A lot of criticism has been thrown at Apple Watch for failing to offer more untethered options. Chief among these are its lack of standalone GPS and cellular radios, as folks who want to cut the (wireless) cord — or accidentally cut it by forgetting their handset when they leave the house — find that they pretty much can’t. Of course, there are situational workarounds that Apple’s baked in. By now, everyone knows that your Apple Watch can approximate your workout when you leave your iPhone behind, which is a nice touch for those who want to go for a light, unladen run.
But Apple Watch has another trick up its sleeve: It will send and receive iMessages via Wi-Fi, even if your iPhone is off or AWOL.
There are a couple of caveats, however: This only works if your Apple Watch is on a Wi-Fi network where it was previously paired with your iPhone. And this makes sense, since there’s no way to manually select a Wi-Fi access point (or type in its password) on Apple Watch itself. But once both of these devices have been on a network together, that login data is saved locally on Apple Watch, and the wearable will get online wherever its been online before. From there, it will send and receive iMessages (although it will sometimes later tell you those messages were not delivered, when they in fact were):
But even though this works with iMessage texts, it will not work with regular texts, so your desired contacts must be iPhone, iPad, or Mac users — with iMessage enabled — for this to work properly. Of course, since Digital Touch presumably uses the same protocol as iMessage, that feature also works, meaning that Apple Watch users don’t need their iPhones to be on or around in order to send haptic notes back and forth. (It occurred to us that Apple might be using its cross-platform VOIP technology inside Apple Watch, too, and that this Wi-Fi feature might also work without a tether. Unfortunately, when trying to initiate a call without its iPhone piggyback, Apple Watch doesn’t even make the attempt. It simply splashes up a “CALL FAILED” screen the second you tap that telephone icon.)
You can test this yourself: Just make sure you’re on a familiar network, and then turn your iPhone off (or disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth). Now, use your Apple Watch to send an iMessage or some Digital Touch input to someone in your contacts list. Then wait for a response.
In the real world, this extended capability has immediate potential, and it underscores that — whether or not Apple goes full Apple Watch LTE — there is a valid need for the wearable to work as a communications suite without needing an iPhone close by. Right now, this limited feature is great for folks who lose or leave their handsets at home, and it’s really useful for when you’re out and about and your iPhone’s battery dies while your Apple Watch is still going strong. (Mine outlasts my iPhone 6 by something like three to five hours each day, so I’d reckon this scenario is pretty common.) It also means that you can leave that iPhone at the house, take a jog while your Apple Watch tracks your workout and blasts your music, and then message your friend to come get you when you give up at Cold Stone a few miles from home.