Everyone seems to assume that Apple is working on an iWatch, an entry in the emerging smartwatch market, and it’s likely that it is. But a secondary assumption has been that this launch must be imminent, because of the other entrants in the market, notably Samsung. However, the history of Apple’s entry into new markets shows that it bides its time, rarely entering right as a market begins, and often waiting until the combination of technologies required has evolved to the point where they’re ready for a truly compelling product. The chart below shows the timelines for Apple’s entry into three previous product categories, those which fueled much of its growth from 2000 to the present:
I’ve used four major milestones to illustrate the process, and the lengthy time from conception of a new product category to Apple’s entry 1:
- First products: this is the year when the first real product in the category was launched – ie. not just a prototype, but often an early entry that gets little attention but is actually available for sale, often from a small vendor.
- First products for mass markets: this is a critical step in actually creating a market. The first products referred to in the bullet above are usually flawed in major ways – not priced to appeal to mass markets, missing major features, subpar in significant ways such as battery life or performance. But at some point products are launched, often by major vendors, which are priced so as to appeal to the mass market and which meet the basic criteria for a successful product somewhat well.
- Mass market adoption: of course, the mere launch of such a product doesn’t guarantee actual adoption by the mass market. It often takes years to reach that next stage, with a virtuous cycle between product iterations, scale, cost and price reductions and so on. If there are still significant flaws in the product at this point it may take years and/or a leap forward to get to this point.
- Apple’s entry: simply, the point at which Apple enters the market with a product of its own – obviously we’re talking iPod, iPhone and iPad in the case of these three existing categories.
What’s clear from the chart is that it takes a long time from first products to Apple’s entry. In a couple of cases, it’s even taken a long time from mass market products to Apple’s entry. And in the case of the iPhone it took a long time from mass market adoption to Apple’s entry. All of which is to say that there’s no guarantee that Apple will launch a smartwatch just because we’ve passed either of the first two milestones (one might reasonably argue that we haven’t even hit the second one yet, but I’m giving recent entries in this category the benefit of the doubt).
Now, Apple doesn’t just hang around waiting for the moment to be right. Once it’s identified a category, it’s likely actively working on products all the while. This was certainly the case with tablets, where Steve Jobs’ desire to work on a tablet was triggered by a Microsoft engineer at a party he attended 2 in around 2003 3
2005, but of course the iPad didn’t launch until 2010. Why didn’t it launch earlier? The answer is a combination of two things: the technology wasn’t ready (certain parts were barely ready in 2007 when Jobs ended up launching the iPhone first) and the market arguably wasn’t ready. Smartphones were an established, successful category and one where people were desperate for something better (though most of them couldn’t have articulated that desire). But tablets were a failure despite Microsoft’s best efforts, even years later, and the iPhone became a building block for what the iPad became both in terms of Apple’s re-use of the technology and people’s familiarity with iOS.
Which technologies held up development of the iPad and iPhone? Multi-touch was a big one, but there was also the glass itself, battery life, 3G and many other things, most of which were resolved by the time of the iPhone launch and many of which were further refined by the time the iPad launched three years later. But it seems to me that the smartwatch category is at the point where it’s clear what’s needed for a successful product, but the technology just doesn’t seem to be there yet. A successful smartwatch must meet at least the following requirements:
- It must have an always-on display – no-one wants a watch that they have to prod or push to tell them the time.
- Despite the always-on display, the battery must last at least all day and ideally quite a few days.
- It mustn’t be overly bulky or large, so that it can fit comfortably on larger and smaller, male and female wrists.
- It must interact with smart devices, notably smartphones but possibly tablets and others, in a way that reduces the need to remove those other devices from pockets, purses and so on, presenting needed information but also allowing the user to act on it. If every notification still requires pulling out the phone (or tablet) it’s failed.
- It has to look good – watches are fashion accessories, and smartwatches will become the most visible personal technology items people carry.
Ideally, it would also do the following:
- Be chargeable without taking it off. This is asking a lot, since all our current charging technologies require at least contact with a charging dock and all Apple’s current devices have to be physically plugged in. But taking off your watch every night (or even every few nights) makes it less useful as a watch.
- Serve as a tracking device for fitness purposes, much like a Jawbone Up or Nike FuelBand.
What strikes me is that the early entrants in this category really haven’t met these needs very well – each has met one or two, but has fallen short in various ways, and as a result these devices are far from mainstream still. In the case of MP3 players and smartphones, Apple took an established and successful category and transformed it, dramatically accelerating growth and increasing the size of the market. But in the case of the iPad, it wasn’t until Apple’s entry that the category even reached mainstream adoption.
I have a sense that it will take Apple’s entry, or at least a major leap forward from another competitor, to really kickstart the smartwatch category, and I’m just not convinced all the technologies are lined up in such a way to make that sort of category entry from Apple possible yet. Now, Apple has proven with the iPhone and iPad that it’s capable of surprising us with technology, and it could do so again. But at this stage, I’m skeptical for all these reasons that Apple will launch a smartwatch in the early part of 2014, and perhaps that it will launch a smartwatch in 2014 at all.
- The years I’ve used are debatable – there’s no single right answer to exactly which year is right for these various categories, but the point here is general rather than specific – it’s usually a long time from initial product conception to mass market product launches and subsequently to Apple’s entry. ↩
- See Isaacson’s book, p.466. ↩
- Thanks to Charles Arthur for correcting this ↩