There are numerous rumours floating around the internet this week regarding the Apple Watch 3 and its ability to connect to the internet. While the smart watch industry and wearables more generally have seen a lot of success in recent years and more so forecast for the future, the Apple Watch and many of its competitors have been tied to a smartphone via a Bluetooth connection, restricting its value to little more than a second screen.
Rumours that have been circulating for some time, but received further kudos this week suggest that the Apple Watch 3, due for launch before Christmas will have some form of LTE radio in it, meaning that the watch will be able to connect directly to the internet without the need for an iPhone (dramatically increasing its potential appeal to 6 billion+ non-iPhone users around the world).
This move could mean that Apple are targeting their wearable devices towards much more than just social notifications, with large growth in wearables for tracking the elderly under a smart home as a carer model, with Apple rumoured to be researching wearable biosensors technology, a direct internet connection would mean the device can be marketed beyond the average smartphone users.
While it is very easy to say, Apple will add LTE to their smartwatches, there are several different LTE categories, with two categories looking likely for the Apple Watch and other wearables.
The iPhone 6s and 7 series use LTE-A, a high-speed version of LTE, sometimes marketed as LTE+, 4G+, 4GX, 4.5G or 4G LTE ULTRA. LTE support varies from country to country, and the speed may vary depending on your location and how fast you are travelling. This category is great for transmitting large amounts of data at high speed, ideal for streaming music, videos, and anything else that might be required. The problem with LTE-A for wearables is, of course, battery life, a mobile phone has a considerably more powerful battery than a watch and still requires daily charging, the battery life of Apple products is already somewhat of a hurdle and adding a high power connectivity service alongside all the existing functions available on a smart watch will surely result in a battery life far too short to be of much use, additionally higher data costs would surely be passed onto consumers, resulting in a costly monthly bill.
LTE-M is a category of communication that sits roughly halfway between LTE-A and the array of Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) currently being rolled out worldwide. The maximum amount of data that LTE-M can consume is approximately 100 Kbps (but generally average at 64kbps on today's Verizon network). This is suitable for many of the applications that a smart watch might require. Certified modules for LTE-M cost around $15, much less than an LTE-A module of around $60.
While nationwide LTE-M networks have been rolled out in the USA, Canada and Japan by Verizon, AT&T, KDDI and Bell, amongst other, the standard has received little traction in the rest of the world, with many operators opting for NB-IoT, LTE's cellular LPWAN offering. Vodafone have confirmed that they are looking into deploying an LTE-M network following their rollout of NB-IoT, but this may not be until the mid 2020s. For Apple to market a device that only works in parts of the world would not help sales and so they may be several years too early with such a device.
While adding such connectivity to an Apple Watch is an evolution for the product, it is unlikely to be a revolution and will probably not completely untether it from an iPhone. Apple's business model aims for users to own several devices: phones, laptops, tablets, televisions and later this year home hubs. Any movement to a more isolated device is unlikely, while a device that has greater but limited function when not connected to a phone, will allow Apple to add new features over time and protect iPhone sales.
The wide range of new low power wireless networks currently being rolled out offer huge opportunities for wearables to be connected directly to the internet, but time will be required to get full coverage worldwide and to establish the best candidate for the job.
Top image: Wikipedia