The wearables market is starting to feel like the 1990s PDA market

In the mid to late 1990s, Microsoft was unstoppable. Microsoft was dominant. So dominate, in fact, they were ruled a monopoly. Microsoft revenues were doing well and Apple was just starting to make a comeback as Steve Jobs just came back into the fold to kill the Mac clone business and cut all non-core products. Microsoft had Windows-based PDAs, Apple had the Newton, but neither Microsoft more Apple was having success with the emerging personal data assistants or “PDA” market.

The old Palm Pilot Professional

There was also a little company named Palm Computing. Palm was originally part of US Robotics, then 3COM before they spun-off to become Palm Inc. Palm made some very basic handhelds to handle personal information with very simple functionality. Palm Pilots had a tremendously loyal following and a strong userbase.

I can’t help but see the same patterns from the 90s around the emerging “Smartwatch” wearables market today. The players might be taking different roles, but much of the same philosophical design strategies of how device companies looked at the PDA are similar to how they are looking at functionality in the smartwatch. You also clearly have the “David vs. Goliath” scenario of Microsoft and Palm with Apple and Fitbit.

Design Methodologies: Minimal & Add vs. Pare Down 

The Fitbit Force

Fitbit has been the marketshare leader in the early wearables market even after a recall of their Force model. Fitbit’s design methodology is minimal and bare-bones. Fitbit totally reminds me of Palm. Both companies start with a minimal feature-set and add functionality as needed. Palm users loved the basic design and simple OS that just handles the core functionality required. Fitbit’s methodology is quite similar and they just use a very light footprint on their devices and very minimal UI.

Microsoft had a much different approach with software on their PDAs in the back then. The Microsoft approach was to try and capitalize on their Windows desktop dominance and take the Windows OS down into smaller devices. Unlike Palm, this approach was more along the lines of trying to take bigger features and a larger footprint and stuffing it into smaller devices. The products were generally clumsy and awkward. Companies bought them because they theoretically worked with existing corporate environments and consumers. But, the user following was never there on the various incarnations of Windows Embedded or CE or Pocket PC.

The Windows-based Compaq PDA
The Windows-based Compaq PDA

Apple, interestingly enough, is taking more of the old Microsoft route here. Apple is trying to leverage the iOS familiarity they run in tablets and smartphones into the smaller watch device. No doubt Apple will sell a ton of Apple Watches, but will this really work well or is Apple going to repeat the Micrsoft mistake? We’ll have to see.

David vs. Goliath Again

The other clear parallel is that, just like in the 1990s with the PDA market, there is a “David” in Fitbit and a “Goliath” in Apple today. Back in the 1990s, it was Palm and Microsoft. Fitbit is a small player in the grand scheme of the tech scene but the users represent a loyal following much like Palm users did two decades years ago. Apple, again, is more along the lines of Microsoft in the 1990s with big money and marketing budgets.


Apple is the big player in this rendition and with the recent delayed availability of the Apple Watch, I wonder if Apple will be successful with this device. Fitbit isn’t trying to be everything to everyone with their devices and even though they were late with a device response to their Force recall, they really do have a shot to add users in the next few months until Apple Watch is in full swing.

Sadly, if the wearables market does mimic the PDA battles of the 1990s, it doesn’t bode well for Fitbit. Palm went through hell and eventually died. They were bought, sold, and moved around. Something tells me Fitbit could have a similiar fate.

Let’s see how this ends. The patterns are similar, the players are different, but the market could bring this to a different conclusion. It will be interesting to watch what consumers really go for in this go-around.

Add comment

Leave a comment or reply