Why Apple Watch needs the iPhone

Apple has done it again. It’s taken a product category filled for decades with failed products that saw little success even among dedicated nerds and re-invented it to make it both useful and cool.

The most often heard complaint, even among fanbois is “But I wish it didn’t require an iPhone nearby to work.”

The Apple haters, always out in force, blame the iPhone requirement to greedy Apple trying to get its lemming-like customers to spend even more money.

Wrong. Here’s why:

Remember back in the day when owning an iPod, iPhone or iPad required you to also have a computer? This wasn’t Apple trying to sell more Macs, if they were just trying doing that, why would they have made iOS devices work with Windows? It was because without a computer, you couldn’t download mp3s or upgrade software. Connectivity technology of the day hadn’t developed to the point where it could be integrated into small mobile devices.

When the original iPod was released in late 2001, products supporting the original Wi-Fi standard had only been on the market for a year. Real world speeds assuming no one else was using it were so slow it would have taken around an hour an a half to sync music to the original 5 gigabyte iPod. You wouldn’t have to worry about the time though, because you would have used up all of the battery power before it finished syncing. That’s why Apple included a Firewire port over 40 times faster than wifi at the day. Not only was it fast, but it also gave your iPod power while it synced.

Unlike 2001, when the original iPod launched, in 2014 we are surrounded by fast wireless options. Yet Apple confronts the same problem with the Apple Watch as the original iPod. Wireless is everywhere but Apple Watch can’t afford to use it.

Wireless, Wireless Everywhere but Not a Drop to Drink

Other smartwatch on the market have difficulty getting a full day of power out of the tiny batteries that fit on our wrists. The Pebble manages multiple day battery life, but only does so with a black and white screen that’s more at home in a 1950s’ TV than today’s selfie age. As anyone who has ever used airplane mode on their phones to save power can tell you, if you put a 3G or LTE chipset in a smartwatch, battery life would go from a day to maybe it might make it through lunch time…if you eat quickly. The thing is, you need a lot of power to get a signal from your phone to a cell phone tower miles away power that watch sized batteries don’t have.

Even Wi-Fi uses a lot of power compared to something like short range low energy Bluetooth. While Apple has indicated that Apple Watch will have Wi-Fi, I believe that like AirDrop, Personal Hotspot in iOS 8, Handoff and Continuity, a Bluetooth LE connection between your Apple Watch and iPhone will be its always on link to the outside world and Wi-Fi will only be fired up for short-lived high bandwidth applications like copying music or photos to your Watch.

A few years from now, as battery and wireless technology advances and Apple Watch gains its own independent link to the outside world, we’ll look back with nostalgia to the days when you had to carry around a thin battery antenna slab called the iPhone in our pockets and purse to provide Internet for your Watch. I look forward to that day!

  Updated
Larry Salibra

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I'm the Founder & CEO of Pay4Bugs, the crowdsourced testing service that finds product bugs before they cost you sales. More about me.