When Apple pitched the iPhone in 2007, it was completed with derision by Nokia and its fanatics still clinging to their overwrought Symbian OS, small keyboards, and resistive touchscreens constructed of plastic.
Nokia devices like the N95 were excellent to the iPhone on spec sheets, but not in terms of usability.
Apple’s slow-roll strategy of adding new features year after year eventually permitted the company to catch up to flagship specs delivered by Nokia, BlackBerry, Motorola, and Palm as the individual company hemorrhaged market share and revenue. The crisis only accelerated with the maturation of Google’s Android OS, which surpassed Symbian by 2011. Nokia’s phone unit was sold to Microsoft in 2014 and unloaded for parts in 2016.
Apple already conquers the smartwatch market for devices that cost less than $500. Garmin dominates the overhead segment with premium outdoor watches priced from $699 to above $1,500. Its higher average selling price ranks third in terms of revenue despite ranking fifth in device shipments. That’s contrary to the iPhone, which dominates the premium end of the smartphone market. With its more lucrative earnings margins, Apple is starving for a larger slice of the premium smartwatch pie.
Apple tried marketing expensive watches before with the misguided Watch Edition series that attempted to use precious materials to boost prices. This time it’s selling more beneficial features and functionality to a new audience of hardcore athletes. Moreover, by pricing the first generation of the Ultra at $799, Apple has a lot of canopies to roll out new Ultra editions in the years ahead that differ in features and capabilities. Garmin, for example, markets a dizzying collection of watches at every conceivable price point that sometimes varies only slightly in credentials.
Garmin’s high-end watches, such as the Epix 2, have multi-frequency GPS, OLED displays, and touchscreens, having built-in topographical maps that include trail titles and ski slopes.
Undoubtedly, the Apple Watch Ultra arrives short on a spec comparison with likewise priced devices sold by Coros, Garmin, and others. The battery is the most glaring instance: 36, or even 60 hours facilitated by a future low-power update, is weak in a class where batteries are measured in weeks. Out of the box, it also lacks built-in topographical maps required for trails or support for Bluetooth power meters and cadence sensors employed by cyclists. Apple’s sports segments and analytics also pale in comparison to the depth and variety offered by the competition.
But Apple has an excellent app ecosystem to offset some imbalances, and it already creates the best smartwatch for iPhone proprietors interested in casual fitness and health. Now it fetches those same features — a louder speaker, better mics, and a siren — to severe outdoor athletes. Some of whom will undoubtedly be convinced by the Ultra’s plea that a seemingly good-enough multisport watch (with eSim for cellular data!) is also a great smartwatch with a silky-smooth interface. We’ll have to stay for the reviews to see how good (or bad) it is.
Its high-end watches have tons of features and capabilities that are obscured by complicated software that feels, at times, like operating a scientific calculator. Apple excels at user interfaces, but Garmin doesn’t, just like Nokia, which struggled to adapt Symbian in response to the iPhone and Android. And given enough time, Apple’s watches will catch up to the specs and features available on Garmin’s flagship watches.
In the short term, however, Apple’s added attention to the rugged outdoor smartwatch space could benefit Garmin — its stock was up over three percent yesterday. But if Nokia taught us anything, it’s this: once Apple chooses to enter your house, you’d better fight like hell or prepare to move on.