Can the rumored Apple iWatch take wearables mainstream?
Back in 2007 just before the iPhone made its debut, smartphones were still mostly used by mobile enthusiasts and the enterprise. Flip phones like the Motorola RAZR were still hot among consumers. After the iPhone launched, however, consumers started to see the benefits to being always connected, and the smartphone market took off and form to what it is now. Today, in developed markets, it's rare to see someone using a phone that isn't a smart device.
In fact, according to IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker Report published on April 30, 281.5 million smartphones were shipped during the first quarter of 2014 around the globe. The research firm expects global smartphone shipments to top 1.2 billion units by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the wearable market is still in its infancy, and IDC expects just 19.2 million units will ship by the end of this year. There's a lot of room for growth.
Can Apple swing that figure by bringing wearables mainstream? I think it's possible, but as a recent report from Endeavor Partners tells us, Apple will need to cater to several major focus areas, including apps, sustained utilization of wearable tech, design and price. Let's take a look at what Apple can do in each of those areas now, while also examining where some current solutions are failing.
Gotta Have Apps
Research firm IDC said in early April that it expects "complex accessories," such as the Jawbone Up, Fitbit products, the Nike+ FuelBand and others, to provide much of the wearable growth in the wearable market for the next four years. These devices are defined as products that can operate "partially independently of any other device." However, IDC sees another category, "smart accessories" surpassing the complex accessories market by 2018.
These products, IDC argues, are "not quite ready for prime time," but allow "users to add third-party applications that boost features and functions for a more robust experience." I think that's where Apple's expertise will come into play.
We know that Apple already has the best footing in the mobile application space. It didn't create mobile applications, but it brought the idea of an app marketplace to the mainstream, and it made a lot of developers a lot of money by doing so. It also has a huge foundation of developers who already know how to work with its ecosystem – one area where Samsung, with its Tizen smartwatches, is arguably not as well prepared, and an area where Pebble is succeeding the most today.
Apps are important because they help drive engagement and keep you coming back for more. With the right apps, Apple can hopefully improve on the aforementioned stat that half of wearable users are ditching their devices. That brings us to another key area pointed out by Endeavor Partners, which is sustained use of wearables.
Sustained utilization is required for any wearable to really be success. After all, if you're not even using the device, how likely are you to recommend it to others? How likely are you to buy another one? Endeavor Partners found that more than fifty percent of people who have purchased a wearable no longer wear one. That's a crazy figure, but it's one where Apple can succeed.
If the rumors are true, Apple will have a heavy focus on health with the iWatch. One area where it will need to pay particularly close attention to detail is on the accuracy of its sensors. In our Gear Fit review, for example, we noticed that the device often miscounted our steps, leading to bogus calories-burned data. What's the point of a using a wearable at all if the data is incorrect? However, reports have suggested that Apple is recruiting mobile health professionals who have a lot of experience in accurate reporting of health data.
If the iWatch can report accurately, and does indeed sync up with the rumored Healthbook app on an iPhone, users will likely be more apt to continue wearing the device. It's not just health, of course, because apps and other functions will also keep users coming back. It's just that, according to IDC, we know that these standalone health trackers are key to wearable growth over the next several years, and it's one area where Apple can improve the market while also offering a device that people will want.
Of course, we can't talk about sustainable use without addressing battery life. I think one of the failures of the Galaxy Gear was poor battery life, while the Pebble has succeeded because it lasts much longer on a charge. Consumers don't want something else to charge, and a watch is useless when it's dead. Apple has reportedly struggled with battery life on the iWatch, and it will need to figure out how to milk as many hours of of the battery life as possible.
Finally, comfort is going to be super important. A heavy wearable will be cumbersome to use, but I think Apple knows that. It's going to need to keep the weight down, while also providing an experience that people want to interact with. Curved glass might make the most sense in this case, since it would allow for a more comfortable form factor.
Whether you like it or not, I think a lot of mainstream consumers, the folks you talk to in a restaurant or run in to at the aisle of a supermarket, are still largely waiting to see what Apple will do in the wearable space. Yes, I think enthusiasts have heard of the Galaxy Gear, but when I'm home talking to my parents I'm more likely to be asked whether or not Apple is going to make a smartwatch versus hearing whether or not the Galaxy Gear is any good. They might be huge Samsung fans, but there's still some part of them that wants to see what Apple does. Why? Well, for one, it's the most valuable brand in the U.S.
I think the brand familiarity in tech is largely due to the success of the iPhone. For a lot of people, the iPhone was their first taste of a smart, always connected device. My parents, for example, started out with iPhones and then purchased iPads. For them, Apple was their foray into not only the smartphone market, but also the tablet space. And next, it's possible Apple will lead them into wearables.
That falls back to the familiarity with the Apple brand, with the iTunes app store, with iOS, and with even the Apple Store. I think there's a lot of comfort for non-gadget enthusiasts when it comes to shopping with Apple.
Apple's design is first-rate and only matched by HTC in the smartphone space. Except it's not just about smartphones; Apple's design prowess extends across all of its products, including desktop computers, computer towers, laptops and tablets. There's no doubt Jony Ive and his team will extend this design down to the iWatch, if Apple is indeed building such a product.
That's hugely important, too, because Endeavor Partners suggests that great design is required for a great wearable. "The majority of products today are worn in a matter in which they are visible," the company said in a report published in early April. "The aesthetics of a product are therefore critical. Companies that embrace design elegance over breadth of features are more likely to find users wearing their products for a longer period of time." The Galaxy Gear sort of failed in that area – it wasn't very attractive, and it wasn't designed very well for usage (the battery life was terrible).
If Apple can apply a great design for the iWatch, it may start to appeal to people who might not otherwise ditch a piece of jewelry, like a wristwatch, for a gadget. Right now, some rumors suggest it may offer a curved glass design, which may be somewhat similar to the curved screen on the Gear Fit. The iWatch can create mass appeal if its fashionable and desirable in the same way that the iPhone is seen as a premium smartphone. If viewed as a status symbol, as smartphones often are, the iWatch can create mass appeal.
We've already seen some great designs in the industry, though, and I think that's why existing products like the Jawbone Up and Up 24 are successful. Poor design just won't work; the Fitbit Force has already been recalled because its strap causes rashes. A fully functional touchscreen device, loaded with apps, perhaps with a screen that uses curved glass to provide more real-estate, might be really attractive.
Apple could follow every guideline in the book and still price it out of reach of mainstream consumers, by creating a luxury product, but I don't think it will. We don't really know what the iWatch is going to cost, but we do know that Apple already sells premium, not budget, products.
I think consumers will spend more for something that they'll want to wear, will want to keep wearing, and functions accurately. Wearables today, even those without displays, command up to $150 each, while more expensive options like the Galaxy Gear, Gear 2 and others command between $200 and $300. If Apple moves forward with sapphire, an expensive component rumored for its displays, or any sort of curved glass, the cost is probably going to go up. I don't think consumers are going to flock to an iWatch that costs $500.
If it costs, say, $300, though, links up with the iPhone and looks like a luxury jewelry item, then it becomes more appealing. At the same time, that might actually help drive the wearable market. If a buyer sees what an iWatch is capable of and wants something similar, he or she may shop for a different but more affordable wearable. That's basically what started to happen in the feature phone market after the iPhone was introduced. New products were launched that offered similar, but not as good, features at a lower cost.
Apple can take wearables mainstream. It might seem that with so many options already on the market, like the Galaxy Gear, the Gear 2, the Gear Fit, the FitBit Force, Fitbit Flex and others, that Apple is late to the game, but as shipment figures prove, the wearable market is still just a seedling.
Apple, and any number of new participants over the next several years, can help take it mainstream. If the iWatch does make its debut, and does actually offer accurate data, an app store, and a compelling price tag, it just may be the device that drives adoption rates the way the iPhone pushed consumers toward smartphones.