In the five years since the Apple Watch first went on sale, it's always been an iPhone accessory. But on Tuesday, at an event highlighting several new products, Apple took a big step toward cutting the tether.
Until now, every Apple Watch needed to be paired with an iPhone. Older versions of the watch work only when an iPhone is connected at close range via Bluetooth. Some newer versions with wireless connectivity can stray farther but still need to be paired up with a single iPhone.
But now, some Apple Watches will get a feature called Family Setup, meant for young kids or older adults who don't have an iPhone but want an easy way to make calls, text and share GPS location with family members. It requires an administrator in the household with an iPhone, but once it's set up, the watch will get its own phone number and be able to send and receive texts and calls with no iPhone connected.
It's the first time the device will fulfill the Dick Tracy vision of a standalone phone on your wrist.
In Apple's announcement, COO Jeff Williams described the feature as a way to "make Apple Watch available to even more people." But Family Setup also gives new buyers a less expensive first Apple device to get them hooked into Apple's ecosystem — if they like it, Apple could continue to sell those users additional hardware and services.
Apple's Watch is the biggest product in Apple's wearables and accessories division, which reported revenue of $24.5 billion in 2019. Apple ships more wearables than any other company and had a 34.2% share of the entire market in the second quarter of 2020, according to an estimate from IDC. It's growing, too, with 25.3% year-over-year growth in terms of number of units, according to the estimate.
Family Setup does require an Apple Watch Series 4 version or later that connects to the internet through a wireless cellular network. The least expensive new watch that offers this feature is Apple Watch SE with wireless, which costs $329 — that's $50 more than the low-end version.
T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon will support the feature in the United States and currently require an additional monthly fee, usually $9.99, to activate an LTE Apple Watch. Once it's activated, the Apple Watch user will get their own phone number and an Apple account.
This time around, Apple's marketing is heavily geared towards tech-savvy parents. For instance, a parent can specify which contacts the watch can communicate with, and automatic location notifications will ping the parent when the kid arrives at a certain destination. A feature called Schooltime can restrict the user from accessing apps during certain times, such as when kids are in class. There's also a way for parents to send virtual money to the watch, which the user can spend with Apple Pay.
But now that Apple has broached the possibility of a standalone Apple Watch, it will likely keep going in that direction. Family Setup was made possible by incremental releases in the past few years, including cellular-equipped watches in 2017, and a change last year that gave the Apple Watch its own App Store and the ability to run apps without pinging the iPhone.
Before the iPhone, Apple used lower-cost iPods to get people accustomed to Apple hardware and software, then, once they were a customer, would proceed to sell them Mac laptops and other more expensive devices. More recently, the iPhone became the hook into the ecosystem — an iPhone user would have a better experience if they also subscribed to Apple services, such as Apple Music, and used wireless headphones such as Apple's AirPods.
On Tuesday, the Apple Watch took a step toward becoming many people's first Apple product.