The Broader Implications of Apple Watch with LTE

The iPhone X rightly garnered most of the world’s attention from Apple’s launch event this week, but the company’s announcement of a new Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE and new Watch OS 4 updates excited many of us that closely watch the wearables market. The new $400 product may not significantly change the trajectory of Apple’s near-term smartwatch growth, but several of the technical features its contains are substantial. It demonstrates Apple’s technical prowess, and some of these additions have the potential to reverberate through the tech industry and adjacent product categories.

More Tech, Same Form Factor
As Apple and other tech firms such as Samsung continue to push the boundaries of miniaturization, it is easy to take products that appear to be iterative in nature for granted. But the amount of next-generation technology that Apple crammed into the Apple Watch Series 3, expanding the form factor by a scant 0.25 MM, is quite impressive. In addition to the full LTE and UMTS cellular radio, Apple has also added a new dual-core S3 processor it claims is 70 percent faster than its predecessor, and new wireless chip (W2) that offers notably faster WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. The Watch smartly switches from Bluetooth to cellular when you separate it from the phone and switches back when you come back into range. Apple also added a barometric altimeter that measures relative elevation and moved the device’s storage to 16GB (the non-cellular watch still has 8GB).

New Hardware, New OS
As always, Apple is launching the new hardware with a brand new operating system. Watch OS 4 has a long list of new features, but two of the most interesting to me and other health and fitness-focused users include an updated heart-rate tracking feature and new activity options. Going forward, the Apple Watch will monitor your heart rate all day long, instead of just when you start a workout. By capturing heart rate across a range of activities, from resting to walking to running and more, the watch can over time build a more accurate view of your fitness and health. Once the watch establishes your baseline, it can provide more precise fitness targets during workouts, and can help you understand how your body recovers from workouts. It can also monitor you for issues during the day. So if your heart rate is acting abnormally during rest, the watch will alert you.

Watch OS 4 also continues Apple’s tradition of bringing additional fitness options to the hardware. Among the most interesting is the new High-Intensity Interval Training workout option. During these types of exercise sessions, the users participate in different physical activities to increase and then decrease their heart rate. The current watch has no facility for capturing this increasingly popular form of exercise. The new OS also brings to market a feature Apple announced at WWDC which will let the watch talk to future fitness machines enabled with the new GymKit.

Leaving the Phone Behind
Wearable skeptics have long suggested that adding LTE will do little but decrease a device’s battery life. And frankly, anyone who thinks consumers in mass will drop their smartphones for a LTE-connected wearable are missing the point. The fact is, there are many times when leaving the house without the phone would be highly desirable. And Apple smartly made a point of enabling the ability to stream Apple Music from the watch right out of the box. That means you can connect your watch to a set of wireless AirPods and listen to tunes without the phone, too. The non-phone use cases are admittedly limited, but I’m interested in the idea that an always-connected Apple Watch might allow me and others to partially—but not entirely—disconnect from the world for parts of the day. With the phone left behind, the compulsion many of us have to constantly check email and news may diminish. But if an emergency text or call comes through, you’ll still receive it. The idea of reclaiming parts of my day, and being more present and just slightly less connected, sounds quite appealing to me.

eSim’s Big Moment
Finally, what may well end up being Apple’s most impressive technical feat: The purported seamless ability to add the watch to an existing carrier data contract and phone number. One of the biggest areas of friction for adding LTE to new devices is the fact that it typically involves a physical SIM card and a sometimes frustrating interaction with the carrier. The plan for Apple Watch is to utilize an eSIM that will negate the need for receiving a physical SIM in the mail or at a Telco-provider location. There has been some pushback on pricing, as it looks like US carriers will charge customers $10 per month. This is the same pricing as adding an LTE tablet today, and at some point, the carriers need to stop asking customers to repeatedly pay extra to access the data they’ve already purchased.
But what’s more important here is this: While the Apple Watch isn’t the first product to support eSIM, it may prove to be the most successful one to date. If this turns out to be as easy to do as Apple promises, it will open up the possibility of consumers embracing this technology going forward. That could mean an easier ramp for future cellular-connected products. We know that ARM-based, LTE-focused Windows 10 systems should appear in the market early next year. And at some point in the future, Apple may decide to address the market demand for an LTE-enabled Macbook. If Apple has figured out how to make this process less painful, it may prove to be among the more notable achievements to come from this important product launch cycle.

Published by

Tom Mainelli

Tom Mainelli has covered the technology industry since 1995. He manages IDC's Devices and Displays group, which covers a broad range of hardware categories including PCs, tablets, smartphones, thin clients, displays, and wearables. He works closely with tech companies, industry contacts, and other analysts to provide in-depth insight and analysis on the always-evolving market of endpoint devices and their related services. In addition to overseeing the collection of historical shipment data and the forecasting of shipment trends in cooperation with IDC's Tracker organization, he also heads up numerous primary research initiatives at IDC. Chief among them is the fielding and analysis of IDC's influential, multi-country Consumer and Commercial PC, Tablet, and Smartphone Buyer Surveys. Mainelli is also driving new research at IDC around the technologies of augmented and virtual reality.

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