The Apple Watch outsold the entire Swiss watch industry in 2019. It had 55 per cent of the smartwatch market in the first half of 2020 according to a recent report. It forms part of Apple’s wearable business that’s now the size of a Fortune 150 company. Whichever way you slice it, Apple is owning smartwatches right now.
It’s now been five years since it had its ‘one more thing’ moment and Tim Cook said Apple had set out to make the best watch in the world. Many will dispute that it’s achieved that, especially fans of mechanical timepieces, but there’s certainly no disputing the fact that it’s appearing on more and more people’s wrists.
To illustrate the scale of its dominance, IDC’s wearables sector figures for the fourth quarter of 2019 give Apple 36.5 per cent of the entire global market. Samsung, only managing third place behind Xiaomi, has just 8.8 per cent.
So what’s next for the Apple Watch? How will it continue to cement its place as the king of connected watches? Well, to reference that 30 Rock Steve Buscemi gif, it could well be trying to get down with the kids.
Evidence that Apple is trying to make its Watch a more child-friendly piece of hardware has surfaced in recent months in the same way that many future features seem to be uncovered ahead of Apple unveiling them; from people digging into software code.
Some delving into an iOS software update has revealed that multiple Apple Watches will soon be able to be paired and controlled from a single iPhone, letting a parent be in charge of setting up additional smartwatches from their phone. In the process they could manage access to certain contacts or even restrict access to what music the watch can play.
A ‘Schooltime’ mode will apparently make an appearance in the next major software update, giving parents more control. Apple is even planning to make its activity-tracking features more child friendly, changing the data on view that fuels its Activity rings. It will also reward kids for ditching the games console and going outside to play and participate in sports.
If these modes (and maybe more) come to fruition when Apple announces its next generation Watch, or when it talks Watch software at WWDC next month, it would seem like small but very tentative steps are being made towards making its most personal device better suited for children. It would echo features such as Fall Detection designed to make its smartwatch a better fit for elderly wearers.
Neil Mawston, an analyst for Strategy Analytics, says smartwatches for children are growing fast worldwide, but from a low base. Hotspots include India, Russia, the US, UK and also China. It’s China that accounts for the largest share of shipments of kids smartwatches according to a recent report from CounterPoint, which also highlights that overall shipments grew in 2019. “Apple is the key to unlocking the market for children’s wearables worldwide,” Mawston says. A market which is growing outside of Asia albeit at a less rapid pace.
While Garmin and Fitbit have both dabbled in fitness trackers, the smartwatch space is dominated by Chinese tech brands like Huawei and the lesser known Imoo and BBK. Doki Technologies, founded by a former Fitbit employee, has launched some of the most feature-packed smartwatches, which include voice calling, fitness tracking and location tracking. It even found room to squeeze in Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant into its DokiWatches. Clearly it did enough to impress Fitbit, if rumours of an acquisition prove accurate.
Phone networks have been involved in this space, too. In the UK, Vodafone rebadged a kids smartwatch built by Alcatel offering voice messaging, location tracking via GPS and an SOS button to children send alerts to parents. In the US, Verizon launched its Gizmo Watch, which also included GPS to enable location tracking and supported LTE cellular connectivity.
Many of these features and the components to unlock them can be found in the current Apple Watch. You already have a GPS antenna for outdoor features and Wi-Fi, which improves location tracking indoors. There’s cellular connectivity, the ability to locate Apple Watches and even make Emergency SOS calls. Tantalisingly, the primary foundations to build a smartwatch for children are there.
Though designing wearables for children has its obvious challenges and risks whether we’re talking about safety, security or privacy. Those very things were highlighted in 2017 and 2018 when a series of kids smartwatches were exposed for big security holes that could have potentially let hackers speak to children through the watches or even spoof location.
In 2018, two smartwatch makers were found to be in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by collecting “precise geolocation data” on children wearing their smartwatches without obtaining the permission of parents before collecting such sensitive data.
Techsixtyfour, makers of the Gator watch was one smartwatch found to be at the risk of hacking. It swiftly moved to address the issue after it was made known, but founder Colleen Wong tells us she was a “little naive” to the kind of people who would choose to hack to harm the end user.
The Gator though continues to be one of the most highly rated watches on Amazon. Designed for five- to 12-year-olds, it supports two-way calling to 13 designated numbers and location tracking. So why, despite such prior security issues, are parents buying the Gator? “Parents love it because they don’t have to give their child a smartphone”, says Wong.
As far as Apple making a smartwatch specifically for children, Wong feels there’s one potential barrier: price. “If they can make it at the price point I’m making it at, that would be amazing. Apple’s not going to come out with a smartwatch that costs £99.”
Xplora, a wearable company from Norway, was also highlighted in the tests that deemed the Gator watch at the time was vulnerable to hacking. But its smartwatch was the only one found to be found compliant with GDPR in what co-founder Sten Kirkbak said was a turbulent few months, as the EU went out hard on all companies in this space. Some survived, but many didn’t and are no longer on sale.
Xplora’s smartwatch is built on many of the same principles as the Gator watch. Suitable for ages three to 12, it can make calls to up to 50 contacts, access basic location tracking, use a Safe Zones feature so parents know when their child is at home or at school. There is also the ability to send short text messages and an SOS function. It also started to offer more in the way of fitness tracking, a feature it didn’t initially focus on at launch.
“Apple should have done this a long time ago,” says Kirkbak. He feels the potential move to add child-focused features is driven by responsibility – even though Apple’s smartphones are built for adults, a lot of children still want to use them. “Apple knew it had to take some responsibility with that and make it more kid-safe,” he says.
He also believes this could be a move to secure the next generation of prospective Apple Watch owners. “Kids absorb data, trends and features quicker than adults, and I think big companies are seeing they want to have the longest journey possible with consumers.”
So come September, when we would still expect Apple announcements to fall, could the company really be in a position to launch some sort of stripped down Watch for children? It already has a stranglehold on the smartwatch market, and any way it can strengthen that would surely have been explored.
Apple will be fully aware of the trend that parents pass iPads or iPhones to their children, and it is reasonable to assume this is now happening with its Watch, too. Such a new product launch will no doubt hinge on many things. The smartwatch makers already in this space say Apple has to be able to make something that is simple to use. Apple’s products already generally fulfil this brief. Price will be a huge factor, too. And Apple simply doesn’t launch value hardware.
But, ultimately, all of this may fade into irrelevance. For now. As the coronavirus pandemic disrupts supply chains and brings many business to their knees, now may not be the time for Apple to launch a major new product – especially one targeted at a whole new audience. If such a Kids Watch is indeed waiting in the wings, considering the current climate, it would be more than understandable for Apple to delay.
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