Apple Retakes the Wearables Crown and Nudges Developers Forward

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Earlier this week, we got word that Apple is once again at the top of the wearables heap. Analyst firm Canalys released their quarterly report on this up and coming category of devices, showing that Apple regained the top spot they had occupied earlier this year. They had been passed up by both Xiaomi and Fitbit in the Second Quarter, before the release of the Apple Watch Series 3 and their Watch Series 1 price cut. This lead to a lot of conjecture about the state of the smartphone, and its place alongside simpler fitness bands and the like.

Taking it All

The most interesting aspect of this reversal is how Apple is managing it. Xiaomi and Fitbit do most of their wearables business selling far less expensive fitness bands without screens. These devices also generate less profit per sale. The fact that Apple was able to bounce back so quickly with the release of the far more expensive Watch Series 3 is significant. Not only are they outselling the competition in terms of volume, but they are also making a lot more profit per device as they do so. According to Canalys, they shipped around 800,000 of the LTE-enabled version of the Series 3 in Q3, which is the most expensive model in each tier of their lineup. It is definitely notable that such a large chunk of their sales is coming from a new high-end model, rather than the year-old base Series 1.

Canalys goes on to predict that Apple will sell as many as 4.5 million Watches in the Fourth Quarter, and up to 20 million next year. This will insure that Apple is the lone dominant player in the smartwatch category for the foreseeable future. However, it is also likely that they will continue to rule the roost as the top of the entire wearables market, as well. As I have said before, the Apple Watch IS the smartwatch category at this point, and the Canalys report just provides the data to back that up. As long as they keep selling Watches at this rate, the wearables market is theirs for the taking.

A Walk Down Memory Lane

Remember when people were criticizing Apple and Tim Cook, calling the Watch something between a niche device and a failure, or that its sales would always be an inconsequential side line? Let’s take a stroll down memory lane:

  • Anthony Cuthbertson of International Business Times didn’t even wait for the Apple Watch to go on sale to suggest to write Apple Watch Suggests Company is Rotting From its Core. Included is the quote, “With the Apple Watch, it’s just another smartwatch.” Too bad there aren’t many smart watches left to compare it to.
  • Mark Wilson for Fast Company Design tells us Why the Apple Watch Is Flopping (2015). He tried to qualify what flopping meant later in the same year, after the writing was on the wall. Too bad it didn’t.
  • Noah Kulwin of VICE News leaned heavily on the words of IDC’s Wearables Survey from a year ago. “It’s still early days, but we’re already seeing a notable shift in the market,” said IDC analyst Jitesh Ubrani. “Where smartwatches were once expected to take the lead, basic wearables now reign supreme. Simplicity is a driving factor, and this is well-reflected in the top vendor list, as four out of five offer a simple, dedicated fitness device.” This year’s numbers tell a different story, I guess.
  • Joshua Topolsky, in his recent rambling diatribe about Apple design said, “Apple may be able to tout that it’s the “No. 1” watchmaker in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s making good products.” This one makes me chuckle every time I read it. It is the comment of a man who knows he is wrong, and is grasping at justification for poorly made points in the past.
  • Mike Elgan wrote an almost mind-numbing article about Why Smartwatches Failed back in August of this year, where he actually used Google Glass (an actual failure as a product) as a comparison for how Apple and others should have handled selling smart watches. Evidently, it would be smarter to do the exact opposite of all other modern mobile technology, and sell to enterprise first, before going to consumers. It’s a good thing Apple didn’t go that route with the iPhone, or anything else for that matter. On a side note, the Macworld Macalope had a brilliant brick by brick takedown of Elgin’s absurdity.
  • According to Christopher Morris of ValueWalk just a couple of months ago, the Apple Watch Series 3 will ultimately be a failure in spite of all indicators to the contrary. Like Joshua Topolsky, he feels that sales or dominance of wearables category are meaningless, and that the Watch has to prove something to him personally to be qualified as a success. A lot was made about the LTE issues some had close to launch, but those are long gone, and sales are nowhere but up since.

These are just a few of the many articles I have taken note of over the last two and a half years. There are many, many more when you expand to the world of podcasting, as well. I’m looking at you Leo Laporte and guests. However, I have to give him some credit. While Topolsky, Elgin, and Morris above can’t seem to accept the recent numbers that definitely prove that the Watch isn’t a failure, Mr Laporte has reversed his stance since the release of the Series 3.

Nudging Things Forward

I appreciate that Apple is iterating on the Watch platform fairly quickly. They continue to add features and tweak the OS to make the interface flow more smoothly. A good example was the change to the Dock to make it scroll vertically, rather than horizontally in watchOS 4. While the former worked just fine, the vertical interface makes scrolling with the Digital Crown more natural, giving users the option to use it or touch to move through the interface. This is more consistent with the rest of the OS, which is always a good thing. This is a small change, but a thoughtful one, nonetheless.

Apple made another such call with the Watch platform last week, as they posted an article to their Developer site informing devs that changes are coming to the App Store. The brief update extols the virtues of native Watch apps, which have been around since watchOS 2. However, it also lets developers know that, as of April 1, 2018, updates to watchOS 1 apps that are based on the phone will no longer be accepted. Legacy apps will have to be updated to the watchOS 2 SDK or later to be allowed past that date, and all new apps will have to be based on the watchOS 4 SDK.

As a Watch user from the start, I really like this push that Apple is giving the platform’s app ecosystem. I was there at the beginning, disappointed with the capabilities and speed of the first generation of apps. I very was interested in the potential of the right kind of apps for use on a small screen, but Apple overplayed what they would be capable of with the first-gen hardware and early days of watchOS. Many developers were hit with complaints over issues that weren’t actually their fault or within their power to fix, and I can’t blame them for any hard feelings.

I have had the distinct impression that many developers who came out with early apps for the Watch felt burned by the problems and user complaints, and have either moved on or de-emphasized work on the Watch as a result. This is totally understandable if you put yourself in their shoes. It also explains why there are so many apps available for the Watch today that either have compatibility issues, or don’t take advantage of newer features, such as the ability to continuously update when placed in the Dock. Apple’s move to nudge developers toward the present, and hopefully the future of watchOS is a win for all Watch users.

Hopefully the combo of new hardware features like LTE and more app capability and stability will spur on user interest in Watch apps enough to get more devs on board, and so on and so forth. The Watch has never had the benefit of an iPhone or iPad-like virtuous circle, and while even this move is probably too little, too late to touch off that level of interest, every little bit helps.


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