On a revenue basis, Apple’s wearables business is now at a $16 billion annual run rate growing at 55% to 60%. At the current pace, wearables will surpass both the iPad and Mac near the end of 2020 to become the third largest product category behind iPhone and Services when looking at revenue.
The Wearables Train
One way of thinking about Apple’s wearables business is that it’s a train gaining momentum. Competitors face declining odds of being able to stop the train.
The Apple wearables train is boosted by three items that no other company has the luxury of utilizing or leveraging:
A massive installed base of iPhone users (925M globally).
Core competencies and a company culture built on making technology more personal, intuitive, and easy to use.
A thriving platform of multiple wearables products.
Apple is leveraging its ecosystem of users and devices to give its wearables business an ideal launching pad for success. While there are handful of companies with more than a billion users, no other company has an ecosystem of a billion users and nearly 1.5 billion devices (nearly 90% of which are running the latest software). The lack of a self-sustaining ecosystem is one of the primary factors driving Fitbit’s gradual fade into irrelevancy. This limitation manifests itself in new products like the Fitbit Versa smartwatch failing to catch the needed traction.
Design, or the lack thereof, is proving to be another high barrier for many companies to get over in terms of wearables. Silicon Valley continues to focus too much on technology and not enough on design, or how we actually use technology. Google’s ineptitude when it comes to wearables is partially due to the company not having a clue as to how to get people to wear wearable devices. Management thought consumers would want to wear Pixel earbuds because the devices had real-time translation. In reality, consumers don’t want to be seen in public wearing wireless headphones that don’t reflect aspiration and coolness. A keen understanding of how to play in the luxury and fashion realms while simultaneously appealing to the mass market is tricky.
Flying Under the Radar
In assessing why Apple’s wearables business has received so little attention to date, one doesn’t have to look much further than the iPhone. Preoccupation with trying to find a singular product capable of replacing iPhone made it difficult for many to see how a platform of wearable devices is the answer for what can eventually serve as a viable iPhone alternative.
A cellular Apple Watch paired with AirPods is already able to handle a number of tasks currently given to the iPhone. Add a pair of smart glasses to the mix, and mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad stand to lose even more use cases.
It doesn’t help that new Apple products are also graded on a curve next to iPhone. If a new product is unable to move Apple’s financial meter out of the gate, the product is looked at as a flop, toy, or mere iPhone accessory.
For competitors, the bad news is that there is evidence that Apple is still applying some breaks to its wearables train. In some ways, Apple is holding things back. An iPhone is still required to set up an Apple Watch. A truly independent Apple Watch that doesn’t require an iPhone would grow the device’s addressable market by three times overnight.
In addition, Apple currently only offers wearables devices for two pieces of real estate on the body: our wrists and ears. A compelling argument can be made that the most prized piece of wearables real estate, our eyes, remains untapped.
We are witnessing wearables usher in a paradigm shift when it comes to how we use and interact with technology. Apple deserves more credit for not only choosing to ride the wearables wave, but also playing a crucial role in getting wearables off the ground.
Apple is well on its way to having Apple Watch and AirPods installed bases of 100M people each. The company is more than half way there with Apple Watch and is quickly approaching the same level with AirPods despite the product being sold for half the time.
Apple also finds itself in the midst of a major investment phase to expand its wearables platform. There is an opportunity to bring more utility, in addition to clearer vision, to the eyes in the form of smart glasses. Such a product would be a precursor to a pair of AR glasses.
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