Everyone (but Apple’s) Wearable Problem

It’s widely believed that the next form of computing will be wearable computing, but the potential of this category has barely been scratched by any company. I’ve previously written multiple times and have podcasted about some challenges Google faces as it seeks to enter the wearable market, but these challenges are not unique to Google. Every company, including Apple, faces significant challenges as they try to crack the wearable market, but of the fitness, luxury, and technology companies vying for the space, Apple has the best chance at making a product that becomes mainstream. In fact, compared to the substantial market, cultural, and fashion challenges facing these other companies, Apple has the best chance of them all.1

Fitness companies

FitBit got to an early lead in the wearable market, even as other companies make fitness tracking devices. The problem facing these companies is not so much the lack of a clear use case–they are clear, compelling and, skin irritation issues aside, well-made products. If all wearable computing can do is track fitness, then FitBit and other fitness companies will likely dominate. Because they are focused on fitness, and only fitness, they have the culture and background necessary to succeed and optimize their product for fitness.

However, the promise of wearable computing is far bigger than just tracking one’s fitness. As I’ve written about and spoke about, there is massive potential in what wearables can do in the areas of identity, as your on-off key for life via IoT, and payments. It’s already become obvious to fitness companies that there is greater value in a wrist device than merely a fitness tracker–that’s why they’ve started to add a clock to some devices.

What this demonstrates is that the greatest value for wearable technology is not in single-function devices. In fact, even within just the fitness category, you can see a compelling reason why individuals would want their fitness tracker to also play music during the workout. However, a device that starts as primarily a fitness tracker and adds other features will still be a fitness tracker with other features, just like phones that played music were phones that played music, not smartphones.

It is hard to foresee a future in which fitness-only wearables become mainstream items, especially as the price of far more capable wearables comes down. Yes, the iPod Shuffle exists alongside more capable iPhones, but that proves my point about it not being a mainstream item. My prediction is that we will one day view fitness trackers the way that we now view iPods: of limited value, popular for a time, but surpassed by something greater.

Luxury companies

The company behind luxury brands like Louis Vutton and TAG Heuer, LVMH, has announced that it will develop a luxury smartwatch to compete with Apple Watch in the high-end. Though brands like Samsung or HP could never pull off a luxury smartwatch, TAG Heuer has the background to be able to sell a luxury watch. However, this doesn’t mean they won’t face substantial challenges going forward.

First, they lack expertise in electronics. In fact, Tag CEO Jean-Claude Biver actually said “We don’t have the know-how in Switzerland, so we’ve turned to geniuses from Silicon Valley.” That’s why they had to partner with, not just one, but two tech companies–Intel and Google–in order to accomplish their goal. Something tells me that a product designed by three separate companies, all with different business models, is not going to do well. I could be wrong, of course, but design by committee generally doesn’t work, especially when Intel wants to sell chips, Google wants to sell services, and TAG Heuer wants to sell luxurious experiences. On something this small, so power-constrained, and so limited in its human interface, dividing up responsibilities is a recipe for a compromised, anything-but-luxurious experience.

Second, as Matt Richman astutely observed, in words that cannot be improved upon:

In order to have even a chance of being as feature-rich as Apple Watch, then, TAG’s smartwatch will have to pair with an Android phone. However, TAG wearers aren’t Android users. Rich people buy TAG watches, but rich people don’t buy Android phones.

This is TAG’s dilemma. Its smartwatch will need to pair with an Android phone to be anywhere near as feature-rich as Apple Watch, but TAG wearers don’t buy Android phones.

Ultimately, this dynamic is representative of the entire luxury watch industry. Replace TAG with Rolex, Omega, Longines, or any other high-end watchmaker, and the problem is the exact same.

If–and this is a big if–technology improves to the point that you can have a small, wrist-sized, completely self-sufficient computer on a wrist that doesn’t need a phone for any reason at any time, then luxury watchmakers have a chance. However, a watch that is completely severed from a smart phone will never be as feature-rich as one that works with a smartphone. Features like Handoff for Apple Watch, even if the Watch is untethered from iPhone, will always make Apple a superior experience than a smartwatch that can’t interact with its environment (or which can only do so via Android). If this were the low-end, that “good enough” experience might sell, but these companies are selling luxury, at least that’s what they’re trying to.2

Technology companies

On the other hand, dozens and dozens of technology companies are trying to break into the wearable market. Most well-known are Google via Google Glass or Android Wear made by various OEMs (e.g. Motorola 360) or Samsung with its Tizen-powered wearables (Galaxy Gear); there are other players in this space, too, like Pebble, Xiamoi, or any of a dozen Chinese brands. These companies will face substantial challenges, including, but not limited to these:

First, few existing watches are attractive. I know this is a subjective claim, but do an image search for “smart watch” and ask yourself “Would any world leader or celebrity be caught dead in one of these?”3 Further, of the (very) few that are not hideous, there are none that are attractive for both men and women.4 

There are other places that the wrist for wearable technology, of course. But if it is to be interactive with the user, there are limited spots for it: the face, the wrist, or worn as jewelry someplace else. Though each of these are being experimented with, I don’t think technology companies have the experience or culture to sell luxury or fashion, things which are crucial elements of any wearable technology.

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 11.43.20John Kirk put it this way on the Resolve podcast:

“Techies wouldn’t get fashion if it hit them on the face. In fact, it did hit them on the face with Google Glass!”

Second, technology companies lack a retail presence in non-technology spaces. Apple, with its hundreds of stores worldwide, provides a place where you can interact with and try on Apple Watch. Other companies have to rely on 3rd parties to create that space. That space is crucially important because, unlike a computer that you can buy on specs if you wanted to, the look and feel of a wearable is crucially important, not simply because they are relatively new and unknown, but also because it will be worn on the body. Unfortunately, 3rd party retailers are not doing a great job of enabling this try-on experience:

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 11.43.52

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 11.44.11

Photo by Chris Welch
Photo by Chris Welch

What user wants to buy a wearable that way? One kind: techies. And when was the last time a techie-exclusive wearable item became a fashion statement and not a joke?

Third, these companies don’t integrate hardware, software, and services. In a wearable, and something this small, the line between hardware, software, and services is blurred like never before. As I asked in The Focus in Apple Watch, “Where does the watch (hardware) stop and the watch (software) start? ” Or, according to Jony Ive‘s interview in New Yorker:

“[Ive] went on to explain that an Apple Watch uses a new display technology whose blacks are blacker than those in an iPhone’s L.E.D. display. This makes it easier to mask the point where, beneath a glass surface, a display ends and its frame begins. An Apple Watch jellyfish swims in deep space, and becomes, Ive said, as much an attribute of the watch as an image.”

This challenge is not insurmountable, but it comes with an inherent paradox for Android Wear: the more requirements Google makes regarding the hardware for Android Wear, the less incentives OEMs have to make it because they can’t differentiate (and thus profit); the more OEMs can differentiate, they more likely they are to produce Android Wear devices, but the less Google can ensure the hardware works seamlessly with software. Either way, the experience is compromised. Unless a company makes both hardware, software and, to a lesser-but-increasingly-important degree, services, they will face challenges designing wearable technology that blurs these lines.4

Fourth, technology companies generally lack the human touch needed for something as intimate and personal as something you wear. More than just fashion, mentioned above, things placed on a human body must understand and relate to physicality in a human way, which tech companies seem incapable of doing.

As I detailed extensively in Apple’s Vision of Computing and discussed at length on the WatchAware podcast, there’s a reason that Google designed Glass and Apple designed Apple Watch. The look, feel, and function of those devices are not random flukes; they come out of cultures that have strong and deep ideas about what is valuable, good, right, true, and beautiful.

Glass and Apple Watch aren’t the same kind of device, of course, so they can’t be directly compared. That’s exactly my point. Google could have made any wearable they wanted–and they made Glass. Apple could have made any wearable they wanted–and they made Apple Watch. My point is not that the devices themselves are comparable but that the companies who made them are comparable. The fact that Google thought Glass was good design and a good product, even though they realize their error now, indicates how their culture is not one that understood how normal humans would view their wearable. That is the human touch that is lacking.5

Apple is not a fitness company, a luxury company, or a technology company. That’s why they, unlike these others, have a unique shot at the wearable market. Apple, living at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, is uniquely positioned to bring a human touch to computing, a human touch that is increasingly important for technology that does literally touch humans.

Recommended App: Due

due2icon@2xIn this section, I recommend an app that I think belongs on anyone’s iPhone or Apple Watch. Today’s is Due, the best reminder app out there & one that has a great app for the Watch. For years I used Apple’s Reminders, but I wish I had gotten Due sooner because it is so much more powerful and customizable.

Read why I recommend it and check it out in the App Store today!



1. That I know of. There may, of course, be companies other than the ones I’ve noted here that don’t face these same challenges. If so, please let me know↩️

2. Further, even if that reality arrived luxury makers could develop smartwatches, it’s crazy to think that they could enter into an established market and compete with those who have had years of practice and iteration on their product. ↩️

3. Celebrities paid by Samsung exempted, of course. ↩️

4. A point that Julia Mayhugh made on the podcast I did with her↩️

4. Samsung does design both its hardware and Tizen software, so they are positioned the best of the group. Similarly, Pebble designs both its hardware and software, so they have a shot at this as well. Unfortunately, for both, this creates additional challenges for them in being a third ecosystem. If this plays out the way it did for phones–which remains to be seen–this can create the vicious cycle in which they don’t have enough users for most developers to justify creating an app, yet a reason they don’t have enough users is because they don’t have high-quality apps. Further, both companies will face challenges in integrating services like payments or identity. ↩️

5. It is true that Google is attempting a more human approach to Android Wear, which is encouraging for them. However, in Apple’s Vision of Computing, I compared Apple’s marketing on Apple Watch  to Google’s on Android Wear. There is quite a big difference in how they position and understand their products. ↩️

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