All evidence points to Apple announcing an LTE Apple Watch this week, and, as I discussed in a previous post, adding independent connectivity may be a key element to turn the device in the center of a new ecosystem of apps beyond the iPhone. I also mentioned that for this to happen some sort of calling should be supported too, so that it provides enough value for people to go “phone-less” with it, but that this initially would have to be based on FaceTime audio:
The out of the box experience for Apple Watch will be limited to iMessage and FaceTime audio, but we can also expect some operators to extend their current multi-device offerings to also include Apple Watch calls and texts.
The watch could, however, support VoIP services like FaceTime and Skype, as FaceTime audio calling is already supported on current Apple Watch models.
Given that the current WatchOS SDKs and APIs don’t support VoIP apps, I expect that for launch only FaceTime audio will be available. But it is also possible that Apple is working with selected partners to provide them early access to some capabilities so that additional apps are ready for launch. Don’t expect WhatsApp there, though.
But on the front of “regular calls”, some other posts are wondering why is Apple not addressing this, given that this may be a relevant and useful feature:
it’s hard to imagine Cook testing the device for over two years and not lobbying to add a powerful feature like the ability to make phone calls.
The answer is that Apple cannot fix this without working with the telecommunication operators, almost in a one-to-one basis.
The main argument for this is that the LTE network does not support regular voice calls. I am not going to go over the details here, as I already covered this topic in a previous article, but an operator that has deployed a 4G (LTE) network must also do additional work to support voice calls on it. It requires installing and integrating specific systems to support the VoLTE (Voice over LTE) service, something most operators are still not doing. Currently only a fraction of 4G operators support VoLTE, with last year’s numbers showing only 1 out of 5 doing it.
But to support calls in the Apple Watch with the right experience, that is, using the same phone number that you already have in your iPhone, not only VoLTE is needed, but also “multi device” support from the operator.
This means your operator needs some other systems in its network so that calls that are made with your phone or your Watch (or other devices) show under your same id (your phone number) and take minutes from your same plan, and also that calls coming to your number can ring simultaneously in both devices (or more).
To manage all of this, Apple provides a framework for calls in multiple Apple devices with their “Wi-Fi Calling on supported iCloud-connected devices”. This allows calls made to your existing number to ring in your iPad, Mac or even Apple Watch over Wi-Fi, even if your phone is off. But this service is not provided by Apple alone: it requires support and integration with the operators, which in turn are marketing the feature in different ways, like AT&T using the NumberSync brand.
Notice that this feature is different from what Apple Calls “Continuity”, which allows calls “when your devices are near each other”. This would not work for the LTE Watch if the point is to be able to go phone-less, right? That’s why this is presented this way in the iPhone settings:
Notice the “even when your iPhone is not nearby”?
Extending this capability to work over LTE for the Apple Watch (since it already works in Wi-Fi) would be fairly simple, and to simplify set-up I expect that Apple will require supporting this framework to also enable voice calls over LTE in the Apple Watch.
But while multi-device for Apple is available in the big carriers in the US, currently few other countries support it (a couple of operators in Asia, only in Puerto Rico for Latin America, and no operator in Europe). This reflects that this is not something simple to implement, and that it is unlikely new operators will have this for this week’s launch.
While using the same Wi-Fi calling solution over LTE would work in the Apple Watch, this is not the “canonical” approach for carriers.
The Wi-Fi calling technology solution was defined specifically so that phones could get the calling service over a “third party” connectivity. That is a connectivity not (necessarily) provided by the operator itself, and because of that it involves some systems to secure that access that are not needed when using the LTE network.
This may sound like using the Wi-Fi Calling capability in an LTE data access would be more complex, but it actually is the other way round: the Wi-Fi calling solution is already working and it would be transparent to consider LTE just “another Wi-Fi access”, while the “good” solution, would require additional work in VoTLE for the multi-device network service and identity management aspects. So if technical teams in the operators focus on providing the “right” model for VoLTE calls on the Apple Watch, it will be more complex (both in time and in resources) than just using what they already have in place for Wi-Fi Calling.
On top of that, there may be concerns about dropped calls, as LTE coverage is usually (but not always) worse than the 3G/2G one. Regular VoLTE support in phones allows handover of calls between the 4G and 3G/2G signals, but in an Apple Watch with just 4G these calls would just drop if a user exits the LTE signal (calls may continue into Wi-Fi, but that is an unlikely scenario).
I personally consider that a call that may drop is better than no call at all, but in some departments in telco operators, where KPIs around dropped calls still exist, they would not agree with me.
So both dimensions together:
may prevent the service in some operators.
Of course, to ensure wider support by operators, Apple could add 3G and 2G support also in the Apple Watch. But I believe they won’t because:
Yes, supporting 3G would allow them to launch the cellular Watch in more markets, as LTE coverage in many countries (particularly Latin America or Africa) is still relatively small and centered on big cities. But for the casual phone-less usage that the Watch is aiming for, that is probably not critical.
In fact, since I believe the Watch will not have a physical SIM but an eSIM, the provisioning process (the steps the users will have to follow to associate the Watch LTE line with their main iPhone line) will require also additional integrations with the operator’s systems, probably similar to how Apple SIMs work today on the LTE iPads. And since the line will not be independent but associated with a main iPhone one, I also expect it to be a relatively cheap additional plan for customers, which fits existing approaches to family and multi-device plans.
This limits the number of operators that are suitable and which Apple will consider to do the integration efforts with, which will mean that only a few ones will support the LTE Apple Watch at launch. I believe the LTE Apple Watch will only be available in the US in 2017, and only with a few carriers. Maybe even just one, and have it as an exclusive launch, just like the original iPhone was at first (with AT&T) or the Wi-Fi Calling functionality was (with T Mobile).
Given the supply issues that Apple is recently facing with new technology efforts, as shown with their AirPods constraints, limiting the target market can help them cope with demand (and generate additional hype due to scarcity). And this will also win time for all the operators to keep expanding their 4G coverage, so that 3G support becomes increasingly less important.
So with all these considerations, let’s risk a small prediction here, and see if I’m right later this week:
So overall, only a fraction of Apple Watch customers will be able to get the LTE version, and even fewer of those will be able to use it for calling.
Then it will be up to operators to work with Apple to enable these capabilities (LTE Watch eSIM support and calling) in their networks, but unless they do this fast this will become increasingly irrelevant, as other VoIP applications (Skype, Telegram, WhatsApp…) will provide voice first, and the demand for operator voice will go down over time.
UPDATE: So in the end Apple did launch an LTE Apple Watch, and it did have calls, and only some operators offer it… but there are some surprises there. Take a look at my new article to see how that impacts the ability for creating a new ecosystem.
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