Wearables: The Next Big Thing

There’s been loads of speculation from analysts about an iWatch and an iTV in recent memory. Everybody thinks that when Apple does something, it’ll be the Next Big Thing.

Well, I want to weigh in on this. Here’s my opinion:

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Yes, this is a Samsung ad. No, I don’t think Samsung is the Next Big Thing (except for the Note, which is definitely both Big and the Next Thing. Why isn’t Apple competing with the Note?!) but I do agree with the sentiment. The next big thing may not be a radical departure from what we’ve already seen.

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Apple has already shown us the Next Big Thing.

Many people don’t consider iPods to be a line of wearable devices, but I do.

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In the iconic Silhouette ads, you always saw people wearing the iPod’s distinctive earbuds, and frequently saw the iPod Classic itself in a shirt pocket or clipped to a belt. It was clear that your iPod and headphones were fashion accessories. You wore them or carried them like a fashion accessory. They became part of your digital lifestyle.

When the 2nd generation iPod Shuffle came out, wearability was the feature of the keynote.

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“The Number 1 thing that came back from customers using the first generation shuffle was wearability. … This is the most wearable MP3 player we know of.”

–Steve Jobs, 2006

Apple’s fascination with wearability did not go away, even though the iPod began to decline immediately after the iPhone was unveiled. Years later, Apple expanded wearability to the 6th generation iPod Nano.

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“It’s so small we put a clip on it too… so it’s instantly wearable.”

–Steve Jobs, 2010

Apple’s fascination with iPods is most puzzling, when you try to put it in context. iPods have been declining steadily in revenue for years and now make up just a tiny portion of Apple’s portfolio, meanwhile the iPhone is rocketing ahead with 100% annual growth! But yet iPods (with the exception of the Classic) are revamped and radically redesigned almost as often as the iPhone.

Pretend you’re Steve Jobs for a Minute

Why bother? Why not just leave the iPod to die of neglect?

It’s a very important question, since the MP3 player market is basically dead. Estimates for the size of the global MP3 player market are hard to come by (nobody really cares anymore) but one report says that by 2017, the global market will range from 300 million dollars to 40 million.

Why keep innovating in the MP3 player market if it’s dead?

I think Apple saw a new opportunity.

Back to History. In 2011, Phil Schiller came on stage and declared that Apple had released “the best iPods we’ve ever made”, again pointing out the Nano. “A clip so you can wear it wherever you go.” It also found a new niche:

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“Fitness is one of the most popular uses.”

–Phil Schiller, 2011

Phil was really selling it here, because when we think about ultraportability and wearability we need to understand why we wear things. It must have multiple “jobs to be done”. The first is music and the second is fitness. These two go together synergistically. But then something really quirky happened.

Phil Schiller unveils the Mickey Mouse iPod Nano

Phil Schiller unveils the Mickey Mouse iPod Nano

An iWatch!

An iWatch!

It wasn’t made by Apple but they put it on their store. As usual, they sold a bunch at christmas but the world promptly yawned. iPods are dead, you know?

Still, Apple kept experimenting. The September 2012 event was overshadowed by Steve Jobs’ failing health (he died the following afternoon), and some of the presentations were very visibly affected by the loss of their friend. But Apple introduced a handful of interesting new technologies with important wearability potential: a Voice interface (Siri), a Wallet interface (Passbook), and probably the most significant and important piece of technology today: iCloud. They also dipped their toe into wearability with an iOS product for the first time.

The Loop!

The Loop!

The iPod Touch Loop was a very low-key experiment with wearability as a new job: keeping a hold on your devices.

“We’ve added a wrist strap. For that added security when you’re taking pictures, or just walking around.”

–Greg Joswick, 2012

Interestingly, they also announced a new iPod Nano that was much less wearable. No clip, no watch at all, no clock faces. It traded up for better multitouch, widescreen video support, but and surprisingly… bluetooth.

“One of the biggest requests we’ve had is for bluetooth.”

–Greg Joswick, 2012

Apple claims this made the Nano the most portable ever, but their examples of using bluetooth in your nano were that you could now use it to connect to your car or big bulky bluetooth headphones. Does your car count as “portable”?

Wearability: Apple’s “Other” Hobby

When Tim Cook went on stage at All Things Digital 11 this year, investors were clamoring for information about the iTV. There was very little interest on the iPod lineup. And so, perhaps he felt that he was comparatively safe to talk about Apple’s struggles. Indeed, the only segment he really talked about was the wrist and eyeglasses, which Apple has either abandoned or, in the latter case, publicly written off.

On Google Glass: “The likelihood that it has a broad range appeal, that’s tough to see.”

On Wearables: “It’s incredibly interesting. It could be a profound area. … Lots of gadgets, wearables in this space now. I would say that the ones that are doing more than one thing, there is nothing great out there. … [Wearables are] a very key branch of the tree in the post-pc area.

What jobs to be done is Tim Cook interested in? “I’m interested in a great product. … Fashion, style. … The sensor field is going to explode.

As we look towards the future, it’s clear that Apple has so far been doing innovative experiments with their iPod lineup. Rather than neglecting an area of their company that is dying in relevance, Apple has instead used it as a crucible to help form new ideas. And they have tried to explore the “jobs to be done” of wearable technology in an open way, but the rest of the world has not really taken notice. Suffice it to say that if any of these ideas starts to take off, if Apple can find a killer app for wearable tech, it would suddenly become very interesting.

But for now, it’s just another hobby.

Oh, but just for the sake of argument, compare that with the other hobby of theirs.

Television: The Device that’s Getting Good Enough

I love my Apple TV. I have a second generation model, and at the time I bought it they sold just one point four million in a Christmas quarter. It was a very, very small hobby. But still a big success compared to the Apple TV1.

In the first quarter that the AppleTV3 was released a year later, with 1080P video but little else in the way of new features, it sold 2 Million.

AppleTV is a low cost device that has a lot of jobs to be done, new services being added all the time, and near-50% unit growth year over year.

Beyond Hobbies

This is what the growth of a new “branch of the tree” could feel like. Once you can find the jobs to be done (Movies, Netflix, Hulu, Airplay, Sports) for a post-PC device, it becomes a land grab as competitors rush in. If Apple suddenly announces a growth in iPod units around the lines of wearable technology, I think it will be the beginning of a new gold rush.

I was sure that the 6th Gen iPod Nano was the direction of the future. It’s a big disappointment that they abandoned that design and went back to a nonwearable, but I suspect that they realized connectivity was holding the technology back (echoes back to 1997, when the Newton died because you had to sync it to do anything useful).

Apple has been prodding at wearability for 6 years now, and they seem as close now as they ever did. Wearability means convenience, fitness, entertainment, portability, fashion, security, and sensors–the ability to record yourself and interact with your environment. One of those sensors can be a microphone, interacting with Siri. Another could be a fingerprint reader; your personal computer can literally identify you by touch. The environment can be a commercial environment, with authentication and payments taking seconds instead of minutes. Wearability can mean zero friction.

The Next Big Things are already here. It’s just that we can’t visualize them yet because they aren’t familiar.

What COULD the next big wearable invention look like?

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One thought on “Wearables: The Next Big Thing

  1. Pingback: Back To The iPhone | Weakly Referenced

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