino, California. Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small / AFP.

The Apple Watch Ultras are displayed during a launch event for new products at Apple Park in Cupertino, California. Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small / AFP.

Published Jan 19, 2024


Apple has resumed selling its Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2 online and in stores on Thursday, with a key change: The blood oxygen feature at the heart of a long-simmering patent dispute has been disabled.

The move comes in response to a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which said Wednesday that a ban preventing the company from importing and directly selling those smartwatch models would take effect again this week.

Before that, the ban had been temporarily postponed while the company began to formally appeal a ruling by the U.S. International Trade Commission, which found that Apple infringed patents owned by the medical technology company Masimo.

“Apple’s appeal is ongoing, and we believe the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit should reverse the USITC’s decision,” the company said in a statement. “We strongly disagree with the USITC decision and resulting orders.”

The development is the latest in a long line of legal maneuvers that began in earnest just after Christmas, when the Biden administration declined to overturn the ITC’s decision.

At the core of the dispute is a feature in recent Apple smartwatches that monitors and displays the user’s blood oxygen saturation. In January 2020, Masimo sued Apple, alleging, among other things, misappropriation of trade secrets and patent infringement. That prompted a protracted set of legal battles that ultimately led to ITC’s October decision in favor of a sales ban.

The company’s chosen fix doesn’t remove the blood oxygen app from affected Apple Watches entirely - its telltale red, white and blue app icon remains where it always was. But when users try to open the app, they will see a message saying the service is “no longer available” and prompting them to learn more in the iPhone Health app.

Apple’s blood oxygen measurement feature first appeared in the company’s Watch Series 6 in 2020 and continued to be featured in many subsequent models. Earlier versions of the Apple Watch capable of tracking blood oxygen would not be affected, the company said, which means owners can continue to take measurements on-demand and allow their Watches to periodically take readings in the background and store that data in Apple’s Health app.

Apple’s decision may seem like an obvious one, as fully disabling the blood oxygen feature would immediately mean that these modified versions of Apple’s affected Watch models would no longer violate Masimo’s pertinent patents.

But the simplicity of that fix comes at a cost. It’s a notable setback for a company that has largely managed to negotiate its way around patent disputes and perhaps more importantly, a potential blow to Apple’s insistence that its Watch can function as a comprehensive consumer health tool.

Since the blood oxygen feature’s debut on Apple Watch models in 2020, it has periodically appeared in ads and promotional videos designed to tout the wearable’s value as a window into its wearer’s well-being.

Apple, for its part, believes that Masimo’s legal strategy is designed at least partially to carve out space in the wearables market for its own health-tracking watch with a blood oxygen measuring feature.

Masimo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Washington Post