Erik Ableson 5 minute read
September 30, 2014

The Cellular Hub

There has been an upsurge in articles and discussions around the wearable market in recent weeks after the Apple Watch announcement.

Some of the best thinking has come from Ben Thompson over at Stratechery, and John Gruber at Daring Fireball but I wonder if we are all parsing this through the restrictive lens of what we know and are familiar with. One thought is that the Apple Watch, a device that must be tethered to an iPhone, will perhaps be capable of becoming a fully autonomous device including native 3G, GPS etc. in the next few years.

I think that unlikely for a number of reasons. While Apple has accomplished miracles of miniaturization, the fundamental issue remains power autonomy. I don’t see battery technology making any leaps to 10x the current density that would allow a watch-sized device to run all of the radios for a full day and have space for some kind of SIM card.

They could save space by going the CDMA route and make the SIM card an intrinsic part of the device, but this requires large changes in the way the bulk of the world’s GSM/LTE technology is sold and deployed. This still doesn’t address the power consumption issue, other than freeing up space inside the device.

I think that the watch is the logical first step in the socialization of wearable technology because we already have context for the device. We’ve been wearing jewelry for thousands of years and timepieces for hundreds; it is a mature concept bifurcated into a utility market and a luxury market, where both exceed the utility needs of most people that just want to display the time.

The reason I wonder about other possibilities are the advances brought by iOS 8 that link all of your Apple devices into a small Bluetooth and WiFi mesh network.

Example: I have an iPad Retina at my desk attached to the (excellent) Twelve South HoverBar arm, serving as an ancillary display for Facetime, WebEx, Tweetbot, OmniFocus and so on. Yesterday, the iPad lit up with an incoming phone call while my iPhone was sitting in a pocket, thus the iPad became a fully featured speakerphone. This was done with basically zero configuration on my part other than signing into my iCloud account on both devices.

This got me to thinking about the utility of the phone device as the cellular conduit. We are used to the concept of “the phone”, including its heuristically necessary baggage like size, which is mostly dictated by the screen, and the form which is dictated by the use cases of alternately looking at it and holding it up to your ear.

If we remove the screen and leave only battery, radios and the crudest UI (on/off for example), a myriad of possible forms emerge. Imagine an integrated MiFi device that provides connectivity to a variety of devices around you – something that you could wear. This kind of device could be designed as a belt buckle for example, or a necklace, bringing an additional set of options to other surrounding screens. I no longer need an iPhone… An iPod Touch as a small screen device where I currently use the iPhone, an iPad serving the jobs requiring more screen real-estate, devices and screens enabling HomeKit, all of which become data and voice enabled by the presence of the cellular hub.

There is a competing thin-client concept that has been around for a while, but has been oriented towards enterprise devices, reducing computers to screens with no intelligence with content projected from a server. Think Citrix, Microsoft RDP, VMware Horizon View. I don’t think this is viable in this space since the latency imposed by passing Retina-quality display data over a wireless network is huge - fine for a mediated UI with mouse and keyboard, but not for a touch-enabled system that requires immediacy of reaction.

Current cellular devices claim a price premium over similar non-cellular devices, witness the iPhone vs the iPod Touch. You can get an iPhone 6+ for the extra battery performance, but retain all of the advantages of the one-hand manipulation by linking it to an iPod Touch. But why should I pay the premium for a iPhone with the big screen? If it’s going to live in a bag, why not something without a screen? And if I need it all the time, why can’t/shouldn’t I wear it?

By consolidating the responsibility of cellular communications to a single device, the satellite devices will be individually cheaper to acquire, and I would likely buy multiples for the various jobs to be done. As a quick example, the current 64Gb iPhone 6 sells for 819 € unlocked in France. A 64 Gb iPod Touch is only 319 €. At this kind of cost disparity, I can imagine buying multiple ancillary screens for various contexts. Apple would take a bath on the margins, but if you’ll pardon the phrase, they could make it up in volume…

This approach fits nicely with the idea of the Apple Watch as just another one of the screens that I have available to me, enabled by a cellular connected wearable that is always with me as well.