iWatch & wearable tech

Much has been made lately of Apple's latest announcements of the iPhone 6 and their new Apple watch, and really, I'm pretty late to the party on this one.  I don't normally comment much on Apple announcements, but this time I fancied a rant.

Personally, it's not to my tastes. I know the strap is inter-changeable, and you can change the watch face screen, but I'm not a fan.  In part, because I am more of a fan of classic watch design (so really, some of the photos of the Moto-360 look closer to what I would want a smartwatch to look like), but generally, it feels a little garish, and a bit like something designed 5 years ago.  The curved, almost bubble like glass shape of the device, the square watch face.

I'm not sure what it is.

Maybe its because it feels at odds with current web design trends on flat design. Maybe its because it feels like the original iPhone matured/evolved from it's original curved shape to the current sharper, flatter designed shape and this still seems to hark back to the original iPhone design.

Anyway, as an aside, I think if I was going to spend hundreds on a flash-y digital watch, I would quite like this one:

Sure, I can't check emails on it, but it looks nice.  But then I'm not really someone who should be commenting on style and fashion, so will stick to tech trends..

Is wearable tech the next big thing?

Honestly, I think probably not. Not for the time being at least. I'm sure some smart people will work the market out eventually, but for the time being, and with the current incarnations of smartwatches, I don't think the market is really there.

So, here's the thing - I'm not really sure what the point of the apple watch is (and I guess that is what needs to be cracked before the market can take off). I think, it's going to face the same challenges that tablets have faced - it needs to grow up and work out what it is. It needs to understand what its purpose is and find its niche - it's not going to be good enough to be the same as a smartphone but a different form.

Let's have a look at the markets:

  • Defined and fairly standard "upgrade-cycles" - the expectation and standard of upgrading devices every 12-24 months is fairly established in the west, and this is both driving existing customers to newer, better devices, but is also slowly migrating existing feature phone users to smartphones.
  • Everyone has one - at its core, as a phone/communication device it provides that roaming communication functionality and is at least one per-person (not shared)
  • Convenience - easy to carry and roam.

  • No real defined upgrade-cycle (in terms of device contracts) and too early to see patterns being established - optimistically will fall back to traditional PC cycles of approximately every 5 years
  • Not per-person devices - You might be safe to typically expect everyone in an average household to have a (smart)phone, but probably only one/two tablets per house.
  • It doesn't solve any real problem - sure, its a little better for watching movies than a smartphone, but apps, browsing, emails and other comms are not noticably better. Further, tasks that might need greater control, or screen real estate - like creating spreadsheets, or presentation slides for example - people still fall back on using regular PCs. There needs to be a purpose/task/app that is made for a tablet sized device - where tablets solve a problem that only they can. As of yet, we're still waiting.

  • Still yet to see upgrade cycles - will be interesting if carriers/manufacturers try to tie these into existing mobile contract structuring. It will make adoption even harder if they try to sell it with a 1-2 year lifecycle for sure.
  • Aimed to be per-person, as a sidekick to your smartphone - but if all it offers is your smartphone in a slightly different form, its again going to be a tough sell - Sure, its slightly more convenient than getting your phone out of your pocket, but that seems like a dubious USP to base an entire market on.
  • It doesn't solve a problem - Again, there needs to be a task/area/job where the smart watch is the answer. Where it fills a need that simply can't be filled by a smartphone (or can be, but is a pain in the ass)

For a change, let's have a look at some smartphone/tablet data:

Tablet sales struggle: Apple iPad growth projections by quarter

(Source: Computer World: As tablet growth slows, Apple may face a year-long iPad sales contraction )

Just focusing on Apple for the moment, Benedict Evans presents some interesting data analysis of their recent sales/revenue numbers. Firstly, we see that iPad sales have flattened out and basically settled where they are for the last two years, whilst iPhones have continued to see growth year on year:

(Source: Benedict Evans - iPad growth - Apple's trailing 12months sales)

More generally, if we look at the comparison of sales across PC vs Android/Apple smartphones, we see that PCs have levelled out, but the smartphone continues to see huge growth:

(Source: Benedict Evans - iPad growth - General shipping - PCs vs Smartphones)

It really looks like the smartphone market is continuing to surge. With standard upgrade-cycles, and low end Android smartphones becoming more widely accessible, this trend seems set to continue.

On the other hand, until the tablet market works out its purpose and finds a niche, I think it will continue to stagnate with fairly flat growth. 

It feels to me like a similar fate awaits smartwatches, until someone comes up with a compelling problem that the watch form factor solves, I think it will struggle to see big growth in the market.