One possible future for Apple Watch

Apple / Apple Watch / iOS

Everybody’s talking about the Apple Watch around the anniversary of its first release. Most of the chatter is about how disappointing and how slow it is, with some countering with how useful it is despite this.

I am in agreement with most of these viewpoints, but people who don’t think this is going to change radically in the next year or two are crazy. You only have to look at the utility gulf between a first-generation iPhone and the iPhone 4 to see this.

In the latest episode of the always excellent Upgrade podcast (#88), Myke and Jason mention rumours that mobile data is coming to the next-gen Apple Watch, and seem skeptical. It may be too soon for the 2nd generation, but to me it is a no-brainer that this is going to happen as soon as is practically possible. Often when it seems something like this is imminent from Apple, it usually happens a year or more later than you’d hope.

Pretty much since the Watch came out I’ve been in the minority that think the Watch will “replace” the iPhone. This does not however mean that you won’t have an iPhone-like device any more and do everything on the Watch. That is nonsense.

Let me describe to you a possible future I see for the Apple Watch:

You have a 2nd or 3rd gen Apple Watch. It has 4G or equivalent mobile connectivity and direct wi-fi (which it already has in some respects). In your pocket is a familiar 4”, 4.7” or 5.5” iPhone-like device. Maybe it is called an iPad nano, maybe it is still called iPhone. This doesn’t matter.

What matters is, your watch has high speed data connectivity everywhere. This means it does not need to be near your phone to do all the cool things a Watch can possibly do in the future. Display size will always be a constraint and that is why you will often still have another device with you, but this communications ability pushes the functionality to the upper limits in terms of data.

The device is fully functional in its own right. Your email, calendar updates, text messages (green and blue), push notifications all work wherever you are. This changes everything about the Watch. The Watch is “you” in terms of the mobile network.

At this point people will say:

I don’t want a data plan for my watch!
Battery will drain so fast it will be useless
I don’t want to have multiple numbers

All of this is wrong. Consider that Apple have already implemented Continuity that makes all our devices ring when we get a phone call or message, and we can accept or originate a message or call from any of our devices. The effort to acheive this is huge, and they have continued to refine it.

The SIM currently lives in the iPhone. Apple has already done most of the work here to allow the SIM to live in any of the devices. They have also been working for years to move to a software SIM with resistance to date from the carriers. Eliminating the SIM card and slot would make it easier to integrate this into a Watch, but may not be a prerequisite.

It is not that hard to imagine your Watch becoming the “SIM holder” whether it is a physical SIM or not. Thanks to the already proven Continuity features, everything works as it does now. You can make and receive calls and texts on your iPhone that doesn’t have a SIM in it because you are wearing your Watch which does.

“…but the Watch battery will run out really quickly if all my data and voice traffic from my iPhone is actually going through the Watch”

This is the smart part. If you have an iPhone (or 3G/4G compatible iPad) you already have the radios in those devices with big fat batteries. So they can actually make the mobile network connection themselves, but using the “SIM identity” from your Watch. This is like the Watch gaining superpowers when paired up with another device that has mobile radios. Buy wearing the Watch you are bringing your identity to the larger mobile device instead of the other way around.

The means you don’t need an iPhone at all, and you certainly don’t need an iPhone for your Watch to do everything useful with data and calls. The Watch becomes untethered, and as per the Apple promise of integration across products, things only get better when you also have an iPhone or iPad. Having both a Watch and an iPad could end up costing about the same as buying just an iPhone, but with much more flexibility.

This takes away the emphasis on the iPhone as the “must have” product in the Apple line. You can choose whichever product you want that suits your lifestyle the best be it iPhone, iPad or Macbook, but you can have phone functionality with any and all of them1. It is also worth noting that classic phone functionality is not nearly as valuable to many people these days, especially younger people.

This seems to be a no brainer to me. Most of the technical challenges seem to be solved already, and the whereabouts of the SIM and proxying the identity to other devices seems to be the only sticking point. I bet Apple has already had this working for a few years in the labs, in the guise of the “Software SIM”.

So there it is. I’m not placing any bets on this, but it makes perfect sense to me.

  1. Caveat: Macbook is not likely to see mobile data antennae any time soon but maybe with a SIM in the watch this would come too, as it eliminates the need for another SIM in the laptop, a long-running concern 

The Author

Marc Palmer (Twitter, Mastodon) is a consultant and software engineer specialising in Apple platforms. He currently works on the iOS team of Concepts sketching app, as well as his own apps like video subtitle app Captionista. He created the Flint open source framework. He can also do a pretty good job of designing app products. Don't ask him to draw anything, because that's really embarrassing. You can find out more here.