It’s rare to recognize a revolution at its start, but the instant the first Macintosh and iPhone was released it was clear that things had changed. They weren’t just standout products; they instantly redefined the categories they entered and set off a sea change in the industry as competitors who didn’t recognize the shift were left in the dust.
That doesn’t appear to be the case with Apple Watch. While it’s made a bunch of headlines and generated a healthy amount of buzz, its upcoming release doesn’t have the same sense of wow and wonder as prior Apple entries. For sure it’s among the best looking smartwatches out there and definitely the most anticipated wearable device of 2015, but it’s not exactly a pioneer. 2014 was something of a breakout year for wearables—even will.i.am got in on the act—and Apple has far stiffer competition in this arena than it did when the Mac, iPhone or even the iPod were released.
This year, smartwatches matured to the point where they can be taken seriously.
Over the past 12 months, smartwatches have graduated from their niche status to become a legitimate segment of the tech landscape. They’re nowhere near as ubiquitous as smartphones or tablets (and probably never will be), but they’ve matured to the point where they can be taken seriously. I’ve seen enough solid entries and refinements to believe that this isn’t a category Apple is going to run away with, at least not without a fight.
HP’s Chronowing, designed by Michael Bastian
When you’re buying something to wear, form absolutely trumps function, which is why Apple was smart to release its watch in a variety of colors, sizes and materials. But although it caters to smaller wrists and disparate tastes in a way its competitors don’t, that doesn’t mean it’ll appeal to everyone. Some people are convinced that watch faces should be circular, and to that end, 2014 saw the release of Motorola’s Moto 360, HP’s Michael Bastian-designed Chronowing and Withings’ Activite, which may be more pleasing to traditionalists. Even the similarly square Pebble—which was hardly a headturner in its original Kickstarter-funded incarnation—released Steel, a much more attractive and rugged version with a metal band.
And that’s not to mention what we haven’t seen yet. Luxury mainstay Tag Heuer is rumored to be readying their own smartwatch for release sometime in 2015, and you can bet other high-end watchmakers will follow, creating yet another intense area of competition for Apple.
Beauty and brains
And then, of course, there’s the technology itself. There’s a lot we don’t know about what Apple Watch does, but so far there isn’t anything about it that makes it a must-have. The fitness sensors are fairly run-of-the-mill at this point, and the Digital Touch communication features, while interesting, don’t really seem to break any serious new ground.
Google might not have released its own wearable device (though one is rumored for 2015), but the search giant made significant headway this year with Android Wear, bringing a sleek, universal look to the smartwatches operating under its umbrella. It might not be quite as polished as the Apple Watch OS renders, but the trio of devices already running it—Moto 360, LG G Watch and Samsung Galaxy Gear Live—offer a far more sophisticated experience than the offerings from just a year ago. And you can bet there will be many more to choose from by the time Apple Watch is released in early 2015.
Price is another issue. The most expensive Android watch is still $100 less than the least expensive Apple Watch, and depending on what functions you need, there are an array of respectable workout bands and fitness trackers that can be had for under $100. Even something at the upper end of the spectrum like Microsoft Band and Galaxy Gear Fit are still a good deal cheaper than Apple’s entry-level Watch.
Galaxy Gear S
But ultimately, the battle may come down to ecosystem. With the exception of the comically large and contract-laden Galaxy S, smartwatches need a paired phone to do much more than tell time, and very few of them are cross platform. It’s possible that the Moto 360 will one day work with the iPhone, but at the moment it’s limited to Android phones, like the rest of the Android Wear crop. And don’t hold your breath for an Android-compatible Apple Watch.
But no matter the platform, it’ll take a few rounds of revisions before any of these devices catch on the way smartphones or tablets did, and even Apple will probably see modest sales until Apple Watch gets thin enough or powerful enough to generate appropriate interest. There may be a time when we look back at 2014 the way we look at 1984 or 2007, but it’s unlikely that a clear leader will emerge anytime soon.
But there is one thing I know for sure: It won’t be will.i.am’s Puls.