Following on the heels of yesterday’s iPhone 8 reviews, today the reviews for the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE came out, and they were rather different in tone, in at least some cases. Whereas yesterday’s reviews were largely positive with some misgivings around the edges, today’s Watch reviews were bifurcated between those that were almost entirely positive and those that noted significant connectivity issues, notably those at the Wall Street Journal and The Verge (once again, I’m linking to the Techmeme roundup here). All seemed to agree that the faster processors and watchOS 4 combine for significantly better performance across multiple areas including fitness and heart rate tracking, app use, and music, but the differences occurred around LTE/WiFI connectivity.
It appears (there’s a good explainer here) that the Watch tends to try to hop onto so-called captive WiFi networks – those that allow devices to connect without a password but require going through an interstitial or popup before allowing internet access – but can’t progress beyond the interstitial, putting the Watch in an awkward in-between state where it’s connected to WiFi but can’t actually reach the internet. That, in turn, stops the Watch from trying to connect to LTE, which is what you really want it to do in that situation. That should be a relatively easy software fix for Apple, and it’s suggested that’s the case, but it’s baffling that this issue didn’t come up during all the testing that must have gone on over recent months, and as such is an embarrassing slip-up for Apple when the new connectivity options are the key selling point for this device.
It is notable that not all reviewers experienced the problem, which may be indicative of either their differing use during the review period or their differing earlier use, with some perhaps more prone to hop onto captive WiFi networks with their iPhones (and thereby inadvertently setting up their Watches for failure) than others. At any rate, many regular users likely won’t see those issues either, especially if using the Watch out in the wild rather than in busy urban areas, while those who do will hopefully see the problem fixed very quickly in a software update. Regardless, this clearly wasn’t what Apple was hoping for from these reviews, and it’s likely that the glitches will color perceptions of the Watch at least until Apple does issue a fix and that gets some decent coverage.
★ Apple Announces Upgraded Watch and TV Devices (Sep 12, 2017)
I don’t usually cover the Indian market in depth here, but Jio feels like one of those stories that more people outside of India need to know about. It’s part of one of the big Indian conglomerates, Reliance Industries, and launched public LTE-only mobile services in September last year, signing up 125 million customers since then, an unprecedented rate of growth for any mobile operator anywhere. Until now, that service was available only on smartphones, either compatible devices customers brought with them or those sold by Jio. But today, Jio announced its own VoLTE-capable feature phone, which it will offer for free (albeit with a 1500 rupee – $23 – refundable security deposit) starting next month, with an unlimited voice, text and data plan for 153 rupees ($2) per month. What Jio has done in India over the past year or so is one of those things that just doesn’t seem like it should be possible – massive customer growth from zero, while offering fairly leading edge technology in devices and its network. The big enabler is that Jio is part of that massive conglomerate, which makes lots of money from the petroleum industry and therefore doesn’t need Jio to be profitable, at least not yet. In addition, although Jio touts its broad coverage (and promises to cover 99% of the population shortly), my understanding is that the coverage can be unreliable and some users are deploying it as a second-SIM solution rather than their only option. A lack of network density is likely the big problem, offering nominal coverage across a wide area but offering spotty coverage within that area in practice. But it’s been disruptive nonetheless, providing access to 4G and smartphones for those who previously hadn’t taken the plunge, and the new feature phone is going to extend 4G and some basic data services to a far larger number.
A few weeks back, T-Mobile announced it was rolling out LTE-U on its network, but it made little difference because no-one had a device that could take advantage of it. As I said then, phones with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chip were likely to be among the first to support the functionality, and today T-Mobile confirmed that the Samsung Galaxy S8 will be the first device. It also touted several other related LTE technologies which will make the phone operate faster on its networks than competitors’. It still feels like an exaggeration to call it a gigabit-class smartphone though, as T-Mobile does in this press release – I very much doubt anyone is going to see sustained gigabit speeds in real-world usage.
This is an interesting but not altogether unexpected step. There’s an analogy here to Amazon’s discounted Echo-only music service, which takes advantage of the same limitations to offer a lower price for something that would normally cost more. GM is now offering $20 for unlimited data, which is the same as it used to charge for 2GB of in-car WiFi data. AT&T continues to sell in-car connectivity to carmakers at a rapid rate – about a million subs per quarter – but these subs are mostly extremely basic at the outset, covering just in-car telematics for a few dollars a month. Only if subscribers actually start buying the additional features such as OnStar and this kind of in-car WiFi does AT&T start to generate a more meaningful revenue per user, so being more aggressive about the pricing, especially as AT&T reintroduces unlimited plans for its own services, makes a lot of sense. And of course since GM gets a cut, it’s strongly incentivized to sell these services too.
T-Mobile Continues to Boost Capacity for Customers with LTE-U Launching in Spring 2017 – T-Mobile (Feb 22, 2017)
T-Mobile has been touting LTE-U as a potential extension of its current LTE capabilities for several years now, but needed FCC permission to begin actually deploying the technology, which operates in some of the same bands as WiFi. It now has that permission and will apparently begin rolling out the technology to customers in the Spring, though none of the devices currently in T-Mobile customers’ hands actually support LTE-U – those will start arriving later this year, CTO Neville Ray told me. The technical marketing lead for Qualcomm’s LTE and 5G modems tells me that devices carrying the new Snapdragon 835 chip and X16 LTE modem will support it. So until there’s widespread adoption of new devices capable of supporting the technology, and widespread support in the network, this isn’t going to have much consumer impact. In the meantime, there’s good marketing fodder here about being first (as with Verizon’s 5G announcement earlier).