Nokia

I found it funny when I watched yesterday’s Apple Watch Ultra announcement: I’ve seen this show before. It wasn’t until Garmin watch enthusiasts on Reddit and Twitter started booing Apple that I realized… it’s Nokia again.

Let’s get this over with first: I’ve been a fan of Garmin watches for a long time. Most of my friends and family have all bought the sleek Apple Watch. It’s a great smartwatch, but I wanted a great outdoor fitness and adventure watch to pair with my iPhone. That’s why I wear a giant Garmin watch like Fenix and Epix series despite their awkward software interface. I’ve used it to obsessively track and measure my performance in a variety of activities that include kitesurfing, trail running, golf, weight training, and mountain biking.

Steve Jobs named the market leader at the launch of the iPhone in 2007.

When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, it was met with ridicule by Nokia and its fans still clinging to their redundant Symbian OS, tiny keyboard, and resistive touchscreen made of plastic. Nokia devices like the N95 are superior to iPhone on the spec sheet, but not in terms of usability. Apple’s slow approach to adding new features year after year has finally allowed the company to catch up with the 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 OS which took over Symbian in 2011. Nokia’s phone division was sold to Microsoft in 2014 and then dismantled for spare parts in 2016.

Garmin has a dizzying array of watches that sell at every price point, up to $1,500 or more.

This is the scenario I had in mind when the Apple Watch Ultra launched for well below the $1,000 that many had expected, and just a month after Samsung announced $449.99. Galaxy Watch 5 Pro runs Wear OS 3 which is much better than Google (Ironically, Wear OS comes with Tizen DNA which evolved from Nokia’s Maemo and MeeGo OS.)

Apple already dominates the smartwatch market for devices that cost less than $500. Garmin dominates the segment above it with premium outdoor watches ranging in price from $699 to over $1,500. The higher average selling price is the reason ranks third in terms of income although it ranks fifth in terms of device shipments, according to Counterpoint Research. It was the opposite of the iPhone that dominated the late premium smartphone market. Apple is clearly hungry for a bigger slice of the premium smartwatch pie with more favorable profit margins.

Apple tried to sell expensive watches before in a very misguided way Watch Edition series that tries to use valuable materials to raise prices. This time selling even more valuable features and functionality to a new audience of hardcore athletes. By pricing the first-generation Ultra at $799, Apple has many limitations on launching new Ultra editions in the coming years that differ in features and capabilities. I’m ready to pay more just to have a new Apple emergency SOS satellite messages on my wrist in addition to mobile data so I can leave my phone (or Garmin InReach) behind when running remote trails or kitesurfing off the coast of Western Sahara. Garmin, for example, sells dizzying array of watches at every possible price point that sometimes differ only slightly in capability.

Garmin high-end watches like the Epix 2 have an OLED display, multi-frequency GPS, and a touchscreen with a built-in topographic map that includes trail names and even ski slopes.
Photo by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

Without a doubt, the Apple Watch Ultra has a specs comparison to similarly priced devices sold by Garmin, Coros, and others. Battery is the most striking example: 36, or even 60 hours enabled by a future low-power update, is weak in the category where battery is 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 and analytics features also pale in comparison to the depth and variety the competition has to offer.

But Apple has an excellent app ecosystem to offset some of the inequalities, and it already makes the best smartwatch for iPhone owners interested in casual fitness and wellness. Now it brings the same features — plus a better microphone, louder speakers, and a siren — for serious outdoor athletes, some of whom will no doubt be swayed by the Ultra’s appeal as a seemingly decent multisport watch ( with eSim for mobile 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 this: Garmin’s biggest weak point is usability. Its sophisticated watches have many features and capabilities that are obscured by complex software that can sometimes feel like operating a scientific calculator. Apple excels in user interface, Garmin does not, just as Nokia struggled in vain to adapt Symbian in response to iPhone and Android. And given enough time, Apple watches will catch up with the specs and features available on Garmin flagship watches.

In the short term, however, the additional attention Apple is bringing to the rugged outdoor smartwatch space could benefit Garmin — its stock was up more than three percent yesterday. But if Nokia taught us anything, here it is: once Apple chooses to enter your home (and Google rules its home), you’d better fight it off or be ready to move on. Let’s see how Garmin chooses to respond.

By Blanca

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