Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45 hands-on review – Wired (Mar 17, 2017)
Earlier in the week, I wrote about Swatch’s smartwatch operating system and components, and in passing referred to Tag Heuer’s Android strategy. It’s now in the second phase of that strategy, with a highly modular and customizable approach this time around, and a modest goal of selling 150,000 of these watches, compared to just over 50,000 of its first attempt. That’s obviously a tiny fraction of the overall smartwatch market, and it’s hard to see how it’ll make money at this scale with this much customization. Apple has offered the most customization of any tech-centric smartwatch to date by far, but this Tag watch seems to take the concept much further, which may be appealing to potential customers, though the watch itself looks incredibly thick and bulky, even for a Tag.
It’s fascinating to think about this move in the context of the history of Swatch. Though the company incorporates much older brands, the Swatch name and brand arose in the early 1980s out of the Swiss watch industry’s previous crisis: quartz watches from Asia. Those watches caused a massive decline in the Swiss watch industry as cheap, highly accurate watches from Asia flooded the market. The Swatch brand was created to compete with these quartz watches, offering a simpler mechanical watch with cheaper materials that could compete with the new entrants, and it worked. Now, it appears Swatch wants to defend against the new crisis – smartwatches eating market share – with its own entrant, based on technology co-developed with a Swiss university that specializes in miniaturization. I may be biased, but suspect it’s easier for the tech industry to learn about watches than it is for watchmakers to get really good at technology, even with some help. I’m skeptical that this move will work out, but given how poorly Android Wear has fared, it certainly can’t hurt, and may well do better than competitor Tag Heuer’s Android strategy.
This is a good follow-up to this morning’s item about the new Android Wear watch from Huawei, and argues much as I did that other smartwatch makers are largely failing to learn the lessons of or compete effectively with the Apple Watch. It frames the discussion in terms of the compromises and tradeoffs watchmakers choose to make, which seems a smart way to think about it, and has arguably always been one of Apple’s strengths.
via The Verge
I linked to reviews of Android Wear 2.0 and the LG watches that launched at the same time a few weeks ago, and those were pretty negative. Now, here we have another entry from a major Android vendor and it seems to be at least as bad as LG’s. At this point, it feels like some Android vendors have given up on the platform entirely, while others seem to have given up trying to make a smartwatch competitive with the Apple Watch but are still putting what they do have out into the market. None of this is going to help Android Wear or smartwatches in general. I’ve said before that I think it will take a Pixel-style first party entry from Google to give this platform the boost it needs, because for now Android Wear continues to be more or less irrelevant in the smartwatch and broader wearable market. Even if Google does get into this market directly, however, it continues to be far smaller and narrower than many people originally thought, and it’s currently dominated by Apple.
via Android Central
Given all the focus Fitbit has been putting into smartwatches lately, it’s good to see the company get back to focusing on its core value proposition: really good dedicated fitness trackers. The acquisitions it’s made and products it’s launched have made me worried that, rather than sticking to its core market, it’s trying to expand into territory dominated by Apple and to a lesser extent Samsung, which seems unwise. The Alta will now get a version that costs $20 more for an embedded heart rate monitor, and which also promises to track sleep better. This is good incremental innovation from Fitbit, which seems to have managed to squeeze the new functions into the same size, and it should also give average selling prices a bit of a boost. ASPs have risen over the last several years, but remain under $100 most quarters, and have been boosted most in those quarters when new high end devices launched. Given Fitbit’s bad Q4, it needs lots more of this kind of thing to spur repeat purchases and broaden its addressable market, though the overall ceiling on this market continues to be one of its biggest long term challenges.
via Ars Technica
Wearables grew 16.9% in Q4 2016, Fitbit still first but Xiaomi is gaining – VentureBeat (Mar 2, 2017)
The numbers here look about right, but what a far cry from the forecasts of the wearables market we saw a few years back. I recently wrote a piece on the state of the wearables market, in which I argued there are really three important sub-markets within wearables: the Apple Watch in its own category, dedicated fitness trackers (in which Fitbit dominates in western markets and Xiaomi in China), and Samsung’s various devices, many of which are bundled with smartphone purchases and therefore thrive on a rather different business models from the others. These IDC numbers largely back that up with market share numbers, but also reinforce the point I made in that article about how the market has fallen short of its theoretical potential and largely stopped growing. It can still grow, but the offerings need to get much better and broader in their appeal, and to some extent we also need the technology – especially in components – to catch up with the vision here.
Huawei Watch 2 and Watch 2 Classic officially unveiled at MWC 2017 – AndroidAuthority (Feb 27, 2017)
These two watches are somewhat reminiscent of the LG smartwatches that debuted with Android Wear 2.0 a few weeks back – there are again two, with somewhat different form factors, but this time the feature set is more consistent across them, as is the price. That price, though, is fairly steep – in line with the low end of Apple’s Watch price range, which continues to be a tough place to be when your watches look very much like the smartwatches they are rather than nice pieces of smart jewelry. Huawei definitely has the scale to do some interesting things in watches if it chooses to, but I can’t see these new models selling in very large numbers at these prices.
Nokia Making Big Move Into Digital Health, Relaunching Withings As Nokia This Summer – Forbes (Feb 27, 2017)
This is where things are going to get interesting – on the one hand, you now have HMD Global launching Nokia phones, and on the other you have the entirely separate company called Nokia launching its own consumer gadgets under its own brand. So there will be both smartphones and fitness devices in the market carrying the same brand, which have nothing to do with each other. It looks like Nokia is going to kill off the Withings brand it acquired and make a big push into health and fitness. As a non-consumer brand since its sale of the phone business to Microsoft, this is going to be an uphill battle for Nokia, and especially in a crowded and somewhat stagnant wearables market. Withings produced some interesting devices over the last several years, but it’s never had significant market share, and I’m not convinced Nokia will change that. Health (as opposed to pure fitness) is certainly one of the more promising aspects of this broader space, and it looks like Nokia is investing there, with a HIPAA-compliant Patient Care Platform among other elements. That may be its one opportunity to succeed where others have failed.
Fitbit Reports Final Q4 2016 Earnings (Feb 22, 2017)
I covered Fitbit’s preliminary earnings release a little while back, and we already knew these results weren’t going to be pretty. This was the first quarter of year on year declines, and also featured the company’s first meaningful losses since 2013, when it recalled its Force device. Its costs, especially its sales and marketing costs, rose considerably as a percentage of revenue, and its cost of revenue in particular was well up on last year’s despite the much lower revenue. As I said a few weeks ago, though Fitbit is downplaying these results as a temporary setback and promising a recovery, I see little evidence to support that assertion. Interestingly, some of the metrics Fitbit only provides once a year around user numbers suggest that it’s sold relatively few second devices to the same users – its registered user number is over 80% of its total number of cumulative devices sold, suggesting under 20% were sold as second devices to the same users; in addition, its active user number is now under half its total registered user number, suggesting an over 50% abandonment rate. Those two combined, together with the relatively small addressable market for dedicated fitness devices, are why Fitbit is having such trouble.
via Fitbit (PDF)
Android Wear and LG Watch Reviews Are Mixed at Best (Feb 8, 2017)
It looks like Google and LG lifted an embargo this morning on Android 2.0 and LG’s two new smartwatches. My first reaction to the reviews here is that the new watches sound pretty terrible, and that we’re back to grading these smartwatches on a curve, something I first noted back in 2014 before the Apple Watch was announced. The Verge review is illustrative – it notes that the Sport version is uncomfortable and enormous (it doesn’t fit under shirt cuffs), doesn’t have interchangeable bands, the Android Pay app takes too long to load, and can’t be used while swimming; the Style version lacks most of the more interesting features on the Sport, looks cheap, and the batteries on both versions struggle to make it through the day, while Android Wear 2.0 is pretty buggy. The Verge’s rating? 7.1 for both. Their rating for the Apple Watch Series 2? 7.5. Android Wear has struggled to take off ever since it launched – it’s just never felt like Google or its OEMs understand that watches are fashion accessories, and need to be designed for that job. Packing a billion features into these watches isn’t going to cut it, especially if they don’t work well, or they end up looking ridiculous on your wrist. I’ve seen nothing here that makes me think Android Wear 2.0 is going to do any better than the previous versions.
Fitbit Announces Preliminary Fourth Quarter 2016 Results (Jan 30, 2017)
These are preliminary results from Fitbit, designed to flag to investors that revenues in Q4 were well down on previous forecasts, and to announce layoffs and other cuts to the business designed to realign costs with lower revenues. The company will lay off 6% of its workforce as part of an attempt to cut $200m (or almost a fifth) out of its operating cost run rate for the year. Bizarrely, it’s still characterizing its current troubles as temporary, even though it’s given very little evidence to back up this claim. Importantly, revenue in the first half of 2017 is likely to be down compared to H1 2016, because it had big new product launches a year ago. So even if we’re to believe the claims of a rebound, Fitbit concedes there won’t be any evidence of it until later this year. Fitbit continues to be by far the most successful standalone wearables company out there, but if even it is struggling in this way at this point, that’s indicative of broader challenges for the wearables industry.
First Android Wear 2.0 devices revealed: Google and LG’s Watch Sport and Watch Style – VentureBeat (Jan 17, 2017)
Evan Blass is the Mark Gurman of the Android world – when he reports on a leak, it’s usually pretty reliable and often ends up being very accurate indeed. The watches described in this leak are in keeping with what we’ve already heard from Google itself and other sources, so that lends additional credibility. The context here is that Android Wear has never really taken off – as with VR, the biggest success among the Android vendors hs been Samsung’s, which hasn’t been based on Android at all, and Google needs to ensure that other Android OEMs without their own ecosystems can compete too. So far, that hasn’t worked, and some Android OEMs are giving up on Android Wear for now. However, Google clearly hasn’t given up, and appears to have convinced LG to join it in launching some new watches to showcase Android Wear 2.0. I’m skeptical that this will make any difference – what’s become clear since the Apple Watch launched is that we don’t yet have a great model for smartwatches other than as fitness and health tracking devices, and Android Wear doesn’t seem to have provided very appealing options in that category.
Fitbit was already in the news recently when it ended its attempts to block sales of Jawbone devices on the basis that the latter appeared to be circling the drain, so it seems even more of a knife between the ribs in the context of an allleged attempt at an acquisition. Though this one failed, it’s further evidence that Fitbit is engaging in a massive rollup of wearable technology companies. But this story is also noteworthy for what it says about Jawbone’s plans to secure a future for itself, which apparently are centered on FDA-approved healthcare devices and therefore potentially an insurance-subsidized model. Fitbit has already pursued the corporate market, and Apple Watches have been sponsored under certain employee healthcare plans too – this is a fascinating new thread in the development of wearables, and one that has the potential to mirror the benefits the iPhone and other smartphones received from the carrier subsidy model.
Fitbit acquires the Vector smart watch startup, as the wearable giant continues its roll-up | TechCrunch (Jan 10, 2017)
Consolidation continues in the smartwatch market. This piece is a little too effusive over the original technology – Vector wasn’t that special. But, like the Pebble deal, this is about Fitbit buying in IP and to some extent skills that should help it sharpen its next generation of wearables and smartwatches specifically. As the wearables market continues to be tough, we’ll see much more of this, and many of the smaller, struggling, vendors will be snapped up by the few remaining big names, with Fitbit likely one of the big acquirers.
The prevailing narrative around Android Wear – and it’s an accurate one – is that it’s flailing, and OEMs are largely backing away from it. ZTE offers a counterpoint here – it’s planning to launch a watch later in the year – but it’s the exception that proves the rule, as Roger’s piece here points out. I still think the best hope for Android Wear is really compelling first party hardware from Google, though that may also kill off what few OEM offerings remain.
Lessons From Fitbit’s Troubled Revenue Multiple – Mattermark (Dec 28, 2016)
The concluding line of Alex’s piece is “hardware is hard”, and that’s certainly becoming something of a narrative in its own right. But this is also a story about increasing market skepticism about wearables companies, and their potential to grow and generate profits. Fitbit has been the exception as an independent wearables-focused vendor, but I and others have questions about its ability to sustain its growth and profitability going forward.
Fitbit’s app hit the top of the App Store on Christmas Day, and stayed there on Boxing Day too. But this isn’t the first time that’s happened – the same thing happened last year too, and the ranking of the Fitbit app always spikes at Christmas. Given that sales have been up year on year consistently, though less dramatically than in the past, this is very much what you’d expect.
Jawbone was one of the pioneers in the wearables space, but seems to be in free-fall at this point – it’s worth noting that the reason Fitbit is ending its opposition to Jawbone’s device sales is that Jawbone seems to be in so much trouble. It’s a cautionary tale that even the early big names in a new space don’t always do well over the long term – Pebble is another obvious example in the same space.