I recently had the pleasure of deep diving into the mind of a wearable technology expert, someone who has caught and retained my attention for some time with his intellectual perspective, analysis and wisdom. Bill Geiser is a technology executive with deep experiences in most areas of the wearables business including development, distribution, partner ecosystems, operations and marketing. He is someone who knows how to take an idea and turn it into a profitable business having set up and sold two of his own companies. Bill has also managed wearable technology programs for some of the world’s leading brands including HP, Speedo, adidas, Fossil Group, Movado Group, Titan, Microsoft, Sony Ericsson and more, resulting in the launch of more than 75 smartwatch / wearable products. In this long form interview, Bill shares his perspective on the market today, what’s driving innovation and what we can expect to see from the wearables category moving forward.
Tell me about yourself, your background, what inspired you growing up and what led you to your work today?
- Grew up in Chicago. Two things inspired me growing up: the first was competitive swimming. My interest in swimming served me well, as I received a collegiate swimming scholarship which is how my college education was funded. I was also naturally curious about complex machines such as aeroplanes, computers & the like. I read everything I could about how they worked, the principles behind them and the people that brought them to life. These two interests intersected later in my life.
- Swimming is what lead me to my work in wearables. In 1994 a company I founded (TIEX) was acquired. After leaving this company in early 1996 I started swimming again to clear my mind and relieve the stress associated with figuring out what I was going to do next. To get to the pool each day I had to walk past a large workout room filled with treadmills, cycling machines, step-climbers and the like. All exercise machines shared one thing in common – a display consisting of an array of lights, LEDs, etc informing the user about the quality and intensity & quantity of effort they were expending (i.e. how fast, how far, how many).
- Seeing the displays on these exercise machines triggered an idea – to create a wearable device that would inform swimmers about the quality, intensity & quantity of their work in the pool. I spent the remainder of the year performing R&D to determine the simplest & most reliable way to capture a “stroke” (the atomic unit of swim metrics). This was long before modern sensors such as MEMS-based accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes and other sensors used for motion tracking were sufficiently small and power efficient to be used in this use case. The sensor design I settled on consisted of two electrodes exposed on the face of the watch backed by a transistor switch. (The industrial designer of this product was Fred Bould. Fred has since emerged as one of the top designers in Silicon Valley. The Nest thermostat being one of his more notable designs).
- I licensed the product to Speedo where it was soft launched at the Ironman World Triathlon in 1997 (the guerrilla marketing tactic I used at this event) and a few months later at the 1998 World Swim Championships in Perth Australia.
- This was the first “quantified self’ product for swimmers and triathletes and it’s what convinced me that the watch had tremendous untapped potential to tell more than time.
As an expert in the wearables and smartwatch space, what are the major developments/trends you’re seeing today?
- First, Apple has done to wearables what IBM did to the Personal Computer category – legitimized it in the minds of consumers worldwide. This, along with Apple’s massive (and effective) marketing budget has and will continue to educate consumers globally about the benefit of wearing ‘smart’ accessories.
- With the emergence of health / wellness / fitness as the primary use case for consumer wearables, the category now has a focused narrative about how it benefits consumers.
- The market for commercial wearables is also expanding, particularly “occupational” wearables in construction, transportation, logistics and other vertical markets. They value proposition for commercial wearables will be measured by improvements in safety, reductions in insurance premiums, productivity gains and other metrics that drive measurable financial improvements.
What do you think is not working for brands and new makers of smartwatches and tracking devices today? There have been a few fatalities recently and major brands pulling out of the wearables hardware space altogether. What’s driving this?
- The major consumer electronics brands that entered, and subsequently exited the wearable category (Motorola, Intel, HP and others) made two mistakes. First, they assumed the dynamics of the consumer electronics industry would prevail – where there would be only one or two winners and everyone else would lose. That was a mistake. The fashion accessory and apparel industries are highly fragmented – characterized by thousands of brands and broad assortments. In retrospect, it was silly to assume we’d all wear the same things. Secondly, they assumed functionality would be the primary driver of consumer purchases, effectively ignoring the roles of aspirational marketing & branding. In short, they didn’t understand the psychology of why people buy the things they wear. The fact is, we wear fashion and carry electronics, and these are two radically different worlds.
What needs to change in the wearable industry today for there to be better product adoption?
- This is an evolution, not a revolution.
- Incremental improvements in display, battery capacity & reduced form-factors (size). This is occurring daily.
- More brands taking ‘more swings of the bat’. There’s a learning process associated with trying anything new. And, you can’t learn by watching – you must get into the game. The watch industry is finally waking up to the opportunity. Up till now, most watch firms viewed Apple as a competitor or, even worse, ignored the category entirely. The industry is now realizing the smartwatch is here to stay and the market opportunity is large and varied. Watch firms can succeed providing they ‘find their own lane” vs going head-to-head against Apple.
Do you think it’s still important to measure time in the traditional way? We have so little of it and everything is fighting for our attention.
- I love this question! Each day consists of 24 hours; 1,440 minutes; and 86,400 seconds. So, measuring time hasn’t and won’t change.
- What has changed is our perception of time. Time is far more “fluid” today vs. 20 or 30 years ago – and the mobile phone is why our perception of time has changed. Before the mobile phone we called locations (your home, your office, etc). Today we call a person who can be reached anytime regardless of where they are. As a result, if we set up a meeting and one of us gets delayed all we do is call /text/IM/etc. and reschedule. That wasn’t possible before the mobile phone. The implication is time is no longer as ‘rigid’ as it was in the past. The mobile phone allows us to synchronize ourselves in real time. Bottom line – time no longer has the “exclusive” it once had as the service we use to synchronize our lives. Despite this (or maybe because of this) the value proposition of a watch is stronger today than ever before. It’s always on, always available, and always at the periphery of our attention delivering relevant information that can be consumed in a glance whenever and wherever you need it.
I’ve not seen ‘the’ killer wearables app yet, something that gets us hooked on hardware. What do you think this could be? Or which wearable related apps do you rate highly and why?
- I don’t see a single ‘killer app’ emerging for consumer wearables. What has and will continue to drive consumer adoption of wearables is ‘convenience’. Wearables today deliver relevant & convenient information. And, not only do they tell time, they save time. The conveniences provided by wearables will continue to grow in scope and impact, fueled in large part by advances in machine learning & AI.
- With respect to the wearable apps & services I find convenient: telling time & date. I’m a weather junkie, so I have several weather apps. I’m also a heart-rate nerd and carefully track & record my heart rate when I swim. Lastly and most importantly, I depend on notifications to help me decide when I need to pull my phone out of my pocket.
How do you think the Swiss luxury watch market should play the innovation game? We’ve seen a few watches emerging, but they are all niche. This is not necessarily a bad thing but scale does not seem to be on their agenda. Can you see a mass scale Swiss smartwatch emerging and what do you think it would look like?
- I do not see a mass scale Swiss smartwatch brand on the horizon. Swiss watches are synonymous with luxury, which is predicated on exclusivity. That’s their strength & this can be leveraged. LVMH is a good example.
- LVMH-owned Tag Heuer was the first Swiss luxury brand to launch a smartwatch. Mont Blanc & Louis Vuitton then followed with their own smartwatch and, recently, LV launched smart luggage that works synergistically with their smartwatch. Both products are designed for travelers and both products reflect the legacy and authenticity of the LV brand. Here’s what I like about what LV is doing:
- Travel is a large market – global travel industry gross bookings reached $1.6 trillion in 2017, making it one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in the world. In short, LV is working on products that matter. They have potential to generate above average financial growth and returns.
- These products deliver authentic, relevant value by focusing on real, travel-related problems – vs. the many other ‘connected’ products which are loaded with silly, gratuitous features
- Brand synergy – travel is synonymous with the LV brand so these products authentically reinforce the core values & legacy of the brand.
You’ve pioneered many advances across the wearables space, thinking ahead 3-4 years what do you see coming?
- As noted in an earlier comment, we will continue to see incremental improvements in display technology, battery capacity and size / form-factor reductions.
- Better security & privacy. This is a looming issue which isn’t going away. Security isn’t the customer’s responsibility – it’s the responsibility of the manufacturer. We will see a lot of improvement in this area over the next few years.
- Wearables for the fitness & sports category will evolve beyond tracking physical/physiological data to leveraging this data to provide insight on our strengths & weaknesses and, most importantly, to provide valuable recommendations on how to improve.
- Lastly, a big problem in the wearable category, like the ecommerce/dot-com bust of the late ’90’s, is the cost of failure is still too high. Development/customization cost is very expensive & the odds of success low because it’s a new domain and not fully understood. As a result, unit economics are poor. What’s needed is an “AWS for wearables” – a platform consisting of tools and infrastructure enabling fast, low-cost launches of smartwatches for hundreds of brands, not just a few. The goal – make it easy for them to take multiple swings of the bat giving users what they really want — cool, new watches sold in broad assortments from the brands they already love. The key to doing so is to simplify product delivery by hiding complexity, allowing non-technical personnel (i.e. watch designers) to configure & provision services for smart products. I’m cautiously optimistic we will see something like this emerge in the next few years.
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