Jorge Serna

@jorge.serna

What’s missing in the LTE Apple Watch?

Last week’s presentation of the cellular Apple Watch missed some elements that will impact its ability to grow beyond a casual iPhone accessory

By the end of this week Apple will launch in several selected markets and carriers a cellular-enabled version of their Apple Watch.

I have been covering this movement for several posts now, from the hints at its launch months ago to its potential for creating a new ecosystem in a path to disintegrate the smartphone. The latest post looked at the announcements around the calling functionality and limited carrier support, and how they reduce market reach and will slow down that potential ecosystem.

In this post I look at several things that were NOT part of the Apple keynote, and that will have an even bigger impact for this device.

The missing AirPods

One strange thing during the keynote, was that there were no mentions to the AirPods as a companion device to the Apple Watch for phone-less usage. It is the pairing of AirPods and the Apple Watch which sets the basis for the smartphone disintegration, as together they complete some of the most relevant functions.

But it is particularly strange because AirPods do work with the Apple Watch for music. And I am completely sure they will work for calls too since, as hinted in their marketing material, they are used for Siri, which relies on their microphone too. See the AirPod in the image:

Instead of talking about the AirPods, they when to great lengths highlighting the capabilities of the “hands-free” usage of the Watch calls. They insisted in the engineering feat of their Watch mic getting your voice from “2 feet away”. Still I expect that the “normal” use for calls (that is, when not surfing) in the Watch will be associated to having some earbuds on. As good as the mic can get your voice 2 feet away, I don’t think you want your conversations to be shared with all the people at the grocery store when you get a call while “running some errands” (one of the use cases explicitly mentioned for the phone-less usage of the Watch).

I guess they didn’t mention the AirPods in the Keynote because:

  • They didn’t want to increase the perceived price of the product. If to *really* enjoy the new Apple Watch you also have to buy the $160 AirPods, the total price is going up 40%. In that sense it was better to display that the product just works by itself, and that they have done the engineering investment to prove it.
  • The keynote was already packed with announcements, and explaining the AirPods again would take too much time when a new Apple TV, plus the new iPhones (which are the real star of the show) were still coming.
  • Talking about AirPods may have forced them to acknowledge the issues they are having with the their supply, even if that has improved a bit lately. And this was not the event to do that, particularly if they may face the same supply issues for the LTE Watch itself.
  • Most importantly: they are saving this explanations for later.

AirPods (or any other Bluetooth headset, but obviously Apple will push AirPods here) are required for a use case that I believe will become the focus for the cellular Apple Watch, but that was a bit downplayed during the keynote: listening to music. Music was the star of the video advertisement they played at the end, where AirPods were used too:

But in the presentation they only mentioned the Apple Music support for Apple Watch would be “coming soon” with no demonstrations or highlights on how the experience would work in the device.

Maybe this was because they could not get the Music app ready for the watchOS 4 launch, or wanted to “hide” it so that the cellular launch would not be spoiled by people looking at the Beta firmware (which is clearly a risk). Also maybe the battery impact of music over cellular is higher than expected and they are still tweaking the solution.

But my guess is that they are holding the Music use case for bigger exposure later on, to announce it closer to the launch of another product that was expected but was not mentioned in the keynote: the HomePod.

I bet that in a couple of months there will be another Apple event, which will be music-centric. In there, they will release a new watchOS update (4.x) that will enable Apple Music, as well as talk a lot about the HomePod. But it will also be there where the symbiosis between Apple Watch and AirPods will be more explicitly addressed, including how valuable they are for calls.

They may even announce a new version of AirPods, with at least a new feature: a new wireless charging case. This is obvious because the functionality itself was featured in the presentation of AirPower, the new charging mat planned for 2018.

The missing APIs

Another thing missing from the presentation was a reference to how developers would be able to leverage the new connectivity to create new apps for the Watch. Well, that’s not completely true, as it was explicitly mentioned that WeChat, the China messaging giant, would work in the Watch. But there were no mention of other applications. Not in the same category, like WhatsApp or Skype, or even completely different use cases, like a phone-less solution for Pokemon Go.

This reflects the information in their development site around the Series 3 Watch, with no new elements specific to the LTE version. Only a mention to “your apps can connect everywhere and anytime, even when not connected to an iPhone or Wi-Fi”:

Going into the specifics of the documentation, the only networking support is URLSession, which exists since watchOS 2.0. There is no support for other relevant frameworks for connected apps, like CallKit. This means no support for VoIP apps in the Apple Watch. You will get FaceTime audio and regular voice calls, but no WhatsApp calls, Skype calls or Google Duo calls will make it to the device (yet).

I am not sure, looking at the docs, whether Apple APIs will allow other music applications besides Apple Music, like Spotify or Pandora, on the Watch (I certainly hope that at least they will provide a Podcast application). In the Apple page they mention “Streaming Music” like something different from “Apple Music” at some point (one is “coming soon” and has a footnote, the other doesn’t…), which maybe means they will, but the connectivity impact makes me skeptic about it.

So overall, the possibility for new apps besides what was already possible in the previous Apple Watch models is seriously limited, and this will impact the interest of the phone-less use case as a whole.

One intriguing thing is the mention to notifications in Apple’s webpage.

The interesting thing here is the “getting alerts from your favorite apps”, while there are no changes in PushKit for watchOS support. This makes me think that what Apple is going to do is to sync notifications between phone and watch through the LTE connectivity when they are not directly connected via Bluetooth. The notifications delivered (or launched locally) to your phone while left at home, would then pop also in your Watch even when far away. [This has the limitation that your phone must be connected to data and have battery in order for this “bridging” to work.]

Since iOS notifications allow also actions, like texts responses, this means that some applications — fundamentally messaging applications like WhatsApp — would work out-of-the-box in phone-less mode without the developer having to change a single line of code.

So while WhatsApp VoIP calls will not be able to work in the Watch (and even if Apple provided the APIs, they would need to do significant changes to their architecture to bring calls to the LTE Watch), you will be able to have a limited but probably good enough functionality for messaging. You will receive the messages they send you, and you will be able to reply to them with text. You will not be able to start a WhatsApp text conversation from the Watch, as long as they don’t provide a Watch app, but given that SiriKit for watchOS also support messages intents, you will be able to do it with WeChat and Telegram.

The missing battery life

Another thing that the Apple keynote did not address in detail was the real impact in battery life for the cellular usage of the Watch.

Yes, they said that the cellular Watch would maintain the 18h battery life of the previous generation, but they also said that this would be “across a mix of Bluetooth, LTE and Wi-Fi”. The devil is in the details, and the details on battery life have been revealed on their website:

Apple says that when connected to iPhone, the Apple Watch Series 3 should get up to 3 hours of talk time. When connected to LTE, however, that talk time falls to “over 1 hour.”
Apple estimates that the Apple Watch Series 3 will get about 10 hours of battery life for indoor workouts and 5 hours of outdoor workouts with GPS in use. If both GPS and LTE are in use, that estimated life falls to 4 hours.

Which basically means that LTE battery impact is huge. And there is no information around the impact on music streaming via LTE, which reinforces the possibility that they are still working to improve that.

Overall, in the end, it is clear that the LTE Apple Watch is far from ready to be a real replacement for the iPhone. Truth is that it was not intended to be that replacement yet, but these numbers highlight that Apple expects you to use it tethered to the phone most of the time and that independent use must be sporadic at best. Most data access in the Watch will be using the Bluetooth connection, with maybe one or two hours a day being phone-less for “running a quick errand” or “doing some outdoor workout”.

That is why they are probably not offering further APIs to developers, like CallKit. These APIs, that would enable VoIP and more intensive data-use in apps, would also increase the battery impact and potentially worsen the overall experience, not allowing the Watch to last a full day with a single charge. This, as I mentioned in a previous post, is the biggest risk for the Watch to be really able to create a new ecosystem.

So it seems like the biggest price for keeping the size of the LTE Watch to the same specs of the previous generation (“not a house arrest bracelet”) was not the SIM, but battery life.

Conclusions

My conclusions around all of this are, of course, very preliminar. I am basing everything on the limited information that has been shared, and quite a bit of speculation. We will have to wait not only to the launch of the device on September 22nd, but to also give some time for real-life usage so that feedback from users and potential interest from developers happens.

But with what we have I think that we can reach some conclusions:

  • The limitation of markets and operators reduces potential interest for developers to create new applications that leverage the phone-less capabilities in the phone. The strong carrier availability in US, and WeChat support for China means that they will not totally ignore it.
  • The limitation on APIs and capabilities is what will really limit new kind of applications being created for the Watch. And since many iPhone apps — like WhatsApp — will “just work” in phone-less mode, there will be less incentive for creating specific experiences for the Watch.
  • The whole experience created by Apple is still for an iPhone accessory. This new generation simply works further away from the phone. It allows some phone-less casual usage, but doesn’t allow the user to have a full “day without phone” but still reachable. This makes the price of connectivity offered by carriers become a bit too high. While plans are relatively cheap (when compared to a full data plan), the additional value will be very low.
  • Expect Apple to refocus their marketing message about the LTE Watch away from calls and into Apple Music later in the year, after a future event with HomePod and new AirPods.
  • This device starts to open the path into the phone disintegration. As I discussed in a previous post, casual phone-less usage is just the way the cycle can start. But the market, battery and API limitations are bigger than expected, and this will slow things down. We will have to wait for next generations of the cellular Apple Watch that address them to trigger a new wearable ecosystem.

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