Last month, at WWDC, Apple announced watchOS7 with the ability to track Dance workout. The announcement reinforced the idea that Apple is probably two or three years ahead of its rivals in the smartwatch market. Apple Watch remains the gold standard for smartwatches and is the only wearable that has forced the Swiss watch industry to take note. Apple’s advantage comes from its ability to manage both the hardware and software. However, one company has been working really hard to make sure that Apple does not become the only innovator in the wearable market. Yes, I’m talking about Qualcomm and it’s newest Snapdragon Wear 4100 platform could bring capable features seen on to even more affordable price segments. Also Read - Jio Platforms: Qualcomm Ventures follows Intel Capital to invest Rs 730 crore for a 0.15 percent stake
The wearable industry is in the same state where smartphones were at the time of iPhone 4 launch. Apple is the de facto leader but the race is wide open with one common denominator: Qualcomm. The San Diego, California-based fabless semiconductor company made Android smartphones smarter, efficient and better than iPhone (in some ways). It wants to do that to the wearables as well. Like Apple, Qualcomm also sees wearables as a broad space spanning smartwatches, fitness trackers, hearables and of course, head-mounted displays and AR glasses. While many saw the launch of Snapdragon Wear 3100 as the first step, the Snapdragon Wear 4100 could be the real step towards bringing parity to Apple Watch. Also Read - Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus SoC announced for upcoming flagship phones
5G coming to wearables in five years
Apple Watch’s biggest advantage right now is connectivity. It started as a tethered device but soon became independent. With the newer models, Apple has even added a dedicated App Store to make it as independent as it goes. My former colleague once left his iPhone at home and came to work with Apple Watch Series 4 LTE. He was able to take all of his calls on the Watch using AirPods and missed his primary device only when he had to do FaceTime calls. With Snapdragon Wear 4100, such independence will come to more wearables, including those running Wear OS by Google.
To understand how Qualcomm plans to further diversity the wearable story, I spoke to Pankaj Kedia, who is the Global Business Head for Smart Wearables and Shareables Segment at Qualcomm. Mr. Kedia is among those tech executives, who show their passion for a product segment in every walk of their life. I met him for the first time at MWC last year. He showed me and other technology reporters in the room a bag full of wearables. These included premium smartwatches and those aimed at children. It also includes wearables that are specifically offered in select markets like Korea and China. The breadth and depth of the segment is still not widely understood, Mr Kedia told me at that time.
However, while speaking with me on MS Teams last week, he said that the attach rate and interest are peaking in this segment. For Qualcomm, he thinks the real advantage is to bring connectivity to these devices. Qualcomm is an unsung hero in the 5G era. It is not only responsible for making 5G a known mobile standard but has pushed both telecom operators as well as device makers to make it a reality. All the major smartphone makers have launched 5G phones in the past one and a half years. Even in India, where 5G is at least a year away, there are seven smartphones that support 5G. When it comes to wearables, Mr. Kedia thinks 5G is at least five years away.
“The watch is increasingly 4G in the short and medium term and maybe 5G in the five year horizon,” he said. One might argue that connectivity is not new to wearables or smartwatches in particular. The new Snapdragon Wear 4100 makes it efficient and reliable across use cases. Mr. Kedia added that every smartwatch for “kids and seniors” is now connected. This is because of the growing interest in 4G on watch. He envisions “smartwatches from fashion, luxury and sports brands will get connected” this year. He says Qualcomm “does not want consumers to not have the option to be connected 24×7”.
By bringing connectivity to each and every device, Qualcomm is not seeing consumers to use all of them at every waking hour. Instead, each connected device will have their own share of use cases. Mr. Kedia explains how a connected smartwatch could be your primary device while going for a run. “If you are going for a run, you leave your phone behind but you can still stream music or take a call with your connected watch and earbud.” While hyper-segmentation is one way to see it, this also allows users to leave their phones behind. Qualcomm sees this helping 4G attach rate to go up and thus giving operators new ways to monetize and deliver better service.
Smartphone companies will come back to the fray
Qualcomm is not in the business of designing and building devices. It builds platforms and even the prototype that it makes are strictly meant to showcase the capabilities and it purposely designs them to be an engineering sample. As a result, there is a lot of onus on partners to build industry leading products. We have already seen how Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo and now Realme are thriving in the smartphone market thanks to Qualcomm’s support. However, these are not the first names that would come to mind when you look at wearables. The biggest name in the smartwatch segment is Fossil, which is a watch and lifestyle company. Not a tech company.
However, that was not the case when wearables first came to the scene as the next big thing after smartphones. LG and Motorola were prominent players and LG G Watch and Moto 360 are still among the best smartwatches ever made. However, the industry itself was slow to mature and there was a growing exodus of smartphone players. At one point, it looked like smartphone players just wanted to pack their bags and get as far away from wearables as possible. Things changed when Qualcomm introduced Snapdragon Wear 3100, a radical rethinking of what smartwatch should be and should do for consumers.
This platform, in Mr. Kedia’s words, brought choice of form factor, industrial design and price point to the smartwatch market. You can pick a number of examples from Fossil’s many brands but the best example of a Snapdragon Wear 3100 smartwatch has to be the new Moto 360. It is no longer built by Motorola but it inherits the DNA of original Moto 360 and that has paved the way for smartphone makers to think about their entry into the segment. With the adult smartwatch market growing, Qualcomm says Snapdragon Wear 4100 will build on the fundamentals of its predecessor.
IMO, one of the launch partners, has already started selling the first product powered Snapdragon Wear 4100. It is available via China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom in China and is aimed at kids. The highlight of the device also explains the use case possible with Qualcomm’s new wearable platform. It has two cameras, a 13-megapixel one paired with a second 5-megapixel sensor. It has integrated voice assistants, GPS and NFC. Mr. Kedia explains the primary use case is camera, where the chipset is capable of real-time Mandarin to English and English to Mandarin translation. This essentially turns the smartwatch into a learning device.
Since we are talking cameras here, the chipset also brings real-time image detection and of course, you can do video calls. “This first product shows what is possible [with Snapdragon Wear 4100] and extends the boundaries,” Mr. Kedia told me. By boundaries, Qualcomm is particularly referring to the transition from one size fits all product portfolio to choice for consumers. Qualcomm has already started working with smartphone brands like Oppo and Xiaomi. Oppo Watch, which is set to launch in India later this month, brings intriguing design while Xiaomi Mi Watch brings features to a competitive price point.
Mr. Kedia explained that Qualcomm has seen a number of launches in China, Europe and the US and this year, we will see that expand. On the back of strong adoption in these markets, Qualcomm is now focusing on emerging markets like India, Vietnam and Latin America. “We are working with a couple of very interesting companies in India,” Mr. Kedia said on the call. While he did not reveal the names, Titan could be one of the brands working closely with Qualcomm. It has already acquired HUG Innovations and as a leading player in India’s traditional watch market, Titan is in a unique position to transition to the smartwatch market. We could also see startups like boAt Lifestyle, Noise join this space where “winners take all” is not relevant.
“Smartwatches have been growing over 50 percent year-over-year in the last couple of years,” Uday Dodla, who leads the wearable division for Qualcomm in India, told me. The company sees robust growth in the segment especially with a diverse set of players in this space.
Diversification of Wearables
Some of the most successful tech executives around the world see their products as shaping stories. Bill Gates saw Windows reshaping the software story, Steve Jobs saw iPod redefining the music industry story while Jeff Bezos saw Amazon upending the commerce story. Similarly, Mr. Kedia sees the Snapdragon Wear 4100 Platform as a “diversification story”. While talking about this diversification story, Mr. Pankaj Kedia transforms into a poet.
This diversification is an area where smartphone makers already lead from the front. They have diversified beyond smartphones by expanding into categories like wearables, hearables and head-mounted displays. However, they have not necessarily done that by partnering with Qualcomm. That, according to Mr. Kedia, is set to change. “We are working with multiple phone companies on a better together portfolio,” he described the road ahead. Here, the idea is no longer about just one device but instead an ecosystem. Apple champions this ecosystem idea and Qualcomm wants to help every other brand to achieve that synergy.
Across devices and use cases, Qualcomm wants to make phones, watches and earbuds to watch better together. This kind of synergy is what non-Apple devices lack right now. Take a simple example. A rather expensive Jabra Elite 75t true wireless earbuds don’t even support fast pairing option. However, an inexpensive model like Realme Buds Air or Xiaomi Mi True Wireless Earphones 2 are capable of doing that till the time the smartphone is from the same brand. If consumers start buying all of their primary consumer devices – smartphones, smartwatches and smart earbuds – from a single brand, these devices will need to work in synergy. Qualcomm has a unified role here – to bring that synergy to these devices through its Snapdragon platform.
If you are out on a run, you should not only be able to leave the phone behind but also know that important notifications and calls will get diverted to the watch. One of the examples given by Mr. Kedia struck me the most. He imagines a scenario where you are already wearing the earbuds and the devices should be intelligent enough that you hear the call on the earbuds and not across all of your devices. This intelligence is either not there or restricted to a small pocket of devices. Qualcomm says we can expect to see Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo to make big product announcements around wearables in the next year.
What happens to Wear OS by Google?
Android has done a lot for the smartphone world by bringing connected experience to the affordable price segment. However, Wear OS, its counterpart for wearables, has struggled. Even today, the best smartwatch running Snapdragon Wear 3100 and Wear OS, like the Fossil Gen 5, does not deliver the experience you would expect. Mr. Kedia is not critical of Wear OS but he sees that platform to also gain and improve with the help of Snapdragon Wear 4100. The real winners, however, will be those like BBKOS based on Android or Xiaomi’s own UI built around Android for wearable form factor.
He also sees India as a big opportunity for the wearable segment and particularly for Android. “We expect Indian brands to become aggressive,” he said. There is a robust growth opportunity for developers in this segment. Qualcomm says it is not married to any one platform and in fact, he sees multiple platforms to flourish with the Snapdragon Wear 4100 platform. Only time will tell whether more players subscribe to Qualcomm’s vision but it definitely seems like Qualcomm has delivered a foundation “stronger” than its predecessor.
Future of Wearables and AR Glasses
Mr. Kedia says Qualcomm remains a big believer in the overall IoT and Wearables market. He explains the investment is for growth and bringing new experiences to the market. One such experience is XR (or eXtended reality) and Qualcomm has a dedicated platform in the form of Snapdragon XR1 and Snapdragon XR2 5G Platforms. The XR platform brings new use cases, where it is augmented reality or virtual reality or a mixture of both. He says Qualcomm remains focused on bringing XR to the market and it is so important that the platform is run as a separate business unit.
We have already seen Google struggle and then change its business model, Microsoft restricting itself to enterprise consumers while Magic Leap disappointed by offering a ludicrous promise. Qualcomm knows this well and it wants to do XR right by leveraging its size and performance. The company even sees bringing AI and ML to the hearables segment as a precursor to this opportunity. “The Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 4100 announcement this month is a step in the right direction and we got many more tricks up our sleeves,” Mr. Kedia told me in his classic style of teasing developments before they become official. For wearables to succeed, Qualcomm is bringing synergy between devices to the table and smartphone makers seem to be buying it.