While the rumor mill continues to churn around a potential NFC-enabled mobile payments offering, the biggest question for over a year has been whether or not Apple is getting into the still-nascent wearable space with a watch, band or some other wearable computing device. Based on information Re/Code provided last week, it looks we may have a definitive answer:
“Apple now plans to unveil a new wearable alongside the two next-generation iPhones we told you the company will debut on September 9. The new device will, predictably, make good use of Apple’s HealthKit health and fitness platform. It will also — predictably — make good use of HomeKit, the company’s new framework for controlling connected devices — though it’s not clear how broadly or in what way.”
Obviously, Apple has a history of producing category-defining hardware in markets that, prior to the company’s arrival, were fractionalized and littered with products that didn’t quite resonate with consumers at-large.
In 2014, we find ourselves at a similar juncture in the wearable space. Smart glasses, including Google Glass, Meta& a few other minor players, make up what one might call the high-end of the wearable space ($1500 USD and up). Next, we have the current crop of smart watches, most of which, like the Samsung Galaxy Gear series and Motorola’s Moto X, run Google’s Android Wear OS. Pebble has also proven itself to be a venerable competitor after its initial launch, owning just under 20% of the total smartwatch market according to a June report from NPD. While the Galaxy Gear in particular has had its price cut in the wake of lukewarm initial sales, most smartwatches today sell from between $125 & $300 USD.
After smartwatches, we have arguably the most popular category to date: fitness-specific wearables like the Fitbit, Jawbone, Samsung Gear Fit, Nike Fuelband and others. These are all single-use devices that function as activity trackers, health monitors and data aggregators but do little else. They’re priced anywhere from $79 to $150 USD. There may also be a super-low end wearable cohort developing as well: Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi announced plans in July for a $13 USD wearable band that functions as a health wearable as well as a virtual unlocking device for your phone.
As for the iWatch, the same source at Re/code is anticipating the device starting out at a $400 price point, which would put it in a premium tier when juxtaposed with the current smartwatch set, yet still far below the $1500 Google Glass is currently selling direct to consumer for.
So, what will Apple’s entry mean for the wearable category at large? More importantly, for readers of this site, what are the implications an Apple iWatch may have on Glass both in the short-term and in the years ahead? We put our prognosticator’s hat on and do some digging.
Watches vs. Glasses
The most obvious bear case for Google is that an iWatch has the potential of taking users away from Glass or other potential smart glasses alternatives. After all, a smart watch is cheaper, has none of the stigma related to privacy concerns that many perceive Glass to have and will undoubtedly have a longer lasting battery due to its smaller overall size.
So it’s pretty much a slam dunk then that an iWatch can do everything that Glass could do at 1/4th of the cost, right? Well, not quite.
Think about photos and video, for instance. Aside from the Gear, most of the top selling smartwatches on the market currently do not feature any kind of camera. And in Samsung’s case, they’ve opted not to go with the camera in the newest Gear incarnation, the upcoming Gear S., in large part because it was a drain on the battery but also because it turned out that there was more friction in pointing your watch at someone and taking a not-so-hot picture than perhaps originally anticipated. For all of Glass’ shortcomings, it remains an effective way to take photos (and video) easily, particularly when used in conjunction with a wink gesture.
Then there are the issues around the form factor itself and whether or not smartwatches (including Apple’s) are conducive to stand-alone apps that do more than just regurgitate notifications. While the Samsung market boasts over 1000 smartwatch-only apps, many of these are not available for all of its platforms. This is another area where Glass may have an advantage by having a larger area of vision over a smartwatch, although perhaps not as large as some might want it to be.
Apple Giveth and Apple Taketh Away: Legitimizing the Market
Maybe the best way to think about Apple’s entry into the space is that we may finally reach a point where wearables, as a category, become a legitimate new gadget purchase in the eyes of most mainstream consumers.
Wearables have been widely panned by many as being superfluous or unnecessary when compared to a smartphone. Apple’s entry would likely function as a rising tide that may lift the entire wearable market forward, producing knock-on effects that would likely result in one of two things for the existing products on the market: either a significant lowering of price or a more polished product. For instance, because Apple’s new device is said to be making significant use of its new HealthKit initiative, perhaps Glass counters with its own attempt to tie the currently disparate Glassware apps that gather fitness data into a single holistic experience.
An Apple smartwatch may also indirectly pressure Google into catering a little more to iOS users with Glass than it has so far, despite whether the iWatch will be locked down within Apple’s ecosystem or not (my guess is that like previous Apple hardware, it will play nice with other handsets and PCs). Although they’ve made strides in bridging the gap between the experiences of Glass users with an Android phone and those with an iPhone, there is still a ways to go to get to a point of relative parity between the two ecosystems.
Only time will tell what Apple’s entry into the market will mean for Glass and other wearable devices. We should get a much better idea once Apple lifts the curtain on the device next Tuesday. One thing is for certain: Whatever Apple releases that day will surely shine a new light on wearables as a category. As a result, perhaps Glass benefits from this exposure and gets a second look from this new set of non-early adopters as well.