Will the Apple Watch Ultra make Garmin the next Nokia?

Will the Apple Watch Ultra make Garmin the next Nokia?

I had a funny feeling watching yesterday’s announcement of the Apple Watch Ultra: I’ve seen this show before. It wasn’t until Garmin watch fans on Reddit and Twitter started lampooning Apple that it hit me… this is Nokia all over again.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m a longtime Garmin watch fan. Most of my friends and family have all purchased svelte Apple Watches. It’s a great smartwatch but I wanted a great outdoor adventure and fitness watch to pair with my iPhone instead. That’s why I’ve been wearing big hulking Garmin watches like the Fenix and Epix series despite their clumsy software interfaces. I’ve used them to obsessively track and measure my performance in a variety of activities that include kitesurfing, trail running, golfing, weight training, and mountain biking.

Steve Jobs pointing out the market leaders at the launch of the iPhone in 2007.

When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, it was met with derision by Nokia and its fans still clinging to their overwrought Symbian OS, tiny keyboards, and resistive touchscreens made of plastic. Nokia devices like the N95 were superior to the iPhone on spec sheets, but not in terms of usability. Apple’s slow-roll approach to adding new features year after year eventually allowed the company to catch up to flagship specs offered by Nokia, BlackBerry, Motorola, and Palm as each company hemorrhaged market share and revenue. The situation only accelerated with the maturation of Google’s Android OS which overtook Symbian by 2011. Nokia’s phone division was sold to Microsoft in 2014 and then unloaded for parts in 2016.

Garmin has a dizzying array of watches sold at every price point, to $1,500 and beyond.

It was this scenario I was thinking about as the Apple Watch Ultra was unveiled with a price well below the $1,000 mark many expected, and just a month after Samsung announced the $449.99 Galaxy Watch 5 Pro running Google’s much improved Wear OS 3. (Ironically, Wear OS is infused with Tizen DNA which evolved from Nokia’s own Maemo and MeeGo OSes.)

Apple already dominates the smartwatch market for devices that cost less than $500. Garmin dominates the segment above that with premium outdoor watches priced from $699 to over $1,500. Its higher average selling price is the reason it ranks third in terms of revenue despite ranking fifth in terms of device shipments, according to Counterpoint Research. That’s the opposite of the iPhone which dominates the premium end of the smartphone market. Apple is clearly hungry for a bigger slice of the premium smartwatch pie with its more lucrative profit margins.

Apple tried selling expensive watches before with the terribly misguided Watch Edition series that attempted to use precious materials to inflate the price. This time it’s selling more valuable features and functionality to a new audience of hardcore athletes. By pricing the first generation of the Ultra at $799, Apple has a lot of ceiling to roll out new Ultra editions in the years ahead that differ in features and capabilities. I’d readily pay more just to have Apple’s new emergency SOS satellite messaging on my wrist in addition to cellular data so that I can leave my phone (or Garmin InReach) behind when running remote trails or kitesurfing off the coast of the Western Sahara. Garmin, for example, sells a dizzying array of watches at every possible price point that sometimes differ only slightly in capabilities.

Garmin’s high-end watches like the Epix 2 have OLED displays, multi-frequency GPS, and touchscreens with built-in topographical maps that include trail names and even ski slopes.
Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

Without a doubt, the Apple Watch Ultra comes up short on a spec comparison with similarly priced devices sold by Garmin, Coros, and others. The battery is the most glaring example: 36, or even 60 hours enabled by a future low-power update, is weak in a category where batteries are measured in weeks. Out of the box it also lacks things like built-in topographical maps needed for trails, or support for Bluetooth power meters and cadence sensors used by cyclists. Apple’s sport features and analytics also pale in comparison to the depth and variety offered by the competition.

But Apple has an excellent app ecosystem by comparison to offset some inequalities, and it already makes the best smartwatch for iPhone owners interested in casual fitness and health. Now it brings those same features — plus better mics, louder speaker, and a siren — to serious outdoor athletes, some of whom will undoubtedly be swayed by the Ultra’s appeal as a seemingly good-enough multisport watch (with eSim for cellular data!) that’s also a great smartwatch with a silky-smooth interface. We’ll have to wait for the reviews to see how good (or bad) it really is.

I can say this already though: Garmin’s biggest weak spot is usability. 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, Garmin doesn’t, just like Nokia which struggled in vain 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, the added attention Apple brings 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 (and Google gets its house in order) you’d better fight like hell or prepare to move on. Let’s see how Garmin chooses to respond.

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