Wearable technology is emerging as the next frontier in advanced consumer electronics. For the past several weeks, speculation has swirled around the potential of an Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iWatch to be the next big thing from Cupertino. Not to be outdone, Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) recently began taking applications to create a select group of testers that will be allowed to experience Glass, the new wearable glasses-like interface that is expected to be rolled out in 2013. While both of these products are still "developmental," Glass appears to be further along in the process. Ultimately, there is likely enough differentiation between these products that both companies can capitalize, but you will benefit from watching to see if either is adopted more quickly.
The Apple iWatch
While precise specifications (or even the confirmed existence) of an iWatch remain somewhat elusive, recent patent filings by Apple suggest that the product has been given some thought. The application likens the potential new device to the form factor of a "slap bracelet" from the '80s or '90s. Others have not embraced this guess, preferring to focus on the spiral design -- one that Steve Jobs had embraced near the end of his life. The reality is that there is no reasonable way to predict what the device will look like as, to the best of everyone's knowledge, it has yet to be invented.
Equally elusive is the functionality that may or may not be included. Perhaps the iWatch will serve as a second screen for one's iPhone; perhaps it will carry its own cellular receiver and be able to operate independently of any other device; or perhaps the new devices will blend functionality and form in some way yet to be conceived. In any event, there is an appetite for this type of wearable tech. Fitness watches, including Google's Motorola MOTOACTV, are projected to breach $1 billion in sales this year. An offering from Apple with enhanced functionality and web browsing capability could catapult this market into the stratosphere.
One question that seems to continue to go unasked is what is Google working on in this segment. The MOTOACTV is arguably the most advanced device of its kind on the market. It can deliver text messages, social media posts, and even route calls from your Android smartphone right to your wrist. Is there some reason to believe that Google will simply concede this segment to Apple, even given its apparent head start? Apple shareholders should be excited about what is coming from the company in this form factor, but should not assume the iWatch will be the only game in town.
Google has already rolled out videos and advertisements for Glass on its site. As far as functionality, the device appears to be capable of taking pictures and videos; displaying maps, webpages, and other media on the translucent display; connecting calls; and displaying messages. All this can be accomplished with minimal tactile interaction, instead relying on voice commands.
Initial indications suggest that the device will come in five colors, be lightweight and very durable, and even available for sale this year -- pending the results of the upcoming beta testing. Critics are already voicing concerns over such items as privacy and surveillance capabilities. If you can now take a picture or video with no visible signs of what you are doing, does that make privacy harder to protect? Likewise, if Glass allows the user to stream what he or she is seeing through the device to the Internet, how can you ensure that a third party or government is not accessing or monitoring the same information? The ability for distraction is another major hurdle the company will need to address.
From a shareholder's perspective, the search and ad options are endless. Imagine not only the ability to pop up ads right in front of potential consumers' faces, but also if Google could passively collect data on what consumers look at in a store. The ability of the company to target ads based on what you have actually looked at in the past would be a pretty powerful tool. Those pesky privacy issues, of course, resurface, but attitudes about what privacy means seem to be changing.
Is it a contest?
There are two ways to look at the pending release of these two types of wearable tech. On the one hand, they are so fundamentally different that both companies are likely to see significant benefits. The iWatch will likely have a much lower price point, becoming a mainstream option very quickly. Glass, while arguably a far bigger advance, will likely remain an option for only the select few in the initial few releases. In a strange role reversal, Google is offering the pricey premium gadget while Apple is showing up with the advance for everyone. In both cases, the stocks should benefit from these advances as they come closer to wide release.