Industry Voices—Gebbie: Better silicon will lift wearables to the next level

Leo Gebbie Industry Voices

Smartwatches are getting better all the time. When I look at our research at CCS Insight, what stands out is just how important these devices have become to their users, not only as a digital assistant but as a tool for monitoring wellbeing.

There’s demand for more enhanced and holistic offerings, especially in terms of health-tracking feature sets, and battery life is another often-requested improvement from smartwatch owners. At the same time, new opportunities in the market are opening up, with emerging segments based on use cases and demographics – for example, watches aimed at kids or at more senior users. We’ve seen impressive growth in the market in recent years and expect this to accelerate.

For smartwatch makers aiming to match consumer demands for improvements to wearables in an increasingly segmented market, improvements are needed to both software and hardware. The latter should receive a boost from Qualcomm's latest silicon for wrist-worn gadgets, the Snapdragon Wear 4100 and 4100+ platforms. This is an important development for the broader market as Qualcomm technology underpins the vast majority of wearables designs beyond Apple, Samsung and Huawei.

The Snapdragon Wear 4100+ platform is noteworthy because it uses hybrid architecture much like that of its predecessor, the Snapdragon Wear 3100, combining a system-on-chip with a low-power co-processor. This is the direction that we think all premium wearables are taking. The new platform should deliver significant performance improvements given its upgraded CPU (using a 12nm process technology) and GPU, faster memory and a range of platform power optimizations.

The Snapdragon Wear 4100 uses the same system-on-chip as its sibling but loses the co-processor, making it a lower-priced option for smartwatch makers looking to hit punchy price points. Early design wins with Mobvoi and Imoo, both of which will use the 4100 chipset, show good traction right off the bat.

Beefing up the performance of chipsets for wearables has clear benefits. It delivers a better user experience including apps launching faster, providing richer graphics and user interface and improved photo and video functionality. This is something which is especially valuable for devices such as kids’ smartwatches; in China, a growing number of devices have an integrated camera for photo and video chat, and this trend is expected to spread to other devices.

Having a lower-power, always-on co-processor for a wearable device comes with the benefit of allowing important background tasks to be offloaded, including step tracking, heart-rate monitoring, alarms, haptic feedback and more. Smartwatches powered by chipsets with this architectural approach are able to deliver a richer experience and drain batteries less when carrying out these continuous functions. Gains in battery life can also be found through low-power optimization for features such as location tracking and Bluetooth.

We believe this approach to chipset design is likely to become well-established throughout the wearables category, especially for devices aiming to offer features for a specific use. An example of an adopter is Suunto, which relied on this approach for its Suunto 7 watch, allowing it to mix Google's Wear OS platform with its own enhanced sports-tracking abilities, producing a more specialized collection of features than the basic "recreational health" suite that most products using Wear OS have enabled to date. The Suunto 7, which uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 3100 platform, offers up to 12 hours battery life in its dedicated sports mode with support for over 70 unique activities. Additionally, it delivers up to 48 hours battery life in smartwatch mode.

Apple revealed at its recent Worldwide Developers Conference that it will roll out sleep tracking with the next update to its watchOS platform (see Apple Watch Wakes Up to Sleep Tracking). The current Apple Watch promises a battery life of 18 hours per charge, so lengthening battery life will be critical. Apple is extremely secretive about its chipset architectures, but it will be watching Qualcomm's developments with interest. We predict a major architecture change to the Watch's "S" series system-on-chip in the next two years, with more processing shifting to a lower-power co-processor or digital signal processor in an effort to extend battery life.

New chipset platforms for wearables will also unlock opportunities for greater segmentation in the wearables space, as companies look to target specific emerging niches and uses for their products. This includes devices for activities including sports, as well as those targeting demographics such as children or older users. The idea of sports as a use for smartwatches isn't revolutionary, but the focus on demographic segments is a major trend that we're tracking closely.

Our research shows that the market for kids' smartwatches has exploded in China, although it has yet to reach meaningful shipments in other regions despite the best efforts of some network operators. However, we believe that the next few years will see some established smartwatch makers attacking these categories, and chipset makers are clearly aiming to position their chipsets to serve these new segments.

This confidence in the market shown by Qualcomm as well as players like Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, Google, Huawei and others supports the picture of strong growth that we forecast for the wearables market. Despite the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, smartwatches appear to be a resilient product category.

Although we may see slowing sales later in 2020 as a recession looms, we're positive that the market will bounce back. Our most recent global wearables forecast projects that the market will be worth more than $30 billion in 2023, with emerging device categories playing an important role.

The wearables landscape has matured over the past few years, with continued refinements to hardware and software delivering an improved user experience for all. The next generation of chipsets will aim to underpin this with a more powerful platform, as well as more efficient management of background tasks, leading to more consistent usability and lower power consumption.

In tandem, we hope to see further improvements from software providers such as Google. A successful redesign and refocus of its Wear OS platform would be extremely beneficial to the market, providing a far stronger foundation for more-polished smartwatch experiences for a large proportion of the market.

In a flourishing market, work at both ends of the spectrum will be essential, especially for new devices targeting emerging segments. Sales may take a knock in 2020, but advances across the wearables landscape will help to position devices for greater utility and stronger engagement. We’re expecting big things for wearables – watch this space.

Leo Gebbie is a senior analyst at CCS Insight where he focuses on XR, including Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, as well as wearables.  Follow Leo on Twitter: @LeoGebbie

“Industry Voices” are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.