Apple/Qualcomm and the Problem with Smartwatches


There are two companies that appear to have the most power in the new Smartwatch space: Apple and Qualcomm. Apple because they have the watch that most people know about and want, and Qualcomm because they are the firm that supplies the technology most often used in every smartwatch made by everyone else (and arguably some are better than the Apple watch).  But this product class is hardly the “power” that the Smartphone, or even the declining tablet, is.  So what is keeping folks from buying a Smartwatch?

The Power of a Brand

If someone were to ask me today which of the various Smartwatches are the best I wouldn’t name the Apple Watch. I’d name the Huawei which, particularly in black, is stunning, incredibly capable (based on Qualcomm technology), and it is (for a leading product) reasonably priced in the $400 range for what is a very impressive product. 

However I doubt there are many, even in China, who will buy an excellent luxury Smartwatch with the brand “Huawei” on it. Even Samsung has a stronger brand and I don’t think they are where they need to be, either. When folks buy a watch in that category even Seiko is a bit of a stretch, and they’ve been working at extending to the high price categories for years. 

If you go to Amazon and search on watches in this range you see brands like Gucci, Mido, Tissot, Luminox, Bulova and Giorgio Fedon. Each name carries a sense of luxury often connected to Swiss quality or French fashion. But you also see some new brands like XO Skeleton which have an exotic sounding brand and a really cool design (this has suddenly become a really expensive column to write).

Right now the most powerful brand with the requisite luxury component is Apple’s, and even though their design really looks little like a watch (it is more like an iPad Mini with a band) if folks are buying for status that is the brand they are looking for and appear to be willing to forgo a more common look in order to get that brand benefit.

Feature Set

Right now the products are all over the map. We have watches that look like watches like the Huawei mentioned above, and we have watches that look like little iPods, like the Apple Watch. We have products like both which require a phone in order to work and a number of them that will work without a phone and still have full capability. While diversity is good for choice, this kind of diversity in an emerging segment is really bad because not only do people have to choose between brands, they have to decide if they want these things to work with their phones or not and there really isn’t a strong voice, other than Apple’s, pointing a clear direction. This is also likely one of the big reasons people aren’t buying these things; there is simply too much choice. 

The really screwy thing for me is that the one new Smartwatch that looks ideal as a phone replacement, the Rufus Cuff, is actually a tethered device and requires a Smartphone in order to work. Basically it is a large wrist mounted auxiliary display for your phone when it likely, given its relatively large size, should be a replacement for it. 

Perhaps a more complete offering is the Arubixs Portal which is basically a 6” class smartphone that you can wear on your wrist (it flexes).  Costing about as much as the black Huawei this is actually a full-on phone that you can wear on your wrist and it runs full Android so you get full functionality as well. This appears to be the ideal wearable standalone device, because you not only don’t give anything up, you end up with a phone that is damned-near unbreakable. For instance, if you have a habit of putting your Smartphone in your back jeans pocket, this would be the phone for you and the wrist thing is just a plus for when you are running or bike riding (imagine using the GPS function or video calling while doing either).  

Wrapping Up:  Rationalizing the Market

If you are going to call something a watch it likely should look like a watch and carry a brand consistent with its price, if you want people to buy it. Apple can go down its own path but calling something that used to be an iPod a watch a bit of a stretch. Finally, the real end game here is likely a product that allows you to leave your phone behind and designs like the Rufus Cuff and especially the Arubixs Portal are closer to that ideal than anything currently in market but, ironically, the Cuff can’t stand alone. 

Until more of these things can be reconciled, the wearable market will probably underperform expectations.  However if you are into cool watches check out the black Huawei because it is a really cool watch and if you are missing your iPod Mini wrist band the Apple watch is a better alternative and, if you just want a phone on your wrist, try out the Portal. It could be the phone you’ve been waiting for.  

Edited by Rory J. Thompson
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President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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