Technonlogy

The biggest thing Apple unveiled this week was also the smallest

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Amongst the iPhone bluster, Apple announced something altogether more significant: you can now answer a call on your Apple Watch while swimming. Just try not to drown.

The introduction of an eSIM, embedded into the Watch, means Apple can finally deliver on its promise of a wearable that doesn’t feel lost without its iPhone companion. While the iPhone 8 might feel last-gen and the iPhone X underwhelming, Apple is quietly turning its Watch into a formidable profit. According to the company, the smartwatch is now the best-selling watch in the world.

If Apple and other device manufacturers let it, the eSIM could also be great news for consumer choice. At present, the SIM in your phone or tablet locks you to one network, making switching an ordeal. With an embedded SIM, you can (in theory) compare and switch networks at will directly from your device. There’s a caveat, though: Apple retains control over your eSIM, which at the moment in the UK limits it to just one network (EE).

Apple has been working towards the introduction of an eSIM for some time. In 2011, it was granted a patent to create a virtual mobile network (MVNO) that forced operators to bid for the right to sell their services to iPhone customers. In 2014, it released the Apple SIM, which is a sort-of precursor to the eSIM included in the Apple Watch Series 3.

By doing away with a physical piece of plastic, eSIMs are ideal for wearables, but their application will likely be more significant in industrial settings. Vast machine-to-machine networks, where the infrastructure of an entire factory or potentially even a city, will rely on eSIMs for communication. As 5G networks are switched on in the coming years, reducing latency and improving network reliability, eSIMs will become a ubiquitous piece of technology that allows the machine world to talk amongst itself.

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Aside from wearables, there are all sorts of other consumer applications. In the EU, the European Commission has ruled that all new car models will have to include an eSIM by 2018. This will allow emergency services to connect to a car in case of accident. The technology will also likely become integral to consumer Internet of Things devices, allowing more and more items in and around your house to communicate both with you and amongst themselves.

Standardisation of eSIM specifications means the time is now right to launch products using the technology. For Apple, it finally makes the Watch feel like a complete product. “We believe the addition of cellular will transform the way people use Apple Watch,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer in a canned statement.

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Dull as it might sound, the standardisation of eSIM technologies was the final piece of the puzzle that allowed Apple to fit a phone and internet device on your wrist. The ability to make phone calls, send a text and stream music without needing to tether to a phone is a big moment for the wearables industry. It also, potentially, flips the balance of power. The switch to eSIMs means chipset manufacturers now negotiate directly with the likes of Apple and Samsung, rather than mobile networks.

But there’s a kicker: by liberating you from your iPhone, and putting features such as music streaming and phone calls directly into the Watch, Apple risks marginalising its killer product. The iPhone isn’t going anywhere just yet, but for true technological and design innovation, the Apple Watch is ever-so-quietly threatening to overtake it.


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