For some time now, the wearables market has been dominated by the Apple Watch. There are a few reasons for this but perhaps the most obvious one is rooted in recent history and surprisingly, it all starts with the iPad.
Android tablets offered low-cost alternatives to the more expensive slates made by Apple but customer interest waned for the former. Unfortunately, the increasing number of size classes on Android, made it really hard to develop quality tablet apps, optimised for each display size. Many developers either gave up or shipped stretched up phone apps that left users looking at Apps with a ton of empty space. And it was this unfortunate consequence of hardware fragmentation that led to the demise of Android on tablets. Sure Samsung and a few others still ship a few tablets but they can’t compete with the optimised experience afforded by Apps on iPad. So what does this have to do with the Apple Watch? It all comes down to one word. Quality.
As frustrating as the size classes were for developers, the quality of the hardware varied greatly amongst the vast jungle of Android tablets. Consumers were sometimes left playing Russian roulette with their wallets when deciding which Android tablet to buy. And when they finally did choose one, they’d come to realise how poor the app experience truly was. There was no incentive to loyally upgrade to the next version of the tablet from that vendor. Not when the iPad offered compelling hardware with a rich ecosystem of quality tablet optimised Apps. And I think this same thing has happened in the wearable space. There is an extreme disparity in quality that makes it really hard for developers to make money and for consumers to genuinely love the product.
Perhaps the biggest rival to the Apple Watch is Fitbit. The problem with Fitbit is the software is frankly….terrible. Absolute junk. Navigating the user interface of a Fitbit is like playing with a kids toy. Slow, painful to use and at best offers a reasonable fitness tracking experience. Don’t get me wrong, Fitbit products are fine for tracking steps, sleep and calories burned. But Apps on Fitbit are just awful. I think the main reason Fitbit is the primary rival to the Apple Watch is the relatively low price in comparison. Fitbit has done a pretty good job at appealing to those who aren’t necessarily a technology enthusiast. By focusing on price and basic health tracking, they’ve captured a segment of the market less interested in the actual technology and more concerned with health. It stands to reason that if your interest is in health and not tech, you probably don’t want to spend a ton of money on a product seen as being too ‘techie’. Fitbit does offer some smartwatch features but the crippled hardware and junk software don’t provide for a meaningful smartwatch.
So if Fitbit devices are really fitness bands posing as smartwatches, where is the real competition to the Apple Watch? Well the answer is pretty much the same as what happened with Android tablets. Hardware fragmentation led to extreme variability in display size classes, extreme variety in hardware quality and some of the products are just plain ugly. When you wear something it becomes an expression of who you are and some of the competing smartwatches well….need I say more?
When you combine a platform that makes it hard for developers to make money with ugly products that people are ashamed to be seen with, it isn’t a surprise that nobody wants to buy them. What’s worse is that even now some recent Apple Watch competitors are shipping with sluggish processors that struggle to do even the simplest of tasks.
The Lone Wolf
The first Apple Watch nailed a few things really well. A design that wasn’t hideous. A clever band swapping solution that required no tools and a basic but effective set of fitness tracking features. It was too slow in the first iteration and it could have derailed the product category but Apple quickly worked out the kinks and in subsequent generations. The hardware and software have become extremely refined and polished over time. Today the Apple Watch succeeds where others continue to fail by focusing on three simple things. First, a compelling piece of hardware that people like to wear. Second, a software experience that is lightweight, easy to develop for and with zero fragmentation. Finally a focus on quick interactions, fitness and an ultra-fast processor. There are of course some competing watches that do some of these things. But I’ve yet to encounter one that does ALL of these things. Even Samsung’s latest smartwatches are shipping with old, slow chips that were designed two or more years ago.
When you tie up those three things that the Apple Watch does so well with deep integration into the Apple ecosystem, the success of the Apple Watch almost seems inevitable (which it wasn’t). But looking back the reason for that success is the same reason why the iPad succeeded. It made it easy for developers and consumers alike to adopt the platform. When both groups embrace a platform then you know you’re on to a winner. And that’s what makes this lone Wolf the top of the pack in a jungle of subpar tech.