While Google, Motorola, and Samsung seem eager to jump into the wearables market, Apple characteristically keeps its counsel - and wisely so: Smartwatches and other wearables produce more pageviews than profits.
Wearables are a danger to your health - your mental health, that is. Smartwatches and sensor-laden bracelets aren’t so new anymore -- see Microsoft’s 2004 SPOT Watch -- but the vernal equinox seems to have triggered a bout of Wearables Fever the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Tablet Fever of January, 2011, when 76 tablets were announced at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. As so often happens with pandemics, there was a smaller outbreak, called the Dawn of the Tablet PC, days before the January 2010 iPad launch.
In this year’s derangement, we are witnessing the birth of another epoch-making class of product -- the Wearable. As Wired sees it, for example, Jawbone Is Now the Startup Apple Should Fear Most.
In one respect, Jawbone’s devices are a lot like Apple’s. The company admires minimalism...[b]ut Apple’s minimalism is cold — all brushed metal and glass — while Jawbone’s is warm, squishy, and textured... There’s a chance Apple has designed itself into a corner. But for Jawbone, the future is full of possibility.
Then there’s this analysis, quoted and mocked by John Gruber [emphasis mine]:
Cadie Thompson, writing for CNBC, “Time Is Ticking for Apple to Announce an iWatch, Say Analysts”. Apple needs an iWatch sooner rather than later, or the company will risk losing its innovative edge to rivals, analysts say.
“They only have 60 days left to either come up with something or they will disappear,” said Trip Chowdhry, managing director at Global Equities Research. “It will take years for Apple’s $130 billion in cash to vanish, but it will become an irrelevant company... it will become a zombie, if they don’t come up with an iWatch.”
I’m guessing the ellipsis denotes when he paused for another line of coke.
Parenthetically, it would be wrong to imply that Mr. Chowdhry might be “incentivized” to shout from the rooftops by rewards more satisfying than pageviews -- no allegations of stock manipulation complicity here -- but I wonder about the games that he and other anal-ists play. As Philip Elmer-DeWitt pointedly noted in a CNN Money column last year, Mr. Chowdhry urged his clients to unload Apple stock for eight months and then blamed the CEO and CFO “for destroying Apple's shareholder value”.
If you’re curious enough to look at Mr. Chowdhry’s spartan Global Equities Research site, you’ll see he claims to have Commission Sharing Agreements with Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Barclays, Jefferies, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan. As the Wikipedia article points out, such agreements “ask that broker to allocate a portion of the commission directly to an independent research provider.” Here, one wonders what the word independent really means...
Back to Wearables: The announcements pile on.
Samsung tells us they’re moving their smartwatches away from Android to a version of Tizen, itself based on a version of the ubiquitous Linux.
Google announces Android Wear, a version of Android for smartwatches.
Motorola, soon to be a Lenovo brand, announces that its moto 360 smartwatch is “Coming Summer 2014 in a selection of styles” and provides these artful renderings:
(I write renderings because, as the Android Wear intro video indicates, these are simulated pictures. This doesn’t mean that the final product won’t be better looking-- but we’re clearly not there yet.)
Why the haste? Did Tim Cook succeed in misdirecting Apple’s competition when he pronounced wearables a “very key branch of the tree”? Or is there a giant business to be had?
We have many unanswered questions.
First, paraphrasing Horace Dediu, there are the twin questions of For What and By Whom: For what job is a smartwatch “hired”, and by whom? If we look at phones as a model, we see two “employers”: Carriers hire smartphones to increase their ARPU; normal consumers use them as small, ubiquitous, always-connected personal computers.
Will this model work for smartwatches? We can almost certainly eliminate carriers from the equation: Subsidies are out of question because a watch is unlikely to generate carrier revenue.
For us users, a smartwatch collects sensor data, connects to our smartphone, displays alerts, responds to touch and voice commands... and even tells us the time. These are all worthwhile functions that make for neat promo videos, but to keep users interested after the novelty wears out, smartwatches will have to do more than log the miles we’ve run, give us weather updates, and show us the name of the person who’s ringing the smartphone in our pocket. Put another way: We’re willing to pay a premium for our smartphones (whether directly or by contract) because of the huge range of features they provide, the enormous number of apps in the app stores. Will we be as durably aroused - and willing to part with substantial amounts of money - by (yet another) pulse rate app?
Another batch of questions: Since we no longer need a dedicated timepiece to tell us the time -- our smartphone does that -- Who wears a (dumb) watch these days, How, When, and Why?
Simplifying a bit, younger people don’t wear watches at all and older generations use them as jewelry -- and gender-specific jewelry, at that. Furthermore, how many veteran watch-wearers wear the same watch all the time? Many of us own more than one watch, and select the appropriate timepiece (or two -- or none at all) for the occasion. These aren’t trivial issues, they’re uncharted territory for mobile device makers and marketers.
Next question: How will smartwatch makers handle the delicate equilibrium between computing power and battery power? As smartwatches evolve and offer more features, a better display, and a more responsive user interface, they’ll need more computing power -- and more computing power means a quicker battery drain. Will we put up with watches that run out of power at the end of the day? Will designers retard functionality in order to extend battery life to 24 hours and beyond... or make a smartwatch so big it’ll look like a miniature phone?
The power equilibrium question is why Samsung moved to a dedicated (and pared down) version of Tizen, and why Google did the same for Android Wear. All without giving much information of battery life.
Finally: Is there a business, there? Here in the Valley, Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky claims to have sold 400,000 watches since January, 2013. At around $150 each, that’s $60M in revenue -- a real tribute to Eric’s long-standing belief in wearables (he’s been working at it for six years).
But even if you multiplied this number by 10, it would barely nudge the needle for a large companies such as Samsung, Motorola/Lenovo, or Apple, which means these devices will be confined to the role of smartphone companion. They’ll help make money by enhancing the main product; they’re not going to be a $10B business in themselves.
As Charles Arthur writes in The Guardian, there are fewer than half a million smartwatches in use in the UK: “Wearable computing faces an uphill battle breaking through to the mainstream...”. Similarly, the Register doesn’t see any good, large-scale answers to the question. It calls Google wearables “A solution looking for a rich nerd”.
These challenges might explain why Apple doesn’t seem to have caught this Spring’s Wearables Fever. Smartwatches are destined to be ecosystem extensions, not The Next Big Thing.
One last thought before we close: Not all Ecosystem Extensions are equal. The no-longer-a-hobby Apple TV now brings substantial revenue and growth:
“Sales of the Apple TV are estimated to have grown by 80 percent in 2013, reaching around 10 million units for the calendar year, or some $1 billion worth of set-top boxes sold to end users.”
Horace Dediu puts a “Fortune 130” label on iTunes. By itself, with yearly gross revenue of $23.5B and growing 34%, iTunes is large enough to rank #130 in the Fortune list of the 500 largest US companies:
“On a yearly basis iTunes/Software/Services is nearly half of Google’s core business and growing slightly faster.”
While music sales are on the wane, apps and video (mostly Apple TV) show healthy growth. Compared to an Apple TV, how much would an iWatch add to the iTunes business? Apps? Content?
Apple seems wise to stay out of the game until it can make something more lasting than a novelty.