As summer wends on, so too do the rumors of upcoming Apple products. This time it’s the Apple Watch that has gotten the spotlight, with word that the next version of the wearable might include cellular connectivity.
That’s been held up as a missing piece of functionality by those competitors that do include LTE support in their own smartwatches, but it’s hardly been an unequivocal demand amongst current owners of the Apple Watch. Is this a natural evolution for the product, or a case of trying to find some additional features to drive sales?
The case for cellular
The benefits of cellular connectivity on an Apple Watch are pretty clear-cut. Rather than having to carry both your Watch and your iPhone around with you, you could leave the house with simply your Apple Watch. There’s already some functionality that works without your phone being present—Apple Pay, for example, or fitness tracking—but this expands that roster even further.
There’s a particular benefit to fitness users: runners can, for example, stream music from Apple Music or another service, rather than fussing with syncing music to the Watch’s local storage. They can also continue to get notifications while they work out, including, presumably, iMessages and emails—though whether that’s a benefit or a distraction will probably differ from person to person.
More recent reports suggest that the Watch won’t be able to make phone calls on its own, though VoIP apps may be a possibility. I’d assume that FaceTime Audio calls would be perfectly fine, and that may cover the bulk of eventualities; add Skype into the mix, and it’s about as good as having a normal phone.
From a strict sales perspective, it’s also possible that some customers have held off buying an Apple Watch until it does include cellular connectivity, so the addition of that major piece of functionality could spur sales. (Presumably there was a similar intent from adding GPS to the Apple Watch in Series 2, though it’s unclear whether or not that truly did buoy sales of the Watch.)
The case against cellular
But here’s the biggest question for me: does the Apple Watch as it is currently really call out for cellular connectivity? Ask most current owners of an Apple Watch how much they really use it for, and I guarantee that the answers are far more limited than the full capabilities of the Watch. But little of that has to do with the lack of cellular connectivity on the Apple Watch—I don’t think most Apple Watch users are annoyed that they can’t get their notifications when their phone isn’t nearby, because most of the time their phone is nearby.
That’s before we even add in actual engineering challenges. Cellular radios are a substantial drain on battery life—while I’m sure Apple will attempt to make that as efficient as possible, the Watch’s longevity is probably still going to take a hit. And adding another chip to the Watch seems likely to make it at least somewhat bulkier, though it’s impossible to rule out Apple finding a way to somehow shoehorn it into the existing design.
Finally, there’s also the financial question. Not only would I expect a cellular-enabled model to be more expensive than current offerings, but no cellular provider is going to give away data for free, so there’s likely to be an additional monthly data cost as well. Many providers let you add a tablet to your plan for $10 per month; I can’t see it being any less than a $5 monthly charge for the Apple Watch.
It’s not so much that the cost is outrageous compared to what tech customers are use to spending, but there’s a strong question of whether all of those tradeoffs are worth the seemingly meager bonus from adding cellular connectivity to the Apple Watch.
My gut tells me that if the Apple Watch Series 3 is announced this fall, it will follow the pattern of the iPad: there will be a base level Watch that includes Wi-Fi-only—perhaps a revamped version of the Series 2, if Apple follows its previous pattern—and then cellular connectivity as an additional add-on. Then again, the Apple Watch has had a surprising amount of variability in its product line in the not quite two-and-a-half years since its release, so perhaps Apple will change the dynamic once again.
But all the rumors swirling around this particular topic have gotten me wondering if perhaps they’re drowning out other potential additions to the next version of the Apple Watch. GPS was the marquee feature of the Series 2 Apple Watch, but it also came with better waterproofing and a faster processor. It seems likely that if a brand-new model of the Apple Watch is incorporating a feature as significant as cellular connectivity that Apple might have yet more surprises for the Watch up its sleeve. As it were.
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Dan has been writing about all things Apple since 2006, when he first started contributing to the MacUser blog. He's a prolific podcaster and the author of the Galactic Cold War series, including his latest, The Nova Incident, coming in July 2022.