How to compete with a non-existent iWatch

The right answer is to wed yourself to the old wearable

Joshua Gans
Jun 8, 2014 · 5 min read

While seemingly not quite at the Paul Revere level of accuracy, “the iWatch is coming” has been a cry heard throughout the tech world for the last few years. There is a sense that this year might be The Year just like 2007 was finally The Year for the iPhone. This time, however, competitors have been active even if consumers have not been.

The active competitors to the non-existent iWatch have all come from electronics manufacturers. From established firms such as Sony and Samsung to new start-ups like Pebble, each has tried to develop a watch that links with your phone to provide apps. Also competing in the space are fitness trackers that sometimes substitute for watch functions. I, for one, loved that my Fitbit Force told the time but I ended up not liking what it did to my skin.

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What is interesting is that current, established watchmakers are conspicuous by their absence from all of this. One suspects that there is a PowerPoint SWOT deck up at each of them telling management how “their” customers want watches that are fashion items and will not value anything a smart watch might have to offer. For luxury brands, such as Rolex, there will be even more fuel to the fire that their customers would not be caught dead in a sub-$1000 piece. That said, if their customers are precisely the ones who decide they need to be seen with an iWatch, Rolex will have a competitor for wrist space and it won’t matter at all what the price signals regarding your wealth.

Nonetheless, in this regard, history is on their side. During the late 1970s/early 1980s, it seemed that analogue watches were doomed and that digital watches would take over; especially because they had more features such as stop-watches, timers and dual alarms. Then it turned out that all people used watches for was to tell the time and so, because of their good-looks, analogue watches came back with the past becoming the future for the next few decades.

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What is true is that it is unclear just why an iWatch might be a compelling proposition to consumers. It is also possible that only Apple knows. But two areas seem important: notifications and fitness tracking.

Let’s begin with notifications. I own a Pebble and love notifications. Put simply, there are many situations where I don’t want to pull out a phone and the convenience of a wearable is obvious. But notifications suffer from two issues. The first is that they routinely ‘break’ and I have to reset them in the app — that is something a decent iWatch can solve. The second is that they are awkward socially. The first time I received a notification during a meeting I looked at my watch. The reaction of the person I was meeting was “do you have to go?” They, naturally, thought I was looking at the time. So you can look at a phone for a notification but a watch carries with it a whole different set of social cues. And it is not clear a society, that couldn’t handle a bluetooth earset, can cope.

For fitness trackers, the proposition is easier. The complication there is that good fitness trackers currently compete for wrist space. I wear a Jawbone Up alongside my Pebble and it really is stupid. Add to that the Magic Band that I wore at Disneyworld and things are getting downright silly. There is serious competition for real estate. Something is going to have to give and unless the fitness tracking people get some watch smarts soon they won’t find themselves competing with smart watches.

So what are we left with? We have electronics-side manufacturers who will have to compete head-to-head with the iWatch and, until they know what that is, they are striking in the dark. And we have the established watch-manufacturers whose only choice is to plough on in the hope that the industry stays as it has for centuries. But if that occurs we will still have an issue with both notifications and fitness tracking; both of which we would like to work.

This week I saw an answer. It came in the form of a wearable that is part of the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab (the same lab responsible for the Myo and Nymi gesture-based wearables). This one is called the ‘Glance.’ This is a notification and fitness tracker that does not supplant a watch but works with it. In fact, it is designed to fit neatly under your existing watch band.

The Glance was launched as a Kickstarter last week and hasn’t got there yet. But I had the opportunity to try it on the other day and you can’t feel it. It curves into your wrist and you don’t know it’s there. Until, of course, you get a notification.

Then the real power of the Glance shines. You can literally glance at the notification without moving your wrist. That is the natural way to look at notifications. Indeed, once you see it at work, you have to wonder why we have persisted with the watch on top of the wrist for so long. The Glance places the notification in the right place.

After that, it does everything many current smart watches do. It tracks fitness, has vibrating smart alarms and allows you even to reply to texts in a fashion. And all this while sitting unassumingly next to your favourite watch — not competing for wrist space.

It strikes me that the Glance is the way to compete with Apple’s non-existent iWatch. Indeed, with Google Now integration, it may be the way for Android users to keep up if the iWatch emerges. Or, along a different path, to integrate notifications and fitness with gesture-based controllers like the Nymi or Myo. Either way, the Glance is the hope for existing watch manufacturers and belongs sitting in the ‘Opportunity’ square of their PowerPoint SWOT analyses.

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