Apple tends to incrementally build toward future products. It makes a big deal about a small change that isn't exciting, and then in the following years it'll pull those small changes into something big. Apple Pay started like that. First there was Passbook, a digital wallet for coupons, then there was Touch ID, and then it pulled them together to create Apple Pay.
Based on a couple of recent news items, it seems like Apple is building toward something even bigger for Apple Watch and AirPods. First, watchOS 3.2 was finally released, and while everyone was focused on Theater Mode, the update also brought SiriKit to the Apple Watch. That means developers can start building Siri into their Apple Watch apps.
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Second, Christopher Rolland, a semiconductor analyst for Susquehanna Financial Group, claims his supply chain sources tell him the next Apple Watch will contain a SIM card, likely enabling LTE support and freedom from the iPhone. Apple still has some issues to work around, like battery life and form factor, but the goal seems to be there: an LTE Apple Watch that doesn't need to be paired to your iPhone.
Further, Apple is planning to "tout" interoperability with AirPods for making and receiving calls, according to Rolland. This part is equally as important, but deeper integration between the two is no surprise. In fact, it makes perfect sense. First there was Apple Watch, then there were AirPods. Could the next Apple Watch help turn AirPods into true hearables?
If there's a useless ability on the Watch, it's the ability to take phone calls. Very few people want to hold their wrist near their face so that they can talk to someone. It's cool on Inspector Gadget, but it's not so cool in real life, despite copious smartwatches touting the feature. So is LTE really be the best new feature Apple could add?
Enter the AirPods. Most people seem to think of AirPods as truly wireless earbuds, and they are, but Apple also made sure to include an easy way to access Siri on them (double tap!) rather than gestures to easily control music, the reason most people wear earbuds. Making sure Siri integration on AirPods works right before music control seems pointed from Apple. It wants you to control your devices with Siri.
So imagine a standalone Apple Watch that could control and be controlled by the AirPods. It's a setup could be especially important for fitness heads, and makes sense with Apple and Tim Cook's fitness focus for the smartwatch. As with Android Wear watches like the LG Watch Sport, you'd have access to your emails, apps, message and music on a run, but take calls and control Siri on the AirPods.
I spoke to Abdel Ibrahim, a contributing editor at AppAdvice and someone known for specializing in Apple's long-game, about the possibility. "I don't think anything is going to supplant the smartphone in the near term, but I do think there could be a few scenarios where some of us would be willing to leave our phones behind for a short period," he said. "For example, I could easily see someone leaving their phone behind and just using their Watch and AirPods when going out for a short a walk or run. Being able to receive phone calls, text messages and perhaps stream Apple Music via LTE could be very attractive for some folks."
Currently, there are several problems standing in the way of that. The Apple Watch isn't a great device for playing music right now. It's difficult to put music on the Watch, and when you do you can only sync playlists. Controlling that music isn't the easiest thing to do on that tiny screen, either.
An LTE Apple Watch with access to streaming music on Apple Music solves some of these problems. A new version of AirPods with expanded gestures for switching tracks and changing volume goes even further. Plus, again, people are far more comfortable talking to headphones than they are to their wrist. The only thing left is a more powerful version of Siri, one that makes speaking to a device in public frictionless.
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Last September, Bloomberg reported that Apple is researching new interactions for Siri. The initiative, which is codenamed Invisible Hand, is aimed at allowing users to fully control their devices within multiple contexts without having to reactivate Siri. Commands would be down to one-word executions. For example, if you were looking at a PDF you'd just have to say "print" and it would print.
Apple builds incrementally, and it's laid - or is laying - the groundwork for an Apple Watch and AirPod combo that could be a true hearable solution. All we have to do is wait.