Guest author Christian Cantrell is a developer, blogger and science fiction author.
Chances are you’re either an iOS person or an Android person. Chances are also pretty good that whichever platform you’re currently using, you will remain faithful come upgrade time. Mobile devices, it turns out, are a little like political affiliation, ice cream preference, and James Bond fandom: Most of us find something we like, weave it into our identities, then vehemently defend it.
But every once in a while, much like our favorite Game of Thrones characters, someone unexpectedly changes sides. Maybe it’s screen size that tips the balance, or platform pressure from a group of new peers, or a particularly crafty salesperson with incentives to clear out aging inventory. Whatever the impetus, if you pay careful attention to smartphone metrics, although the majority of consumers remain devoted to their chosen clans, the tides do shift.
There are typically three parts to platform migration: getting accustomed to a new physical form factor, acclimating to a different user experience, and either navigating the perils of data migration yourself, or entrusting your entire digital life to someone else (usually either a smarmy sales rep, or a tech-savvy relative who can’t say no). Defecting from one mobile faction to another may be inconvenient, but it’s not yet impossible, which is why major platform players are inclined to steer their devices and services in a direction that increases not only their allure, but also the cost of abandonment. And an important new weapon of mass disincentive is wearables.
How Wearables Lock You In
Generally speaking, you have two types of wearables: platform-agnostic, and platform-dependent. Platform-agnostic wearables are devices that work with either iOS or Android (and in some cases, even Windows Phone). These include most fitness trackers like the Fitbit, and some smartwatches like the Pebble Time and Garmin Fenix 3.
Their main advantage is that you can pair them with whatever device you happen to have, and they usually function pretty consistently—or, at least, to within a tolerable variance.
Platform-dependent wearables, on the other hand, are those that will only work with one brand of device, and in fact, are better conceptualized as extensions of those devices rather than standalone gadgets. Canonical examples include Apple Watch, Android Wear devices and most of the myriad of wrist-top concoctions hatched by Samsung. The advantage of platform-dependent wearables is that they integrate with your phone’s OS more tightly, leveraging APIs and services that third-party devices might not have access to, and generally delivering a more seamless and better unified user experience. But the disadvantage of such a tight coupling is that you are more heavily invested in that one specific platform, limiting your options the next time you find yourself upgrade-eligible.
If the rumors about Google working on iOS support for Android Wear are true, it’s possible that a third category of wearables is about to emerge: platform-preferred. A platform-preferred device is one that can be considered “native” to one platform, but can function at some level when paired with the competition.
The problem with the prospect of pairing an Android Wear smartwatch with an iPhone is that—due to constraints that limit deep third-party OS integration, or simply fundamental discrepancies in platform features—you are likely to find yourself in a kind of purgatory where your experience is worse than if you were using an Android phone, and also not as good as if you were wearing an Apple Watch. Many iPhone users who try to use Google services exclusively are already familiar with this unfortunate dynamic.
For example, you won’t be able to access Apple Pay from a Moto 360 (or probably any other Android Wear device, current or future), nor will you be able to smart unlock your iPhone with your watch. As a result, the more invested you become in wearables, the more you are probably going to be tempted to bring your devices into more harmonious alignment.
For the truly platform devout, party-line conformity isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s practically a feature since it dramatically simplifies things like compatibility, upgrade decisions, and support. But for those of us who like to keep our options open—who want to ensure that some of the most powerful entities on the face of the planet continue to be motivated to compete for our fealty—the rise of wearables presents a pretty serious compatibility conundrum.
Google primarily makes money from services, so it makes sense to try to establish as much of a presence as possible across multiple platforms and devices. But for a company like Apple—one of the few companies left that still enjoys huge profit margins on hardware—deep device and platform integration isn’t just a convenience for customers. It’s a business imperative.
Why The Apple Watch Isn’t Gunning For Market Share
On its face, it might seem like a mistake for Apple to inextricably link the Apple Watch to the iPhone. Why invest so heavily in an entirely new product category like smartwatches, but intentionally engineer them so that they will only appeal to a relatively small fraction of the total addressable market? Actually, to be more specific, only a fraction of a fraction since iPhones only make up roughly 18% of worldwide smartphone market share, and it appears only a subset of iPhone owners want an Apple Watch.
On the other hand, if the Apple Watch were compatible with any modern smartphone, while still offering additional features and functionality when paired with phones of their own noble lineage, the total addressable market would instantly skyrocket.
The only reasonable conclusion is that there is much more to be gained in platform acquisition and retention than there is in simply shipping and selling a few million more devices per quarter. Public companies need their revenue to be as predictable, consistent, and as steady as possible which means they require their customers to be as loyal (or locked-in—either way works) as possible.
They need such business and marketing constructs as customer and product pipelines; they need subscribers to services as opposed to isolated impulse buys; and they need the walls of their ever-expanding gardens to grow increasingly unassailable.
Of course, to not do everything possible (or at least legal) to retain customers would ultimately be irresponsible. Most of these companies would find themselves playing by different rules than their competition, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.
It’s Going To Be A Bumpy Ride
As wearables become increasingly available, capable, and prevalent, I think it’s worth acknowledging the paradox many of them embody. In one sense, they are about freeing us from phones, PCs, and other less convenient technologies by making information and human connection much more readily accessible.
In exchange for freeing ourselves from one burden, we are agreeing to take on another. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t buy devices like smartwatches; it just means we should be fully aware of the fact that, as much as we’re strapping devices to ourselves, we are also strapping ourselves to our devices.