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The next big step for the Apple Watch: liberation from the iPhone

The new Watch App Store we’ll likely see at WWDC, combined with an eventual 5G connection, may finally make Apple’s timepiece a freestanding computing device.

The next big step for the Apple Watch: liberation from the iPhone
[Photo: Luke Chesser/Unsplash]

Apple will unveil its latest OS for the Apple Watch at its WWDC developer event in Cupertino next week. The new features we expect to see, combined with the coming 5G wireless standard, suggest that a Watch that can be used independently from the iPhone may finally be on the horizon.

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Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman scooped a batch of new features likely coming in WatchOS 6, but the biggest one is a new App Store. Currently, you have to get Watch apps from the App Store on an iPhone. But if Gurman is right, WatchOS will cut the phone out of the process. Remember that it was the arrival of the App Store that marked the beginning of the iPhone’s rise to become the most-used smartphone in the world. The iPhone got its on-device store (with a dazzling 500 apps) on July 10, 2008, the day before the launch of the iPhone 3G.

Whether or not the introduction of an on-Watch app store has similar magic effects on adoption, it will be a sizable step toward the Watch’s total independence from the iPhone. This autonomy, I believe, has been part of Apple’s plan for the device all along.

Slow liberation

It wasn’t easy to tell this at first. The first Apple Watch, released in 2015, was like a companion device for the iPhone. It let you glance at your wrist and decide, in many cases, that the notification you just got didn’t warrant pulling out your phone. Other functions made the Watch a remote control for things like the iPhone’s camera or music player.

While those early functions stayed, 2016’s second-generation Watch seemed to aim at a specific set of health and fitness use cases. Along with more health and fitness tracking features in the OS, the Watch got its own GPS radio, which let users map or track their runs while the iPhone stayed at home.

Things got more interesting with 2017’s Apple Watch Series 3, which got its own cellular radio and was no longer dependent on the iPhone to make calls or connect to the internet. (Remember the Apple commercial with someone answering a phone call—while surfing?)

The following year, the Watch Series 4 got a larger screen (the largest size moved from 42mm to 44mm). More importantly, the display increased 30% in size simply by using far more of the area on the front of the device. The increased display space is crucial for creating a user interface large enough to support additional functions that you’d normally accomplish on a phone. The Series 4 got a much faster processor for the same reason, as well as to make navigation and opening apps faster and smoother.

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And Apple is continuing to offload traditional iPhone tasks onto the Watch. Other than the App Store, Gurman believes WatchOS 6 will also bring the Watch its own calculator, voice memo recorder, and audiobook apps.

The Watch has always had mobile payments via Apple Pay, but Apple has continued to expand its payment functions. The Watch now lets you pay for admittance into public transportation systems. Here it is performing that skill in Japan:

It’s not hard to see where this is all going. Apple is gradually making the Watch into a viable iPhone alternative for some users.

5G and the Watch

The Apple Watch’s biggest leap toward independence from the iPhone may be driven by the new wireless standard, 5G. Apple is reportedly aiming to release its first 5G iPhone in 2020, and it will surely introduce a 5G Apple Watch when it feels the technology is ready. 5G will bring much higher connection speeds than what we’re used to with 4G. The 5G modem chip maker Qualcomm says it expects users to see real-world download speeds of around 1.4 gigabytes per second, or about 20 times faster than 4G LTE service.

5G also offers much improved network latency, which could make talking to Siri on the Watch a far better experience. Siri requests will make it up to the cloud faster and the responses will come back sooner. As Siri gets more conversational, the whole exchange will feel more natural–and productive. Siri has other problems; hopefully we’ll hear some encouraging news in that direction on June 3.

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5G’s speed should make streaming or downloading media–music, video, books, and more–super-fast and painless. A podcast or audio book could download to the Watch in a couple of seconds. Interruptions to media playing on the Watch could become a thing of the past.

The instant connectivity might make the Watch a more effective personal health monitor device–the device Steve Jobs envisioned. One of the Watch’s core strengths is its close proximity to the body, and the fact that people wear the device all day long. Until now, the Watch has been reasonably good at collecting and displaying basic health data, but less adept at making sense of it. Apple already telegraphed its interest in giving users more personalized and actionable health insights when it added a feature that warns of possible heart trouble based on data connected via the device’s new electrocardiogram reader.

Meanwhile, other digital health app makers, like AliveCor (which makes an EKG device and app for the Watch) and One Drop (whose diabetes management device can deliver data via the Watch) are already far down the road in using AI to deliver health insights. But running those AI models could be too big a job for the Watch and its small battery. A superfast, always-on 5G connection could let the Apple Watch offload some of the processing work to a cloud server. Apple being Apple, it would want to do this in a way that protects the security and privacy of the data.

Balancing local processing and the cloud could apply to lots of other processing-intensive tasks. It’s an open secret that Apple is working on some form of augmented reality glasses. Because it’s hard to fit a powerful enough processor into a svelte and wearable pair of glasses, it’s a good idea to offload some of the processing to another device–preferably one that the user might already wear. The Watch might be the perfect device to power the glasses, especially if it could get a little help from the cloud for the heavy image processing, object recognition, and sensor data processing that AR glasses must do.

5G isn’t easy

Building a 5G radio into the Apple Watch won’t be easy. Heck, building it into anything isn’t yet a simple matter: Phone makers and network operators have spent much of this year trying to work out battery drain and overheating problems with the chips in the first 5G phones to come to market.

Apple’s challenge with the Watch will be even greater. 5G modems’ thirst for battery power will seriously impact the way they can be used in compact wearables such as a smartwatch. The modem chip–likely made by Qualcomm–will have to run with even greater efficiency than it will in a phone. And as it did with the Apple Watch’s 4G connection, Apple may have the Apple Watch opt for 5G only if it can’t connect via Wi-Fi or by piggybacking on the iPhone’s connection. If the Watch does resort to 5G, it may carefully manage inbound and outbound data to ensure that its battery doesn’t croak by early afternoon rather than lasting a full day.

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For me, the test for the Apple Watch has always been this: Which of these things would you never leave the house without–your keys, your smartwatch, or your smartphone? The answer, today, would likely be your keys and your smartphone. But the answer will one day likely change to your keys and your smartphone or your smartwatch. (Actually, your watch could one day take the place of your keys, too.) The Apple Watch will become functional enough to serve as a go-to personal computing device for some users.

The new App Store we’ll likely see Monday points in that direction, and 5G may be the thing that finally gets us all the way there.

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