Apple reportedly picks Intel for LTE Watch, in Qualcomm snub

Apple has apparently picked Intel to supply the LTE modems for its rumored cellular Apple Watch, enabling the smartwatch to function without being tethered to an iPhone – according to Bloomberg. Such a move would be a major snub to Qualcomm, assuming Intel is the only supplier, and might help explain the undercurrent of animosity behind the ongoing legal disputes between the two.

The new Watch is apparently due to be released by the end of the year, before the holiday season, and would allow it to stream music, download map directions, and send messages. The Bloomberg sources say that AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon plan to sell the device, and discussions with European carriers, but the outlet reports that Apple has already postponed such a device once – meaning that we’ll believe it when we see it.

WatchOS v4 is also due in these new devices, providing the additional software stacks that will let the device communicate with those LTE networks. Debuting the new device alongside the new iPhone 8 in its traditional September pre-holiday-season launch seems likely, repeating the cadence used with the Apple Watch Series 2 and the iPhone 7.

Intel’s LTE modems are at the core of the ongoing Apple-Qualcomm dispute, which has taken another turn this week as the US International Trade Commission announced that it would be investigating Qualcomm’s claim that Apple has infringed on six patents. Apple maintains that Qualcomm still hasn’t offered it a fair and reasonable licensing deal, but the ITC does have the power to implement an import ban.

The dispute is linked to the Intel modems that Apple selected for its iPhone 7, after which, Qualcomm filed the patent infringement and anti-trust claim. Apple then decided to withhold a huge royalty payment, and encourage its partners to do the same – claiming that Qualcomm was overcharging, by pricing according to the sale price of the device, rather than the sale price of the modem.

Notably, Qualcomm isn’t pursuing Intel – rather it claims that Apple’s implementation is at fault for the dispute. There are still two separate federal court proceedings between the pair playing out in California, and the US Federal Trade Commission is also investigating Qualcomm as part of the Apple process.

We are still a long way from knowing whether the rumored Watch will use LTE-M or NB-IoT, the two low-power, IoT-focused LTE variants that were introduced in Release 13. It seems very unlikely that NB-IoT will make an appearance, given its lack of voice communication and data, but LTE-M might well be used for the more power-sensitive features.

However, the Watch has been designed for daily or nightly charging, meaning that low-power consumption is not as pressing a concern in the smartwatch as it is in other battery-powered devices that can’t rely on being recharged. As such, Apple could probably quite easily use something like LTE Cat 1 or Cat 4 in the Watch, without having to stress about power constraints.

Adding such standalone capabilities would address the most persistent complaint leveled at smartwatches – the need to tether them, and the consequent lack of a compelling use case, as you could do almost all of their functions on the phone you were forced to carry around in order to use them.

While smartwatches have mostly managed to address the second most prevalent complaint, that of their short battery lives, adding a power-hungry cellular modem will pose some problems for users hoping to get a full day’s use out of their newly liberated watches. These devices still haven’t crossed that bridge, yet.

But the addition isn’t meant to enable all-day audio streaming, or incessant messaging and Siri queries. The data link is an incremental upgrade, not a step change, as limitless smartphone-free data consumption is inhibited by the battery capacity of the watches. Once that problem is solved (battery technology is very slow moving, but silicon seems to continually get more power efficient), then smartwatches might evolve further.

Apple has been top-dog by revenue in the wearables market, but of course not by volume, for some time. It seems to enjoy nice margins on the devices, but has quietly killed off the most expensive models – long gone is the $10,000 Rose Gold variant. Apple still doesn’t say how many Watches it sells, and obfuscates their performance inside its infamous ‘Other’ category.

Elsewhere, Samsung is focused on its Tizen-based smartwatches, with have had cellular connectivity options for some time. The Android Wear ecosystem seems to have gone very quiet recently, despite the rather comprehensive Android 2.0 update, although the platform has had cellular connectivity available through the stack since November 2015.

When the early Android Wear watches arrived, they were essentially jacks-of-all-trades but masters of none. Packed full of activity sensors, the Bluetooth-only devices relied on a smartphone to push notifications to the watch screen, and act as the data link for managing search and messaging requests.

Some of these early Android smartwatches had some standalone functionality, typically using GPS and on-board storage to provide a solid jogging aid, but it was only with a later update to the Android Wear software stack that the OS could support WiFi – which unlocked a much larger list of possibilities.

While some later smartwatches included cellular connectivity as a way to untether themselves from smartphones, there hasn’t been a notable success for a cellular smartwatch due to the consumer having to purchase an additional SIM subscription. Over the years, the carriers have adapted their bundles enough so that this might not be a problem going forward, but

Even Qualcomm’s new line of watch-ready chips, Snapdragon Wear, haven’t invigorated the Android makers. The new 1100 SoC is a sensible compliment to the more powerful Snapdragon Wear 2100, aimed at the ‘targeted purpose wearables’ like fitness trackers and health monitors, and providing LTE Cat 1 and 3G connectivity.