Will the Apple Watch Ultra make Garmin the next Nokia?

I got 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 ridiculing Apple that it hit me…it’s Nokia again.

Let’s get this sorted out first: I’ve been a lifelong fan of Garmin watches. Most of my friends and family have all bought slender 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 wear big Garmin watches like the Fenix and Epix series despite their clunky software interfaces. I have used them to obsessively track and measure my performance in a variety of activities such as kitesurfing, running, golf, weight training and mountain biking.

Steve Jobs pointing the finger at market leaders when the iPhone was launched in 2007.

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

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

That’s the scenario I was thinking of when 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 Maemo and MeeGo BONE.)

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

Apple has already tried to sell expensive watches with the terribly misplaced Watch Edition series that attempted to use precious materials to inflate the price. This time it sells more valuable features and functionality to a new audience of hardcore athletes. By pricing the first generation Ultra at $799, Apple has a lot of ceiling to roll out new Ultra editions in the coming years that differ in features and capabilities. I would gladly pay more just to have the new one from Apple emergency SOS satellite messaging on my wrist in addition to cellular data so I can leave my phone (or Garmin InReach) behind when hiking remote trails or kitesurfing off the coast of Western Sahara. Garmin, for example, sells a dizzying range of watches at all possible prices whose capabilities sometimes differ only slightly.

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

Undoubtedly, the Apple Watch Ultra fails to compare specs with similarly priced devices sold by Garmin, Coros and others. The battery is the most glaring example: 36 or even 60 hours allowed by a future low-power update is low in a category where batteries are measured in weeks. Out of the box, it also lacks things like the built-in topographic maps needed for trails or support for Bluetooth power meters and cadence sensors used by cyclists. Apple’s sports features and analytics also pale in comparison to the depth and variety offered by the competition.

But Apple has a great app ecosystem by comparison to make up for some inequities, and it already makes the best smartwatch for iPhone owners interested in casual fitness and health. Now it’s bringing those same features – plus better mics, a louder speaker and a siren – to serious outdoor athletes, some of whom will no doubt be influenced by the Ultra’s appeal as a multisport watch. apparently good enough (with eSim for cellular data!) it’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 already say it though: Garmin’s biggest weak point is user-friendliness. Its high-end watches have tons of features and capabilities that are obscured by complicated software that sometimes feels like using a scientific calculator. Apple excels in user interfaces, Garmin does not, as does Nokia, which struggled unsuccessfully to adapt Symbian in response to the iPhone and Android. And given enough time, Apple Watches will catch up with the specs and features available on Garmin’s flagship watches.

In the short term, however, the extra focus Apple is bringing to the rugged outdoor smartwatch space could benefit Garmin – its stock rose more than 3% yesterday. But if Nokia has taught us anything, it’s this: once Apple has chosen to come into your house (and Google has gotten its house in order), you better fight like a heck or get ready to move on. Let’s see how Garmin chooses to respond.

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