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Is the Apple Watch Poised to Realize Its Potential?

Making its way among the crowded coverage of the alleged iPhone 8, there are reports that may confirm some of my expectations about the Apple Watch.

Now I’m not about to take most rumors seriously. While some are certainly based on genuine sources, such as product leaks in Apple’s supply chain, and others on background leaks by Apple executives, others appear to be made up of whole cloth. It’s very much about wishful thinking.

Indeed, you can take a few genuine rumors, based on facts, and turn them into something bad for Apple merely by exaggerating a few tidbits of data.

So it may well be that ramping up production of an all-new product will involve some level of fits and starts to fine-tune the process. Those missteps can combine to create the impression that Apple is confronting serious production delays that will result in late delivery. But it’s also true that high demand for a new Apple gadget may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in a backorder situation. Consider the iPhone 7 Plus. Apple claims it misjudged the level to which demand would skew towards the larger iPhone with its dual-camera system, so it was backordered for months.

Now the Apple Watch is regarded as an underachiever. People like them, but don’t always love them, and they aren’t embracing them near as fast as they bought iPhones and iPads, but if you look at the first two years of iPhone sales, you might think differently. Still, the critics regard the Apple Watch as a huge failure.

Of course, facts sometimes have a nasty habit of getting in the way of conventional wisdom, so the truth about Apple’s smartwatch is more nuanced. So maybe it hasn’t taken off as quickly as some might have hoped, or expected, but Apple claims steady growth, that the Apple Watch is the best selling smartwatch on the planet.

Unfortunately, industry surveys usually lump them with wearables, even cheap wristbands, and thus the Apple Watch is third in the market. Take that Apple!

It might help if Apple were to reveal actual sales figures, but estimates that are based on checking the totals in Apple’s “Other Products” category might be fairly close to the mark. They appear to reveal that over 30 million have been sold since the product debuted in the spring of 2015. Another sets it at 31.5 million. Either way, that’s not too shabby. It’s more than twice as much as recent estimates for the Amazon Echo. But the press loves the Echo, and often dismisses the Apple Watch.

So is there something that Apple can do to make the product really take off in a big way? To Apple, 30 million over two years doesn’t seem to be an awful lot. but to put this in perspective, in recent years, annual Mac sales have been in the 20 million range.

Now one key shortcoming of the Apple Watch is its dependance on your iPhone. No iPhone, and you might as well not buy Apple’s smartwatch, even though it still retains some fitness functions. It’s really an accessory, not the main gadget, but that may be poised to change.

With the Series 2 Apple Watch, it gained GPS, just a small step in the untethering process. The big step, however, is including a cellular radio. While the Apple Watch might still rely on the iPhone for some functions, that big step would make it far more independent. To some people, it might be their sole device, shades of Dick Tracy.

So several stories are starting to come together that appear to make the idea credible. One is a report sourced at Bloomberg that an LTE radio is in the works. In a Twitter post, developer Jeffrey Grossman says he discovered code in that infamous HomePod firmware to reveal the possible presence of a SIM inside an Apple Watch. Well obviously a future Apple Watch.

Now that HomePod firmware has already revealed perviously undisclosed features of the rumored iPhone 8, such as the ability to take 4K videos at 60 fps with both the front and rear cameras. And don’t forget facial recognition, which may or may not replace Touch ID.

So should we take those Apple Watch rumors seriously? Well, one of my friends and colleagues, ComputerWorld’s “Apple Holic,” Jonny Evans says yes, and he’s nobody’s fool.

In a recent blog, Johnny says, about Apple: “The company knows the days of the smartphone are numbered, and it is widening its platforms to provide the foundations for the next-generation of the connected age.”

So is the Apple Watch its potential replacement or successor? I suppose that’s possible, except when you need a larger display. But consider all the things an Apple Watch with LTE could do without a nearby iPhone. You could talk to Siri, use Maps for directions; most anything that can be done with a cell phone. It may also mean that you’ll be able to place and receive phone calls.

Other reports suggest that the LTE radio’s functionality will be closer to that of the iPad, without the ability to take calls — well unless they are beamed to it from an iPhone.

Now assuming Apple follows the same practice as the iPad, the Apple Watch’s retail price may be poised to climb by a similar degree, by $130. But I suspect the mythical Apple Watch Series 3 will come in two forms — with and without LTE. You won’t have to pay for it unless you want it.

Is this a potential reality? I suppose if Apple can tame the cellular radio not to use significantly more power than the Apple Watch without it. Or they develop a way to get a lot more battery life out of the unit, so losing a little won’t be a big deal.

Maybe we’ll know more next month. Or maybe it will take another generation before the Apple Watch becomes totally self-sufficient. But even without cell phone capability, Apple still has a product that is, by any normal estimate, far more successful than the critics want you to believe.