One of the biggest stumbling blocks holding back the Apple Watch since its 2015 launch is its dependence on the iPhone. That’s about to change with an LTE Apple Watch reportedly on the way this fall.
According to Bloomberg, Apple is putting an Intel LTE modem in the next generation of its smartwatch, which could debut as soon as September alongside the 10th anniversary iPhone. The addition of a modem would free the watch to operate on its own, just as the iPhone does.
Current Apple Watches need to be connected via Bluetooth to the iPhone to download apps, receive notifications or send iMessages. When the iPhone is out of range, the watch displays a sad red phone icon with a slash through it at the top of its screen.
The Apple Watch wouldn’t be breaking ground by adding cellular capability to its smartwatch — LTE Android Wear watches have been around for awhile. But those LTE watches all take up a massive amount of wrist real estate, which isn’t appealing to many people.
“If Apple can add LTE connectivity to the Watch without negatively impacting its form factor and battery life, that will be an enormous technical and design achievement,” said GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart.
Adding a modem to the watch poses some other challenges, too. Apple would have to achieve three huge breakthroughs to pull off a cellular Apple Watch (and make it worth buying):
Carrier support: There’s just no getting around it: an LTE Apple Watch will require a monthly data plan to keep you connected to a cellular network. Apple is reportedly striking deals with wireless carriers in Europe and the U.S., including support from multiple carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. It makes sense that carriers would go all-in with an LTE smartwatch — that’s just another charge they can add to your monthly bill.
Longer battery life: Right now, the Apple Watch lasts about a day on a single charge, or slightly longer if you don’t activate the workout mode’s continuous heart rate-monitoring. An LTE modem would suck up significantly more battery just by existing; then imagine how much more you’d use a watch untethered to a phone. (I would hope you’d still be able to connect the watch to a Wi-Fi network to avoid consuming significant amounts of data.)
In fact, finding a battery small enough that can last long enough is exactly why Apple hasn’t released an LTE Apple Watch in the past, but the company is trying to overcome that hurdle as we speak, Bloomberg noted.
Price: At $369 for the 38mm Series 2 model, the Apple Watch is already one of the most expensive smartwatches on the market, although that hasn’t prevented the device from becoming one of the best-selling wearables around (ranked just behind budget-conscious Xiaomi and Fitbit). It’s unclear how much more an LTE version of the watch would cost, but if it’s significantly more than the current base model, that might put a damper on sales.
It’s unclear just how many Apple Watches have been sold over the last two years, because the company doesn’t break out that line item from its “other devices” category. But CEO Tim Cook said during the company’s third-quarter earnings call this week that Apple Watch sales grew more than 50 percent. (More than 50 percent from what? We just don’t know.)