Apple hasn't called its upcoming Apple Watch "magical" as it did with the iPad in 2010, but its wireless components have some spellbinding features.
Whether the embedded NFC (near field communication), Bluetooth and Wi-Fi elements contribute to the success of the Apple Watch sales is still an open question. Fashion and an array of apps could definitely trump the device's wireless tech.
Why might the wireless tech not matter?
So far, there aren't many NFC-ready point-of-sale terminals installed in the U.S. Likewise, there are relatively few hotel rooms that can be unlocked with a Bluetooth connection to the Apple Watch.
Wi-Fi access points and hotspots seem to be everywhere, but there is disagreement over how important Wi-Fi will be on the Apple Watch.
On March 9, Apple demonstrated a long list of features of the Apple Watch, most of them about access to applications on a Bluetooth-paired iPhone. Some capabilities, such as a speaker and microphone on the watch, create a powerful extension to the paired iPhone.
One thing is clear: There's no cellular 3G or 4G wireless on the Apple Watch, unlike other smartwatches that have calling capability and data service independent of a smartphone.
The watches will be sold in two sizes — 38 mm and 42 mm — and in three collections: Apple Watch Sport, starting at $349; Apple Watch, starting at $549; and Apple Watch Edition, crafted from 18-karat gold alloys, starting at $10,000. Pre-orders will start April 10, with availability in nine countries, including the U.S., on April 24.
Apple Watch with NFC
Apple CEO Tim Cook lauded the NFC capabilities of the Apple Watch for using Apple Pay, which turns secure, encrypted payments into a simple contactless process that is confirmed with a quick vibration and sound from the watch.
"It's super simple to pay with Apple Watch," gushed Kevin Lynch, vice president of technology at Apple in a rundown of technology demos on March 9. (His demo of the Apple Pay feature starts at minute 71:20 on the video replay.
Cook noted that the number of banks supporting Apple Pay had mushroomed from a handful at its launch last fall to 2,500 banks, while the number of retail locations nearly quadrupled, from 220,000 to 700,000, including vending machines. American Express, Mastercard and Visa are also partners.
While Apple Pay's growth rate sounds impressive, those 700,000 NFC-ready locations are still just a fraction of the 12 million payment terminals in the U.S. By the end of 2015, about half those will be converted to "chip and pin" card support, of which about 80% will also be able to support NFC-ready phones, according to industry experts, including the Payments Security Task Force, a group of companies involved in electronic payments.
Some analysts estimate it will take until at least 2017 to see more than 90% of payment terminals converted to support NFC.
A group of major retailers that includes WalMart and Best Buy formed a group called MCX that does not, thus far, support NFC and instead, favors an alternative payment system called CurrentC. MCX partners have 110,000 store locations with multiple payment terminals and claim to control more than one-third of U.S. consumer weekly spending.
Samsung, in its new Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge smartphones, has tried to hedge against the slow and uncertain rollout of NFC terminals by using a patented magnetic payment technology obtained with its purchase of LoopPay. Samsung also supports NFC, but the LoopPay approach makes it possible for mobile wallet users to take advantage of millions of payment terminals that will remain as magnetic card readers for years to come.
Apple Watch with Bluetooth
Also at the March 9 Spring Forward event, Apple demonstrated how Apple Watch could be used to unlock a W Hotel room door after getting a confirmation, then arriving at the hotel and bypassing the front desk.
Lynch demonstrated the capability (at minute 76:80 in the video). "I can bypass the front desk entirely and go directly to my room and my watch is my room key. I wave it in front of the door and go into my room," he said to applause. "Isn't that cool?"
Apple confirmed in an email to Computerworld that the door-opening technology was enabled by Bluetooth in the Apple Watch, as opposed to other forms of wireless networking like NFC. About 24 hours before arrival, the guest receives his or her room number and Bluetooth key via an app on the smartphone, which is conveyed to the Apple Watch via Bluetooth.
W Hotels, which are a part of the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, were among the first to get keyless entry via Bluetooth. The luxury hotel chain announced the Bluetooth capability last November, and said it had 10 hotels online at the time, with 150 hotels and 30,000 doors accessible with the keyless Bluetooth entry expected by the end of 2015. While impressive, that's still a tiny fraction of all the hotel doors that remain.
Starwood originally allowed guests in 2011 to check into their rooms via an RFID-equipped keycard, then relied on lock maker Assa Abloy to design new Bluetooth-ready locks that can work with smartphones, Starwood said in November. Now that capability works with the Apple Watch.
Hotels have been upgrading room locks for years to avoid relatively insecure magnetic stripe card readers, analysts said. There are hotels that have upgraded to RFID and NFC on their door locks, but Bluetooth locks are still in the minority in the U.S. Starwood didn't respond to a request for comment.
Lynch also demonstrated the ability to use the watch to check in at airports with Apple's Passbook app. The boarding pass confirmation is provided through a QR code that appears on the watch display (much the same as on the smartphone) and not through Bluetooth or NFC. The QR code is scanned at the gate and at the security station.
Calls and more made out of Bluetooth range
Apple also said that the Apple Watch and the iPhone don't have to be within Bluetooth range in order to get a call on the watch.
"It's really easy to take calls wherever you are, and the great thing is that Apple Watch communicates with your iPhone over Wi-Fi as well as Bluetooth," Lynch said in another demo. (at minute 73:50)