The Wearables Tipping Point

A few months ago, I had purchased a Fitbit, which is all the rage in terms of fitness trackers. I wanted something to track steps and easily sync to my smartphone in an ongoing effort to improve my health. Being budget conscious, I didn’t want to spend very much, and the Fitbit cost $99. For me, that hit the sweet spot.

The gadget geek in me had looked at smartwatches such as the Pebble and Samsung Gear for a while. Each presented issues. Samsung’s smartwatch was strictly tied to its Galaxy phone brand, and wouldn’t work with other devices. Though at the time I was using a Galaxy Note 3, I know myself well enough that I tend to switch between devices depending on testing needs and personal preferences, and tying myself to such a narrow set of options with Samsung would be an unwise move (the mediocre reviews didn’t help, either). With the Pebble, I liked the simplicity and long battery life, but felt like it was to smartwatches what the old Palm III was to handhelds: quaint rough drafts of the platform.

The other problem I’ve held with smartwatches is that it really is a solution in search of a problem. Watches have been around forever. Like the promises of your refrigerator being connected to the Internet and able to order groceries for you, the smartwatch has held more of a neat-but-unessential place for tech, consigned to the ghetto of uber-geeky tools and early adopters. Paying $149 or more for a device to tell time and let me know I have an email or text ventures too far into the territory of technological excess and not vital to my daily workflow.

But as Pebble has made gains in popularity, Android has rolled out its Android Wear platform with a number of partners, and Apple set to reveal more of its own entry into the nascent wearable arena, it’s becoming clear that this market is set to not only explode, but carve a niche into our day-to-day lives.

For me, the tipping point was when Pebble made two key announcements in late September. First, it was dropping the price on its original Pebble to $99. Second, and just as critically, it added new fitness tracking functionality. Now, your Pebble could use a fitness app and keep it running in the background while you used other apps or watchfaces on your watch (previously, you needed to have said fitness app running in the foreground for them to track your activities, leading to some first world problem annoyances).

With the Pebble now sporting the same price but enhanced functionality in relation to the Fitbit, it was an obvious choice. The Pebble was fulfilling a legitimate need and opened the door to the potential of wearables (without the dent to the wallet and buyer’s remorse).

Over the next several months I have come to rely on the Pebble as an extension of my smartphone. Glanceable information has been a key use. I no longer feel the need to reach for my phone after every vibration. I have access to easily glance at a wide array of information, aside from the obvious use as a timepiece and for weather.

Replaceable digital watch faces have added another versatile element. Having the temperature readily available from my wrist is a nice bonus; other watch faces include upcoming calendar information, steps walked, and other information. There are a ton of options and it adds to value to having a smartwatch.

But even as we are accustomed to viewing the smartwatch from an app-centric point of view, 2015 looks to give us the next phase of the wearable market, and potentially set the stage for the near-future.

Remember the tectonic shift that was Apple’s introduction of the iPhone back in 2007? Overnight the game changed and the Treo’s and BlackBerry’s of the day suddenly looked very, very dated. Will the Apple Watch provide a similar shift? It’s too early to speculate, but there are reasons to believe the answer is cough cough mumble mumble.

Apple finds itself in a similar situation. Back when MP3 players were mediocre digital devices, they introduced the iPod. In an age of junky PDAs with cellular functionality slapped on, they introduced the iPhone. When tablets were the providence of either niche Windows CE (remember that?) or garbage Windows XP Tablet Edition devices, they released the iPad. Apple has excelled at often (but not always) taking an existing – if struggling – idea and giving it a fresh, exciting spin.

But smartwatches are different. Pebble has not only developed a loyal and extensive fanbase (enough for two record-breaking Kickstarters), they’ve also been busy re-thinking the smartwatch UI with its forthcoming Timeline interface. Google has gotten the jump on refining its Android Wear platform, which was buoyed by the buzz around the Moto 360. In short, Apple is not up against a market that is floundering or has failed to gain penetration. Apple is facing its largest uphill battle in a long time, and that’s a good thing. A hungry Apple looking to make a dent can only help up all the players’ games.

It will be fascinating to see what the conversation will be around wearables come 2016. While I think eventually Apple will prove successful, I don’t think it will dominate this segment. Pebble has the edge in cross-platform, battery life, price, and their early lead. Apple undoubtedly has a some secret sauce that will shake things up come their Apple Watch event.

But will it be enough?

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