Has Apple Won the Wearables War, or Is It Just Beginning?

December 21, 2017 - 8 minutes read

Wearable technology is a relatively young technology; this category of the Internet of Things (IoT) only hit the mainstream less than a decade ago. And yet, more tumultuous events have occurred in the short lifespan of wearables than in the history of several hundred-year-old industries.

This leaves many experts and industry insiders wondering — is the wearables market space still up for the taking, or has someone already seized it?

The Frontrunner in 2017’s Race

After Fitbit launched its first wearable in 2009, major tech companies began releasing smartwatches in the following years. Notable entries included Samsung’s Galaxy Gear in 2013 and Apple’s Apple Watch in 2015. Since then, numerous other competitors have thrown their hats into the ring. But Apple remains the dominant player in 2017.

Apple has only been in the smartwatch game for three years and it’s only on its third iteration in this technology, the Apple Watch Series 3. This is mind-boggling when considering how much of the market space Apple has snagged according to Canalys, a technology market analyst firm.

Canalys Analyst Vincent Thielke says, “Apple has shipped 34.4 million smartwatches worldwide since it entered the category in 2015… Apple accounts for 51.6 percent of all smartwatches ever shipped.” And while you can certainly attribute some of the Apple’s Watch’s wild success to its attachment to the Apple brand, that’s only part of the picture.

How Apple Took Over

Apple won 2017 by making its smartwatch more independent. Adding LTE connectivity to the Series 3 made it the first standalone version of the company’s watch. This is making people who once wrote the watch off as an iPhone extension reconsider buying one. While it’s far from the first smartwatch with LTE connectivity, Apple’s connection to major wireless carriers has helped put a spotlight on this new capability of the Series 3.

Besides this move, another catalyst for Apple’s victorious year was their decision to double down on health technology, a niche that’s often the main reason why people buy smartwatches. For example, the FDA just approved an electrocardiogram (EKG) band made by AliveCor for the Apple Watch. Let’s not forget Tim Cook testing out a non-invasive glucose-tracking prototype. We’d also be remiss to not mention Apple’s biometrics data lab dedicated to optimizing the smartwatch. And then there was also that recent announcement of a collaborative heart study between Apple and Stanford… You get the idea.

By taking a deep-dive into health and giving its device independence from the iPhone, Apple has literally overwhelmed the smartwatch market — the supply currently can’t satisfy the demand. This hype is giving Apple a headstart for next year. 20 million Series 3 watches are expected to sell in 2018.

What about the Competition?

Of course, the Series 3 isn’t without its flaws. The device itself costs a pretty penny, but if you want it to have LTE connectivity, that will cost you some more money every month. Upon launch, the watch experienced connection problems, but it was addressed.

Luckily for Apple, the problems its competitors were facing made theirs seem small by comparison. While 2017 has been a banner year for Apple’s wearables, the same can’t be said for others in the market. The rollout of Android Wear 2.0 was not only late but lambasted by Android developers as a mess with new features that were actually outdated.

While met with generally positive reviews, the new Fitbit Ionic also experienced release delays. Fitbit kicked off 2017 with a rocky start in general; after disappointing 2016 holiday sales, the San Francisco development company laid off about 6% of its employees, and its shares plunged almost 20% as a result.

Even Fitbit’s problems pale in comparison to other big players in the wearables space. Indeed, 2017 marked the end of the road for quite a few wearable makers. The year was riddled with companies (Motorola, TomTom, Jawbone, just to name a few) bowing out of the wearables race. Considering all of this, it’s no wonder why one would assume that Apple has completely won the wearable market.

A Battle Was Won, but the War Isn’t Over

But that’s not really the case. IoT developers know Tech is as fickle of an industry as they come. Tech companies that were once ruling kings regularly crumble, and the inverse occurs as well. Apple’s own history is a testament to this. So the company is well aware that while 2017 was great, it hardly cements their reign in wearables for the long run.

Ramon Llamas, a Research Manager at IDC, a technology market advisory firm, shares this sentiment: “We’re still only talking about a couple million units quarter in and quarter out. The war might be over, so to speak, but there’s room for other companies to carve out their own space and take a shot at the king.”

Who Will Wear the Crown in 2018?

Apple hadn’t yet cornered the wearable market at the beginning of 2017, so the end of 2018 could paint a far different picture from now. While Fitbit’s Ionic watch arrived late to the game, it’s now picking up momentum bolstered by a solid new OS update. Similar to Apple, the company is doubling down on mHealth development.

Another notable contender is Xiaomi, which also dominated the wearable market at different points this past year, mostly due to its affordable price point compared to Apple’s offering. It’s also prudent to recognize that while 2017 was less than stellar for it, Android Wear isn’t down for the count. Future updates could help strengthen its platform as well as the makers utilizing it in their wearables, like LG.

Still, 2017 will go down as Apple’s year in wearables. It’s a remarkable achievement, especially when you consider they only entered this race less than three years ago. But the future allows no time to rest on laurels; in another three years, companies we’ve never heard of could be the top players. This wearables war won’t ever truly end.

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