While Apple often rolls out new features and services in the U.S. first, it’s usually fairly easy for users in other countries to get around most of these geographically restricted features — in most cases, simply setting your iPhone region to “United States” is enough to unlock features like Apple News and Apple Pay, even if they’re not otherwise available in your home country (although the latter will still require a credit or debit card issued by a participating bank), and even Apple’s HomePod was similarly usable by Canadians who were willing to hop across the border to get one.
Quite significantly, however, this has not been the case for Apple’s new ECG feature on the Apple Watch Series 4. The life-saving feature is hampered by the need to be specifically approved by the necessary health regulators in each country where it’s going to be released, and it’s likely these kinds of regulations that are forcing Apple to lock the feature down in an unprecedented manner.
Up until now, Apple seems to have simply been limiting it to Apple Watch Series 4 models sold in the United States. While the exact method Apple uses to determine this is unclear, it’s likely simply based on the device serial number of other unique hardware identifier (UDID). While such hardware restrictions are rare, this is likely also the method Apple used to prevent FaceTime from being used on iPhone models sold in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, where VoIP calling technology is generally banned.
What May Be Changing
According to code discovered in the latest iOS 12.2 beta by 9to5Mac’s Guilherme Rambo, it looks like Apple is preparing to lock this down even more tightly. According to Rambo, it looks like Apple will now be employing some kind of geofencing to ensure that the ECG feature can only be activated if the user is physically in the United States.
Rambo highlights a new sentence in the Apple Watch setup process that advises users that “During setup, your location will be used to make sure this feature is available in your region.” The setup process also notably required that the user have a SIM card installed in their iPhone, and that it was not in Airplane Mode, suggesting that carrier-provided location data will be used rather than simply relying solely on the iPhone’s own GPS hardware.
What This Means
It’s still unclear whether this check will be performed only during the initial setup process, or whether the iOS and watchOS will regularly verify that the user is still physically located in the United States, deactivating the ECG feature when users are located in an unsupported region. While most countries’ health regulators only concern themselves with the sale of medical devices, the huge range of different laws could conceivably mean there are countries where travellers are forbidden from even using unapproved medical devices within the borders of those countries.
However, up until now it’s been possible for non-U.S. residents to purchase an Apple Watch in the United States and then use the ECG feature back in their home country without any restrictions, so it seems much more likely that it’s this behaviour that Apple is seeking to prevent. Apple has traditionally frowned upon cross-border purchases of any of its hardware devices, and actively discourages the “grey” resale market where users purchase Apple hardware for the express purpose of reselling it to buyers in other countries, usually at inflated prices.
However, while Apple generally couldn’t care less if foreign users are trying to read Apple News, the company does have a vested interest in ensuring that it’s in full compliance with all medical, banking, or other regulations that may be involved. Apple Pay Cash is another example of a service that requires a higher level of authentication — in this case the scan of a form of U.S. identification such as a drivers license — before the service can actually be used.
The other part that’s not yet known is whether this check will be performed for existing users during the update to iOS 12.2 (and watchOS 5.2), thereby deactivating the ECG feature for those users who are using it outside of the United States. For whatever reason, however, it seems clear that Apple wants to do everything possible to ensure that features on the Apple Watch requiring medical clearance are only available in those countries where they have been specifically approved.