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Practical Mac

CUPERTINO, Calif. — When you look at photos of the new Apple Watch, your eyes are drawn to the styling, the precise fit of its components, and the tactile appeal of the “digital crown” that serves as a main method of interaction. I was at Apple’s presentation this past week, and I can attest that the fit and finish are superb.

What you can’t see outside the photo frame is an essential component: an iPhone. The Apple Watch is not adrift on its own, but some features, such as GPS tracking and text messaging (when you’re away from a Wi-Fi network), require a wireless connection with an iPhone. Apple says the watch will arrive in 2015.

It’s not unusual for Apple devices to work together, but the company doesn’t often make them so interdependent. That, plus the introduction of the Apple Pay secure payment service accentuates a change in Apple’s attitude: it’s time to really put the Apple ecosystem to work.

Complementary orbits: As Apple has moved into new markets — music players, smartphones, tablets, and, now, wearables — it has demonstrated how the pieces work together. Music can be synced to other devices; documents created in Pages on the Mac can be opened and edited in Keynote on the iPhone or iPad.

Buying into the Apple ecosystem has meant getting more out of each product than if you bought only one. Customers also know that they get a high level of quality across Apple’s product line (the vaunted “halo effect”).

And the next versions of iOS and OS X really push connectivity. For instance, the Continuity features of iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite allow you to start composing an email on one device and finish it on another, simply by having both products within proximity of each other. Without a doubt, the same technology is being used for linking the Apple Watch with an iPhone.

Apple even encourages the connection with a bit of whimsy: If you know someone else who owns an Apple Watch, you can send them a quick finger-drawn sketch, tap to make their watch buzz like a tap on the shoulder, talk in walkie-talkie mode, or, thanks to the sensors on the underside of the watch, transmit your actual heartbeat in real time.

But the ecosystem isn’t a free-flowing marketplace. Interconnectedness is a competitive advantage, too. For example, if you own an iPhone and a Mac, you can exchange text messages over iMessage on either device; if you use a Windows PC and an iPhone, you can swap texts only via iMessage on the iPhone.

Note also that the Apple Watch will work only with the iPhone. I’m guessing it will also interact with a Mac running the upcoming OS X Yosemite and perhaps an iPod touch, given the software involved, but Apple didn’t go into detail beyond the iPhone. It most certainly won’t work with Android-based phones.

The Apple Watch is the most extreme example of this yet, largely because Apple is now relying on the ecosystem, not just fitting pieces into it. The Apple Watch needs an iPhone to complete it.

Pushing against the edges: But if you think the watch is a daring move, consider Apple Pay. The service promises to (partly) replace your wallet with a way to purchase goods at shops using only an iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus or Apple Watch.

Using a built-in NFC (Near-Field Communication) radio that works with NFC readers at checkout, the iPhone generates a secure token that’s sent to participating payment processors. No credit-card-specific information is passed; your fingerprint on the iPhone’s TouchID ring verifies the payment comes from you.

The success of Apple Pay depends heavily on the Apple ecosystem. The service wasn’t announced as an open-source solution that other companies could adopt in order to usher in a grand walletless society. It’s an Apple service for Apple customers. If you want to take advantage of Apple Pay, you need one of the new iPhones or the Apple Watch, and merchants need to be equipped with NFC readers that tie into Apple’s system.

A few years ago, all the interoperability required to make this work would have been nearly impossible to pull off. (Apple has reportedly been working on Apple Pay for nearly four years.) It may still be impossible.

But the company is now so successful, with tens of millions of iPhones in the market, that it has the confidence to make this play.

Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to More Practical Mac columns at