The Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE is getting middling reviews. That’s not about the Apple Watch, which is terrific. The problem is the LTE. With that tiny Apple Watch battery, it only has about an hour of talk time.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how Apple’s 2017 lineup is reaching for concepts it can’t quite fulfill yet. Apple wants to go big on augmented reality and borderless screens, but the parts and technologies there are just starting to ramp up.
The Apple Watch LTE is a 4G wearable that dreams of being 5G. Apple isn’t selling it as a fully untethered solution because Apple still wants things to “just work,” and a battery that lasts less than a day doesn’t just work.
But if you listen to Qualcommm, Intel, and others talk about 5G, it’s going to involve dense networks and high-frequency technologies that will be able to operate on much less power than LTE networks, without the sharp speed restrictions and half-duplex nature of low-power Internet of Things LTE networks.
5G, especially in its millimeter-wave variant, will also allow for teeny, tiny antennas, which will be easier to integrate into wearables than the relatively chunky antennas needed for 4G and 3G frequencies.
Until we have those low-power 5G networks with the tiny antennas, any wearable that attempts to live the untethered life is going to have to be either relatively huge or have very short talk time. This isn’t just a problem with Apple’s watch; other 4G connected watches also have very short battery life on HSPA or LTE.
Three Years Away
The problem is, we’re three years away from having the networks that could make these connected wearables possible. It’s 2017 right now. Full rollout of 5G networks in the US won’t happen until 2020, although we’ll see fits and starts before then.
Millimeter wave networks also will likely only work in relatively dense urban areas, because those frequencies don’t travel very far. So a watch will probably still need a 4G backup plan, though hopefully it wouldn’t turn on that radio unless necessary.
Apple has created early, incomplete products before, which were later successful. Mac OS X was originally launched in a semi-functional beta form. The iPod was considered overpriced and criticized for being Mac-exclusive when it was launched in 2001; it started to go really big in 2003, when the iTunes Store for Windows opened up. The original iPhone was also expensive, didn’t have 3G support, and didn’t have apps.
The Watch’s 4G dilemma is different because it’s dependent on the action of third-party network providers, and not on Apple’s own innovation. But as the Apple Watch is the world’s most successful smartwatch anyway, I see the 4G version as Apple dipping its toes into the always-connected wearable realm, waiting for the water to warm up. The Watch will free itself, but it’ll take a few years.