There is a story in Dave Trott’s wonderful book, One + One = Three, in which he tells us how the erstwhile USSR reduced the US to a nervous mess by launching the first satellite (Sputnik), the first animal in space (Leika the dog) and the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin). The launches had the US in a tizzy, made the USSR appear like a major power and most importantly, forced the US to invest heavily in a space program to send the first man to the moon.
The truth, however, was that the USSR barely had enough money at the end of the Second World War. Their scientists had been given the task to make long range missiles but found they could barely send a metal sphere into orbit – the first satellite, Sputnik, was just an empty ball with a transmitter. But the US did not know that and its reaction verged on the hysterical, spurring the USSR into more ‘firsts’ in space, even though these were threadbare efforts. Each first stunned the US and made the USSR appear more powerful. The result? The US spent billions of dollars on its space program – money it could have spent in other places, most notably on the military front – trying to beat competition that barely existed. The USSR meanwhile merrily rode out its financial crisis and recovered its military might.
Why are we telling you this?
Because we suspect – just suspect – that Apple might have done something very similar to its competition with the Apple Watch. No, we are not saying that the Apple Watch is a piece of bare bones technology – we used the device for a few days and found it to be easily the best smartwatch we have ever used – but we certainly think that its existence (real as well as rumoured) forced the competition to take its eye off the smartphone ball and divert funds into other channels.
For, no matter how loudly adherents might scream about the efficacy of their devices, the stark fact is that almost two years since the first really high profile smartwatch hit the stores (the Samsung Galaxy Gear), smartwatches have not taken off. Yes, we know that even the iPhone and the iPad had taken time to gain momentum, but in the case of the smartwatch, well, the tidal wave of popularity that many had predicted simply did not come. The only wearables that seem to have gone mainstream are low cost fitness bands, which are not really the uber smart wearables that many had predicted would rule the market.
No, the Apple Watch has not quite triggered the wearable revolution that many predicted it would. Not yet anyway – there are many who think the company will get it right in the second iteration. And truth be told, we are not really surprised. For, while there is no doubt that it is ahead of the competition in terms of ease of use, it does not really come with anything that is radically different from what others offer – a point we had highlighted when we had said that it would not give Android Wear sleepless nights. Developers are not running to the platform in the way they did to the iPhone and iPad. And so far, we have had no chest-thumping sales figures about it from the company.
But what we have seen is an insane amount of over the top reaction from the competition – especially from Apple’s two major competitors. Samsung has already released more smartwatches than Apple has ever released smartphones, as well as a whole new platform (Tizen), while Google has come up with a wearables version of Android. Interestingly, both Samsung and Google made their wearable moves before the Apple Watch had even been officially confirmed – the first Gear watch came out in 2013 and Android Wear went official in March 2014. What’s more, just about every company from Sony to Asus to Microsoft to Motorola has come out with some sort of wearable product or smartwatch. And for a while, rare indeed was the tech press conference that passed without a “do you have any plans in the wearables segment” query. There were more than a dozen smartwatches already in the market by the time the Apple Watch was officially made available for sale this year. Significantly, very few of them can actually claim to have done well. And as we said earlier, the great smartwatch/wearables revolution has not really taken off – wearables remain more a topic of discussion than of actual use, and the companies that have done well like Fitbit and Pebble are non-smartphone players. Most surprisingly, Apple does not seem to have thrown its marketing muscle behind the Apple Watch the way it did for the iPhone, iPad, iPod or even the MacBook Air.
All of which leads us to suspect that while the fruity Cupertino company might indeed have big plans for the Apple Watch, it might just have pushed the first edition ahead – in real as well as in terms of rumours – to not just distract the competition but also drain its resources. Today, Apple is back to talking of the iPhone launch (perhaps!) on September 9, and the Apple Watch remains “one more thing” (literally) in its portfolio, while the competition until recently has been churning out devices to compete with something that is not exactly a rage. In short, Google, Samsung and Co. have been spend billions on a market segment that has not really lived up to expectations. Billions that might have been spent elsewhere to strengthen established product lines.
Reminds us of the Soviets and the Americans in the race for space really. We have no doubt that wearables will one day become very popular and integral parts of our lives, but based on the evidence so far, we suspect Apple just sold its competitors a massive dummy, to use a football term.