Apple: destroyer of fragmentation

Jan Dawson / March 28th, 2014

With the release of Android Wear, we now have a pretty good idea of how Google intends to target the smart-watch space, and it’s very much about extending a subset of smartphone functionality to peripheral devices. Although today these new devices will offer a very thin layer on top of the smartphone, it’s easy to see in time they could subsume more and more of the functions of the smartphone and eventually act independently with their own cellular connectivity. As such, Android Wear can be seen as positioning Google for a future beyond the smartphone.

We don’t know yet what Apple has planned for wearables, but from the rumors around Healthbook, it certainly looks likely it will be taking almost the opposite approach – namely, adding value to the smartphone experience through peripheral devices. You can think of Google’s approach with Android Wear as being “smartphone-out” – i.e. extending smartphone functionality out to wearables, and Apple’s rumored approach as “wearables-in” – i.e. using wearables to add functionality to the smartphone. This makes good strategic sense for each company – Google’s interests are best served by extending its services to all possible categories of devices, while Apple’s are best served by making its devices in key categories as compelling as possible.

Wearables - Apple vs GoogleOpportunities in aggregation – in wearables…

Interestingly, there are no credible rumors so far about a wearable device from Apple, though there is no shortage of interesting thinking about the topic from various people in the industry. But I continue to think it’s possible that Apple won’t release its own wearable device at all – at least not yet. I think its major play here may be acting as the glue to bring what is presently a very disparate and fragmented set of wearable ecosystems together. Note how many fitness and health devices Apple already sells in its online store. Many of these sync in some fashion with companion iPhone apps, but they all do it separately. Some of the vendors have their own ecosystems, which offer limited integration between their own devices and third party devices for analytics purposes, but they’re largely islands today.

Bringing the data supplied by all these sensors into a single app which would make sense of it all would be hugely more powerful and Apple is one of the few companies that could do it. Its ability to do so would, however, be somewhat hampered if it decided to enter the market itself – it would then be competing with would-be partners, and its position as a hub would be significantly less attractive to them. Meanwhile, the wearables market is made up of so many small niches that it’s almost impossible to imagine how Apple could drive significant revenue (in the context of its existing $174 billion a year business) without launching at least a handful of different products.

… and beyond

But this approach needn’t be restricted to the wearables space. There are at least a couple of other areas where Apple could offer the same approach of unifying a fragmented ecosystem and the most obvious one is the home. At CES this past year, the most obvious trends aside from 4K TVs were wearables and smart home. But the smart home space is at least as fragmented as the wearables space, with players from the home security, broadband router, appliances, mobile services and other industries all vying for a slice of the action and ahough there are some attempts by both vendors and third parties to bring elements together, no one has yet cracked the unified home experience. But Apple is in an excellent position to do so, with both routers (the Airport line) and controllers (iPhones and iPads) already in place, and a huge user base to start with. Apple’s position as an aggregator will be much stronger if it isn’t itself trying to build smart home products, which also seems unlikely given the broad variety of devices it would have to make.

The other obvious area for Apple to apply the theme of bringing order to chaos is payments, where there’s at least as much fragmentation at present. We currently have at least three separate domains today when it comes to payments – classic credit cards, online payments providers such as Paypal, and a plethora of players in the mobile payments sector, from mobile terminals such as Square and Paypal Here to Google Wallet to the US carriers’ Isis initiative. None of these has so far thrived, and fragmentation is again a big reason. Apple’s huge user base and the installed base of Bluetooth LE-capable devices it has in the market are an enormously strong starting point. But the play here would be a different one: creating its own payment system rather than aggregating third-party efforts. System-level integration would be a huge advantage over any third-party app, as iMessage and FaceTime have demonstrated. And Apple’s unique leverage over carriers would allow it to do things Google wasn’t able to with Google Wallet. Tim Cook has already indicated that with hundreds of millions of credit cards on file and the Touch ID system introduced in the iPhone 5S, Apple already has a great starting point for payments.

The big question then becomes, how does Apple make money from any of this? If it doesn’t enter the wearable device space, how does it get revenues growing again? The answer is twofold: firstly, and in some ways most importantly, Apple will strengthen its ecosystem and the appeal of the iPhone, driving more iPhone sales. Conversion, not capturing first-time smartphone users, will be the key driver of growth in the premium end of the smartphone market going forward and Apple has to do all it can to cement the position of the iPhone in that segment. Secondly, these aggregation efforts can each yield revenues in their own right, through licensing (the Made for iPhone program is an existing example of this sort of thing) and in the case of payments through taking a cut of revenues, which could be enormously lucrative in its own right. Neither of these requires Apple to create a new hardware category of its own, and I’m increasingly convinced Apple’s new product categories in 2014 may not be hardware at all.

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his thirteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.
  • peter

    I have been thinking along similar lines. Currently watches, rings, bracelets and necklaces are fashion accessories that are produced in production runs of thousands of items. It is orders of magnitude away from what Apple is used to. No surprise then that Google is partnering with Luxottica for the design of glass(es). Also, while selling a $100m worth of watches is an impressive achievement, it would not actually move the needle at Apple (or Samsung or Google).

    At the same time, there is an ocean of gadgets and appliances in use today with poor software support, each with its own remote control, App, support website and manual (Jean-Louis Gassée describes this in “Internet of Things: The Basket of Remotes Problem”). Apple would be in an excellent position to develop the platform glue that integrates many of the ‘orphan’ gadgets and appliances. If appliances and sensors could ‘answer’ questions about their functionality and status then it would be possible to separate manufacturing of the hardware from the development of the software.

    That is something I could see as a meaningful development, because (1) it is a business that is big enough for Apple, (2) it connects gadgets and appliances that we already use and makes them better, (3) a platform for interaction with devices would allow for the development of much better software.

    In the meantime, I will pass on wristwatches that merely act as a remote control for the phone my pocket (I have a basket of remotes already).

  • Rene Stein

    Of course, this is not and “either/or” problems. I imagine that both companies are working in both directions and choose to release first in one of them according to their companies goals which you have clearly stated (as has peter in the comments).

  • N.G.W.

    For Apple to get into the payments business would be *way* outside their core skills as a tech gear designer. Okay they already accept credit cards but that’s only to allow them to sell their hardware, and anyway might they not be handing card processing to someone else? Apple entering the payments business seems like a very large mistake.

    • I think you’re probably underselling what Apple does by calling it a “tech gear designer” – Apple makes tightly integrated hardware and software products which allow users to do things that are important to them in easy, intuitive ways. Payments could definitely benefit from that approach. Of course, there are new skills involved in taking on payments, but Apple’s already the payments processor for billions of third-party payments today in the App Store. It’s not a huge stretch.

      • Andrew F

        Yeah, I don’t think payments is that far outside Apple’s skill sets. Their vision for payments, if their actions and patents can be believed, is gonna be a seamless play of software, hardware, and back end services. The dangerous thing here is in customers having bad purchase experiences with it. I think this has a lot to do with Apple’s saintly patience in waiting for the right pieces of technology (sensors, BLE, cloud services) to emerge before making a significant move. Apple is obviously studying this problem very hard.

        Tim Cook was so explicit about payments in the last earnings call that I’m led to believe the launch of such a service is not too distant. My question is, while we know Touch ID/Apple ID is the payment authorization mechanism, is the iPhone/smartphone really going to be the device from which we experience this local commerce revolution? I tend to think the iBeacon experience is a major part of the story of the proverbial iWatch.

        As Horace Dediu has pointed out, one of the magics in Apple’s game is in building new UI models. I think the emergence of BLE for Apple is going to enable a really magical new way for devices to interact with one another, and it’s an area where Apple has an enormous advantage at the OS level.

        • Shameer Mulji

          Given that Apple has approximately 500 users with the credit numbers, all on iTunes, and having sold billions of dollars worth content, the payment experience behind iTunes is fantastic. All they need to do is extend that out to other areas.

    • aardman

      Smart phones was also supposed to be outside Apple’s core skill set.

  • stefnagel

    Notes:
    * The diagram suggests, rightly, that Apple’s superb crypto engine is designed to handle and hold data within the phone hub, and not within a wearable. Moving into health and wealth industries will require ironclad security.
    * Apple is at about 750 million credit card carrying users and it’s fair to assume it will hit a billion. At about that point, Apple becomes its own market and economy.

    • Space Gorilla

      Good points. It seems to me we’re getting to a point where there will be important and valuable jobs-to-be-done that require vertical integration, control of the stack, curation. I wonder if Google sees this as well? Surely they must. They do seem to be implementing more control re: Android.

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