In Wearable Platforms, Fragmentation Is a Good Thing

in-wearable-platforms-fragmentation-is-a-good-thing

In the smartphone world, Android controls roughly 85% of total smartphones today (including both Google and non-Google Android) with iOS taking 10% and the rest made up of Microsoft, BlackBerry, and others. While Apple is low on volumes, it controls the higher end of the market and a large share of network traffic, with a higher dollar value attached to its app ecosystem, while Android controls the mid and lower-end markets. Overall, Apple and Google are comfortable in their own positions with things unlikely to change drastically in the near term. We have reached a plateau in the smartphone market, at least in the developed world, with parts of the developing world like China and India still seeing a degree of growth and churn.

In 2015, it will be 8 years since the launch of the iPhone, and possibly the end of an era that reshaped the mobile and computing landscape forever. We are now at an inflection point where the focus is shifting from smartphones to wearables. Both Apple and Google have ambitions of dominating the wearables market just like they do in the smartphone space.

Apple has made its foray into wearables with the Apple Watch and the accompanying WatchKit platform. Apple also has big ambitions of being the mobile healthcare go-to platform with HealthKit, which is likely to have a deep integration with WatchKit. Apple will continue to leverage its high-revenue iOS user base and draw them into the WatchKit ecosystem. Google’s Android Wear platform should follow on the heels of the Android smartphone, having a large ecosystem of partner devices that can port its OS. As things stand, we are likely headed for a replica of the smartphone market with Apple and Google dominating the OS landscape. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

There are several key reasons we need fragmentation in the wearables platform market.

  1. Innovation – If you are an existing app developer for Apple or Google, you possibly don’t care and would welcome the continuation of the smartphone status quo. But innovation doesn’t happen when things are stable or follow predictable patterns. Innovation needs radical, disruptive changes like the iPhone, to shake up the existing hegemony and create new opportunities.
  2. Design – The UI/UX for wearables is very different from a smartphone and therefore needs a new batch of developers and designers who can introduce new ideas and experiences. Are we basically limiting their toolkits to two generic platforms? Or isn’t it better if we allow this new group of developers and designers to dictate their own platforms without any caveats or limitations?
  3. Data Security – Both the Apple and Google platforms rely heavily on the cloud, and for wearables that constantly feed health and fitness data into the cloud, security is a big concern. With the latest security breaches at Sony and the threat of health data becoming the next target for hackers, it is wiser for the data to be distributed in multiple platforms rather than just a couple.
  4. Data Privacy – Can we trust Apple and Google not to monetize our personal health data from their cloud servers? With Facebook and Amazon heavily interlinked with the Apple and Google platforms, what guarantees do we have that this data will not be cross-leveraged?
  5. Offline usage – If we rely on the Apple and Google wearable platforms, it’s hard to imagine wearable apps working in offline mode. How does an Android Wear developer create contextual apps without having API access to Google Maps or Google Now? Similarly Apple’s WatchKit is designed as an extension of iOS, which has limited functionality in offline mode.
  6. Multiple devices vs. single device – Unlike the smartphone market, which relies on a single type of device, the wearables space includes everything from a smart watch to a body sensor and a smart glass. This makes the overall opportunity much bigger than the smartphone, as it’s a collection of multiple markets rather than one market. Therefore, instead of a “one size fits all” platform, we need the opposite or a bunch of specialized platforms based on device type, application, etc.

We shouldn’t forget the likes of Pebble, which is providing some competition to Apple and Google for now and has the largest number of apps available on a wearable device (although that situation will be rather short-lived with the Apple Watch launching in 2015). Also, Samsung is slowly branching off its own Tizen OS, part of the new Gear S watch and the SAMI healthcare platform. Mozilla has given indications of entering the wearables space and the need for a more open platform. Microsoft is also known to be building a platform around its Band wearable device.

At the end of the day, for any ecosystem to flourish and grow, you need a bunch of “hero” platforms that can drive the market forward. One could argue that the success of the smartphone ecosystem would not be what it is without Apple and Google. The same could hold true for the wearables ecosystem, however it would be much more beneficial if the “hero” platforms could go beyond the two we have today.

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