The case for cellular in the Apple Watch

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

All indications point to the new Apple Watch including LTE in at least one model. This is great news, and is absolutely on the short list of low hanging fruit the Apple Watch needs to advance the platform (I’d also put an always-on display up at the top of the list too), so I’m happy to hear that it’s in the works.

The rumor wears met with some skepticism from people who didn’t see the value in LTE on a watch. “What’s the point? How does that solve any of the problems with the Apple Watch?!” Hopefully I’ll be able to convince you here that there is indeed some value in LTE on a watch and that it’s going to be liberating for those who can take advantage of it.


This is the simple one. Working out with a smartphone sucks, plain and simple. Carrying an iPhone 7 Plus in my running shorts is uncomfortable at best, and hazard as at worst. I have to take strides in a way that doesn’t shake the phone too much against my leg or pop it out of my pocket. It also dictates what shorts/pants I buy, since I need ones with large pockets and draw strings to make them tight enough that the phone doesn’t pull them down. Neither me nor my neighbors want to see me running around the neighborhood with my pants around my ankles.

Yes, it’s nice to have my camera with me to take photos if I see something cool or funny, but all the other reasons I bring my iPhone with me when I work out are just because I need it, not because I want it. The Apple Watch gained GPS last year, which meant you could leave your iPhone at home and still get distance and route information from your workouts, but it also meant you were inaccessible while on your workout.

Taken even further, you have people who swim with their watches and they simply can not bring their iPhone with them for their workouts. The phone must stay on the beach or at the side of the pool. If you’re within Bluetooth/Wifi range you may be okay, but otherwise you’re getting good workout data, but you’re inaccessible to the outside world.

And that inaccessibility is a hazard. I run as my primary workout activity which is not particularly dangerous, but it’s not like something will never happen. I could break a bone or be involved in a hit-and-run on a run one day. If my iPhone is with me, I can call for help. If I only brought my Series 2 Apple Watch, I have to pray someone finds me.

The safety reason alone is enough to warrant it in my opinion, but there is the added benefit of being able to stream music/podcasts/books not saved locally as well as being able to receive and reply to messages on the go.

People who don’t like phones

My grandma doesn’t like her phone, She hates it, in fact. She thinks it’s a hassle and is too bulky for something she almost never uses. She does wear a watch though, and letting her have the security and convenience of a phone on her wrist instead of in a purse she doesn’t want to carry around would be great.

A device for kids

Prices may have to fall a bit for this to be mainstream, but I can see value in giving an Apple Watch to your child when they go out with friends as a means to keep track of them as well as being able to communicate with them if needed. A 7 year old may not be old enough to be trusted with a smartphone, but you may trust them with a watch that they can talk to you on.

Edge case, but people who don’t have iPhones

This isn’t really possible today, but watchOS is getting more independent of the iPhone as time goes on, so this could be enabled down the line. What if I want to (or need to) use an Android phone but also want an Apple Watch? The Android Wear options are pretty thin these days, and Android Wear 2.0 is a general snooze fest, it seems, so watchOS might be more appealing.

Right now a lot of app management happens on the iPhone, but a lot of the Apple Watch’s functionality is accessible from the watch itself. And when you add the fact that we live off web services that sync with the cloud, not any single device, then what would stop an app like WhatsApp from running entirely on the watch? Given that apps can run entirely on the watch already, I don’t see why the watch couldn’t just be another portal into these web services just like a phone, tablet, or desktop computer.

To make this work completely sans-iPhone we would need a way to set up the watch on its own, a way to do updates without the phone, and a way to install apps without the phone. Currently none of that is possible, but remember that the iPhone couldn’t do any of that from the start either. It wasn’t until iOS 5 that you could set up an iPhone without a computer, after all.

The notion that we must carry a phone with us wherever we go is an extremely modern concept, and has not even been a super common thing for half of my lifetime. The idea of being connected is not something I expect to go away any time soon, but the definition of what being connected means, and what devices you can use to stay connected are sure to evolve over time. Giving the Apple Watch a cellular data connection may seem like overkill but I think it’s a natural evolution of the smart watch.

The continuing miniaturization of computers means that we can all have the sort of connected devices we want, and we don’t all have to use the same things for the same reasons. That’s exciting, so embrace it!

There are surely more examples of reasons to include cellular data on the Apple Watch, and I hope Apple has thought of a few cool ones to talk about when they show off the new Watch this year. I’ll be there as I always am, ready to try it out.