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Even Apple’s sworn enemies need the Apple Watch to succeed

Apple Watch
David Sims/Apple
Did you see that study that came out from Canalys last week? I don’t know about you, but I never miss a good Canalys study. I collect the way some people collect baseball cards or vinyl records, and this last one was like a mint condition first pressing of the White Album.

Here’s your big headline: 4.6 million devices that fall into the category of “smart wearable bands” were shipped globally in 2014. That’s “shipped,” not “sold,” but it’s still a pretty big number, right? That’s roughly the population of Los Angeles and Detroit combined into one, big connected calorie-burning megalopolis that we’ll henceforth refer to as “Detrangeles.”

Actually, no, we’re not going to do that, because there’s another key number we need to look at here: 720,000. I can already hear the mathematically inclined among you pointing out that that is a significantly smaller number. And you know what? You’re not wrong. That second number represents the quantity of Android Wear devices shipped during that same time period. OK, that number’s not entirely fair — for starters, there’s the fact that those smart watches only started rolling out about halfway through the year.

Pretty much every company producing wearables has something to gain from Apple’s success.

Pebble, meanwhile, ended this year by marking its one millionth unit shipped since the first one it sold in January 2013, following a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. So, who’s making up the lion’s share of this wrist-worn market? It’s primarily “basic” wearables like the FitBit, which Canalys noted, back in May, accounted for around half of global wearable sales.

It makes sense: The FitBits of the world are considerably less expensive than many of those Android Wear devices, and once again, the company has gotten a pretty large head start. But at the very least, these numbers confirm that, at the moment, the smartwatch industry is pretty much all talk. It’s for precisely that reason that the study carries the subhead, “Apple set to drive major growth in wearables in 2015.”

“All eyes are now on Apple, which will reveal further details about the Apple Watch prior to its release in April,” the report says, a few paragraphs down. “The product will dramatically grow the market for smart bands and wearables overall.” Big words for a still-unreleased product — particularly one about which the company has yet to release all of the details.

Keep in mind, too, that it’s been quite some time since Apple has entered an altogether new space. It certainly hasn’t happened under Tim Cook’s watch. So, what proof does Canalys cite for the Apple’s Watch’s almost certain success? As of yet unverified battery-life claims.

“Apple made the right decisions with its WatchKit software development kit to maximize battery life for the platform, and the Apple Watch will offer leading energy efficiency,” says one of the company’s analysts. “Android Wear will need to improve significantly in the future, and we believe it will do so.”

I’ll grant that battery life is going to be an important battle in the wearables war, but let’s be honest: If it was really the most important thing to most consumers, Motorola would be selling a heck of a lot more phones than Apple. The more telling aspect of that quote is actually the second half. In a sense, it highlights why Apple isn’t the only company banking on the success of the Apple Watch. Pretty much every company producing wearables has something to gain from Apple’s success.

In a number of ways, Apple sits where it did in the days leading up to the launch of the iPod, iPhone and iPad; plenty of companies have tried to make their way in the space, but at least until this point, there’s been no magic bullet. It’s one thing to convince someone that it’s time to upgrade to a new phone. It’s another thing entirely to convince them that they need a fancy new watch.

The industry is collectively waiting for Apple to change the world again.

Hey, remember that thing you used to strap to your wrist every day to tell time, but then you stopped because your phone did the same thing? Yeah, well, you need to buy one again for five to eight times the amount you paid previously. Why? So, you don’t have to take your phone out of your pocket as often.

Listen, I realize that I’m falling back on the same anti-smartwatch talking points people have been bandying about since before the Pebble collected its first $20 pledge. But more than two years later, we’ve yet to see a convincing argument that these devices will ever be regarded as obligatory as a smartphone.

Imagine, for a moment, the notion a dozen years ago that you would be completely out of sorts were you to leave the house without your fancy new smartphone. Go back and watch a TV show from the early to mid-00s for evidence that up until quite recently, we all functioned quite reasonably as a society without constant, instantaneous access to Wikipedia in our pockets.

The industry is collectively waiting for Apple to change the world again. This notion isn’t premised on battery life or any particularly revolutionary feature we’ve seen from the Apple Watch thus far. It’s based on two facts: A lot of people own Apple products already, and Apple keeps pulling rabbits out of its hat.

Android Wear

Every company in wearables, even Apple competitors, are no doubt rooting for the company in some fashion. Apple doesn’t just sell Apple products, it creates demand for a space. It gets the parents and grandparents and everyone else who wouldn’t know a Kickstarter from an Indiegogo talking. It turns luxury items into necessities.

It legitimizes a space to the point where just as many, if not more people in search of a device are looking for an Apple alternative. Should Apple’s watch be the success that many are anticipating, it will immediately become the standard by which all other devices in the space are judged.

Expect that release to be followed by a series of ads explaining why Samsung’s eight million wearables are better — and more to the point, it will be the bar that all competitor devices will have to clear.

The rising tide, as the adage goes, lifts all ships. In the short term, the Apple Watch will likely hurt existing competitors, but its sustained success will be precisely what they need to stay afloat.

Brian Heater
Brian Heater has worked at number of tech pubs, including Engadget, PCMag and Laptop. His writing has appeared in Spin…
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