Will the Apple Watch Ultra make Garmin the next Nokia?

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I had a funny feeling watching yesterday’s Apple Watch Ultra announcement: I’ve seen this show before. It wasn’t until Garmin watch fans on Reddit and Twitter started ranting about Apple that it hit me… this is Nokia again.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I’ve long been a fan of Garmin watches. Most of my friends and family have all bought smart 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’ve worn big and bulky Garmin watches like the Fenix ​​and Epix series, despite their clunky software interfaces. I’ve used them to compulsively track and measure my performance in a variety of activities that include kitesurfing, trail running, golf, weight training and mountain biking.


Steve Jobs pointed out the market leaders at the launch of the iPhone in 2007.

When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, it was met with derision by Nokia and its fans who still clung to their exaggerated Symbian OS, tiny keyboards and resistant touchscreens made of plastic. Nokia devices like the N95 were superior to the iPhone on spec sheets, but not in terms of ease of use. Apple’s slow-roll approach to adding new features year after year eventually allowed the company to catch up with the flagship specs of Nokia, BlackBerry, Motorola and Palm as each company bled market share and revenue. The situation only accelerated with the maturation of Google’s Android OS, which overtook Symbian in 2011. Nokia’s phone division was sold to Microsoft in 2014 and then unloaded for parts in 2016.


Garmin has a dizzying array of watches that sell at every price point, from $1,500 and up.

That’s the scenario I thought of when the Apple Watch Ultra was unveiled with a price point well below the $1,000 mark that 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 was developed from Nokia’s own Maemo and MeeGo operating systems.)

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

Apple tried selling expensive watches before with the horribly misguided Watch Edition series that tried to use precious materials to drive up 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’d easily pay more just to have Apple’s new emergency SOS satellite messages on my wrist in addition to cellular data, so I can leave my phone (or Garmin InReach) behind when I’m running remote trails or kitesurfing off the coast of the Western Sahara. Garmin, for example, sells a dizzying array of watches at every possible price point, sometimes differing only slightly in capabilities.


Garmin’s advanced watches such as the Epix 2 have OLED screens, multi-frequency GPS, and touchscreens with built-in topographical maps that include trail names and even ski slopes.
Photo by Thomas Ricker/The Verge

Arguably, the Apple Watch Ultra falls short in a spec comparison to similarly priced devices sold by Garmin, Coros and others. The battery is the most glaring example: 36, or even 60 hours made possible by a future low-power update, is weak in a category where batteries are measured in weeks. Out of the box, it also lacks things like built-in topographical 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 an excellent app ecosystem in terms of evening out some inequities, and that already makes it the best smartwatch for iPhone owners interested in casual fitness and health. Now it brings the same features – plus better microphones, louder speaker and a siren – to serious outdoor athletes, some of whom will no doubt be swayed by the Ultra’s appeal as a seemingly good enough 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.

However, I can say this already: Garmin’s biggest weakness is ease of use. Its high-end watches have tons of features and capabilities that are hidden by complicated software that sometimes feels like operating a scientific calculator. Apple excels at user interfaces, Garmin does not, as does Nokia, which struggled in vain to adapt Symbian in response to iPhone and Android. And given enough time, Apple’s watches will catch up to the specs and features available on Garmin’s flagship watches.

In the short term, however, the extra attention Apple is bringing to the rugged outdoor smartwatch space could benefit Garmin — the stock rose over three percent yesterday. But if Nokia taught us anything, it’s this: Once Apple chooses to walk into your house (and Google rules the house), you better fight the hell out of it or prepare to move on. Let’s see how Garmin chooses to respond.

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