Blog: Is next Apple Watch perfect timing for LPWA?

16 AUG 2017

Along with the much-anticipated 10th anniversary iPhone (which could be called the iPhone 8, iPhone X, iPhone Edition – take your pick at this stage), Apple is also reportedly planning to release a potential game changer for the wearables market in September.

Bloomberg first broke the news the company is prepping the launch of an LTE enabled version of its relatively popular smartwatch, capable of connecting directly to a mobile network without leveraging an iPhone through Bluetooth (as the device currently does).

The benefits of such a move would: a) reduce the Apple Watch’s reliance on the iPhone by allowing users to perform certain tasks like making calls or sending texts without a smartphone in sight; and b) potentially widen the wearable’s appeal for enterprise partnerships through connection deals with operators globally, starting with the US and Europe.

180 on LTE
The launch of a third Apple Watch in the space of two years (since series 1 was unveiled in 2015), may indeed seem excessive and equally ambitious, but CEO Tim Cook has made no secret of his hopes and commitment to the segment.

While early enthusiasm may have waned and big names have struggled to maintain a foothold (Jawbone and Fitbit spring to mind), Cook remains particularly bullish about the Apple Watch and the wearables market in general.

Apple, of course, does not break out shipment numbers, and instead lumps the device in with its “other products” category. But the company did say Apple Watch saw a 50 per cent increase in sales during its Q3 earnings announcement, covering the three months to 1 July.

So, while it may not be so far-fetched that Cook plans to add to the smartwatch line already, reading news of an LTE-enabled version of the Apple Watch may create a sense of deja vu.

Reports in 2016 suggested Apple was indeed planning to launch a standalone smartwatch that did not need to tether to an iPhone, before postponing the move.

According to reports, Apple’s chief concern at the time centred around battery life, which can be drained even quicker when equipping such a device with its own cellular connectivity.

With rumours now rife an Apple Watch featuring an embedded LTE SIM may finally see the light of day at the company’s glitzy annual unveiling event next month, what has changed?

Boosting the LPWA market
Following the standardisation of cellular low power wide area (LPWA) networks in June 2016, major European and US operators are now pushing out their respective technologies of choice across their footprints.

At the same time, Apple has apparently found confidence it can shake off its battery life concerns.

Wearables were one of the major use cases identified during the standardisation and development of LPWA, and strike a chord with LTE-M technology in particular. Indeed, the nascent LPWA market would receive its biggest boost yet if the world’s most profitable mobile device maker commits to the technology (and would follow efforts from the likes of Huawei).

Michele Mackenzie, analyst for IoT and M2M solutions at Analysys Mason, told Mobile World Live LPWA “addresses precisely” the issue of added pressure on wearables’ battery life with the integration of cellular technology.

“They offer a low power alternative to traditional cellular technologies. LTE-M, for example, would help address battery life issues as well as provide a lower cost module, and up to 1Mb/s bandwidth.”

Interestingly, though, Apple’s two largest markets – US and Europe – have somewhat veered in different directions when it comes to the adoption of cellular LPWA technologies.

In Europe, there is considerable momentum for NB-IoT, with Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone Group leading the way. (It is, of course, important to note this is not the case across the entire continent. Orange, KPN and Telefonica have all announced support for LTE-M. On the other hand, there have been no plans for LTE-M in the UK, which is a big market for the Apple Watch.)

US operators AT&T and Verizon, meanwhile, have both completed nationwide roll-outs of LTE-M, and Sprint is soon to follow.

But again, different strategies exist. T-Mobile US – ‘the uncarrier’ – has naturally followed its German parent and said it will initially pursue NB-IoT.

Bloomberg reported the operators offering the Apple LTE Watch, at least at launch, might be limited to a subset of those which also carry the iPhone.

Meanwhile, all four US operators – AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile US – do plan to sell the new watch, according to Bloomberg.

Differing routes to LPWA
So, does such fragmentation create a problem?

“T-Mobile US will deploy NB-IoT and has not yet made an announcement on LTE-M. NB-IoT would meet the requirements of battery life, but may not be sufficiently high bandwidth to support the functionality of the watch,” said Mackenzie.

With Apple locked in a legal fight with Qualcomm over patents, Intel is reportedly in line to supply the modules for the watch.

Mackenzie noted Intel has developed both LTE-M and NB-IoT modules which could go some way to overcoming any concern.

However, is it likely Apple would release two versions of the watch specifically for LTE-M and NB-IoT markets?

“If indeed, the technology choice is LPWA then Apple would need to engage with operators to understand their LPWA technology roadmaps and timings over the next couple of years,” Mackenzie said, adding: “When Apple first launched the iPhone in 2007 it only supported GSM so not all carriers were able to offer it. Perhaps being able to work with all carriers is not a major consideration for Apple initially.”

Of course, it is important to note there has been no official announcement by Apple on LPWA, or any indication of what other type of technology could be deployed in the new device.

In fact, even the LTE-enabled watch, at this stage, can be considered a rumour.

It’s not like the company to keep things under wraps, is it?

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.

Author

Kavit Majithia

Kavit joined Mobile World Live in May 2015 as Content Editor. He started his journalism career at the Press Association before joining Euromoney’s graduate scheme in April 2010. Read More >>

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