I have written much about “wearables” — wearable computing devices such as the Nike FuelBand, Fitbit Force and Google Glass. Wearables are set to invade consumer markets, healthcare, logistics and other industries, delivering a combination of personalized data, real-time notifications, and analysis of various human outputs, all stylishly wrapped inside the explicit promise of empowerment, enhancement and efficiency.
Whether these devices will actually improve personal fitness, lead to a healthier society, make for better-performing professional athletes, dramatically increase worker productivity, or even systematically violate our privacy are all questions I’ve explored.
One question not explored: who will dominate the bourgeoning wearables revolution?
The answer seems obvious: Apple.
Apple’s design skills, highly integrated ecosystem, apps market, retail footprint, customer support staff, computing prowess, touch-based OS and global manufacturing scale are peerless — and every one of these are critical for success in the wearables market.
Indeed, I have a hard time conjuring scenarios under which Apple will not crush the competition in wearables. For the moment, I can envision only three, and none I put much faith in:
1. Wearables Are Not Real Computers
Though unlikely, I can at least imagine Apple Inc, with its finite resources and very obvious talents in building high-end personal computing devices, simply abdicating the wearables market.
Tim Cook and company may decide to continue their focus on “real” computers — smartphones and tablets — and cede wearables and sensors to others. Then, as wearables, their apps and services all become so popular and so pervasive in our lives that they eclipse today’s computing market, Apple is relegated to the margins.
Given Cook’s poaching of key people from Nike, Burberry and elsewhere, this scenario seems extremely unlikely. Much more likely is my earlier Techpinions prediction: that Apple rolls out a line of premium-priced computing jewelry.
In fact, I think most analysts are missing the big story from Apple’s recent signing with China Mobile. It’s less about the number of new iPhones Apple will sell — let’s not play the smartphone market share game now, after all. Rather, it’s that a nation of a billion plus people, hundreds of millions of whom are transitioning into middle class, may ravenously desire beautiful, simple, and highly functional jewelry, watches, sensors and other wearables. Apple can provide all of these.
2. Apple Mistimes The Market
The “Apple copies” meme is partly true, at least on the surface. Apple works on a great many technologies, gadgets, form factors. However, the company typically does not release these until they believe both the product and the market are ready, oftentimes long after competitors have their product collecting dust on retail shelves.
Apple may have a grand solution ready in, say, Q2 2015, only to lose out if wearables explode in popularity in early 2014.
Or, the market may radically veer onto a path Apple has no response to, and no strength to bear. After all, the accepted trajectory of such devices is that they become nothing more than computerized ‘tattoos’ placed on the skin, or tiny capsules we swallow. Perhaps a biotech company will ultimately prevail in the wearables market, or some uber-geeky Maori entrepreneur revolutionizes our very notion of a computer. As we well know, the best laid plans of giant tech companies are often complete failures.
3. Tim Cook Is Steve Ballmer
My final scenario, and the one I think most likely — though still unlikely — is that Tim Cook is the Apple incarnation of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer. Baller delivered massive profits, global scale, and as Microsoft grew to unwieldy heights, Ballmer somehow kept the trains running on time. Innovation, however, was suffocated.
It may be that the path of the wearable computing market usurps the need for high-margin iPhones and iPads. In response, Cook might hamper Apple’s long-term potential by attempting to corral the wearables market inside the high walls of Apple’s highly profitable iOS ecosystem. Just like Ballmer attempted to force everything through Windows and Office, this also will fail.
Similarly, for all the potential of Apple computers in the enterprise, Apple can’t seem to pull away from the high-margin, high-profit, easy-money consumer market. Perhaps wearables revolutionize the enterprise, just as smartphones upended it, and Apple has no adequate response. Cue the return of Microsoft.
Lastly, I suppose Apple could also simply whiff on wearables entirely, the way Microsoft, for example, struck out on touch screens. All possible, all unlikely.
The Next Evolution of Apple
The competition should be wary. When I examine Apple’s talent, skill set, ponder its brand, analyze its active customer base, assess its growing retail operation, test the integration of its many products, proprietary technologies and devices, it is difficult for me to see how the company fails to win the wearables computing market.
Though Samsung beat them to market, and their Galaxy Gear ad is sublime, long-term I see no company that can bring to the wearables market what Apple already has. Namely, the chips, the design chops, the OS, the integration across devices, the commitment to intuitive function, voice and touch controls, cloud support, media partnerships, carrier relationships, broad appeal across borders and demographics, battery expertise, AirDrop, their own video chat service, the best designed notifications service, the list goes on.
The scale of each new computing revolution is far bigger, far richer, spreads far wider than the one that came before. I expect this with wearables. These will eclipse smartphones and tablets, just as those devices eclipsed “PCs.” Thus, if I am right, Apple is about to get much, much bigger.