The Incumbent Challenge

“I’ve got a feeling… that tonight’s gonna be a good night” – Black eyed peas

In the fight for wearable, a challenge has come totally from left field, and is being executed in a way that is oddly familiar. Last night, at Dreamforce, Black Eyed Peas frontman introduced Puls, a new wristband that combines communication (phone, email, SMS), music, social networking (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), health tracking and GPS-mapping into a single device.

To date, all offerings in the wearable market have been focused on packing a small square similar to a watch with electronics without looking at the band as a part of the offering. The net result is that sacrifices had to be made, forcing those devices to be accessories to your mobile phone. But Puls rethinks the approach, making a bold fashion statement that moves away from the established approach. Using something that is more akin to a bracelet, this new device packs the battery, phone antenna and radio into a portion of the offering that extends far beyond the surface area of a watch.

It’s a re-imagination of the approach to wearables. was trained as a fashion designer (he went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) and while not everyone will like the look and feel of the wristband (he seems to be intent to not position it as a watch), it is clear that he is going for a market that may be seeking to be different.

And the funny thing is that, to those of us who are tracking tech, it feel oddly familiar. Let’s take a quick look at the video that is positioning the Puls:

Just listen to the copy:

There are leaders and there are followers and followers follow leaders. And leaders are followers too. But they don’t follow the crowd. They follow their gut; they follow their instinct; they dance to the beat of their own drum. They have the Puls because they follow their dream. They go against all odds. They’re the oddballs, the bizarre, the weirdos, the freaks, the dreamers, the unique. They’re hip-hop; they’re punk rock; they’re geek; they’re chic; They are artists; the black sheep… and a lot of people think they are outcasts, cast from society, but the reality is, they are an army, a strange imaginative wild and complex and beautiful people. And they are leaders. They are cultural taste makers; they’re trailblazers. These are the people that set the stage. These are the people that rock the stage. They’re the ones who think of things you can’t fathom and imagine the things that have not been imagined. I am will and we are fashionology.

People who follow technology will get a sense that there’s something familiar here. To me, this ad sounds suspiciously like another, older ad, one that came up in 1997:

Here’s the copy from that ad:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

In 1997, when Apple created it, they were the underdog, the company that was appealing to the edge, to the people who weren’t part of the mainstream, the ones who didn’t use a Windows PC. Fast forward to 2014 and Apple is the mainstream. The battle is between Apple and Google, with no one else being part of the dialogue. So to pick an iPhone or an Android device is the kind of thing that doesn’t differentiate you any more.

You can’t lead an insurgency from the head of the pack

While Google and Apple work hard on filling the gap each of their product has and seem increasingly similar, there is room for something new.

Microsoft tried a new approach with their operating system and largely influenced the dialogue, bringing us a design sensibility that is flatter in both iOS and Android. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the baggage they carried as the incumbent from a previous era meant they could not be seen as an insurgency candidate. And the overly corporate tone of their messaging did not tug at people’s heart chords.

To unveil something different, a new player would have to be different. It would have to be someone who would lead you with a story, something to believe in. Steve Jobs could do that. He could make users yearn for a new piece of electronic by just giving it a feeling. It wasn’t a story led by technology, but one led by fashion.

So the insurgent would have to understand fashion. And this is where comes in. He’s the kind of guy who understand fashion, a man with his own label, a man who is closely following trends in order to influence popular culture. Not only did he turn the Black Eyed Peas into a critical and popular hip hop band but he also helped turn political speech into something cool and relevant, as he did when he produced the “Yes, We Can” video for Obama.

Leveraging the power of music, combined with political speech, that’s how one can influence. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he could leverage his friends in the music and movie industry to attract a younger demographic towards the polls.

The Puls, as it is presented in its intro video, lives in a Peter Pan world, where those over 30 are not admitted. This is not your father’s wearables, it screams, this is a device for us cool kids. And in the same way sold a candidate, he’s now selling a different approach to technology. It’s not a world where we are tethered to our phones but a world where are phones are accessories, in our lives but not central to it. This is not your father’s phone, this is different. And different is cool. That’s the message is packaging.

David vs. Goliath

For a performer, he seems superbly humble, the little guy who reluctantly went into the space, someone who was just “encouraged” to get out there among the giants.

“To develop something like what we developed… it’s something that a giant would do, something that big companies do, not a company of awesome people from Bangalore, India and Singapore (but I’ve got a f*ing awesome team),” he says. The presentation seems awkward, a reluctant revolutionary, the kind of guy that you want to root for, the ultimate underdog in a clash of titans.

In 1997, Apple is hurting. They need to change the dialogue and reintroduce themselves to the world so Steve Jobs went on a rethinking that led to the ad you see above. Here’s what he had to say at the time:

It’s a more quiet Jobs that makes this intro. The swagger of his youth is gone. He seems downright humble, a trait not often associated with the master showman. A simple slogan (“Think Different”) and the Apple logo grace the final shot of that campaign. It is the scream that leads Apple’s revival and embeds it with everything it does for the next decade and a half.

In 2014, Apple sits on top of the world. It makes billions of dollars in revenue, is recognized as a world-class influence in what the tech industry will do, as its iPhone and iPad dominate thinking about mobile. And so it announces a watch. The Apple way is a nice accessory but it’s exactly that, an accessory. While it is bound to be successful, it is not truly groundbreaking, as it presents only a different iteration of what others have done, not so much a departure as much as a refinement of what’s on the market instead of a radical force for change.

Innovation makes us uncomfortable

The first iPhone reshaped the system because it was so different from anything before it: it was a piece of glass where all the interaction happened; it wrestled control of the “deck”, the things that were on the phone, from the carrier, leaving only Apple in charge; it didn’t hobble the internet experience; and it was a beautiful fashion item, the kind of thing you wanted to be seen holding, unlike most phones before it.

It redefined the category and forced everyone to rethink what a phone should be.

The Puls is similar. To date, we’ve been presented with the idea that a wearable is something that attaches to your phone and works as an accessory to it. To date, we’ve been told that the primary device, the one the experience would be centered around, should be the phone. To date, we’ve established that you need a camera on your phone. The Puls says “the heck with that.”

Because he’s a new insurgent, does not have a mobile phone business to protect. He does not need to ensure that his shiny glass rectangle sells and thus can go in a totally different direction. Jackets that work as batteries? backpacks as blue-tooth speakers? Glasses doubling up as cameras? All ideas he’s talked about. This is a man who’s thinking about wearables as fashion and electronic, a man who’s had a foot in both fields (a music artist, movie and TV star, and clothing designer who also happens to have serious geek cred, working as director of creative innovation for Intel, streaming music to and from Mars, and pushing robotics competitions.)

Now I’m not saying it is guaranteed to win as a product or a company. But one thing is clear: the design of the puls will influence the debate from now on. The question after the Puls’ unveiling is not whether it will beat Apple or not but whether Apple will consider its design and “evolve” it.

When he worked on Beats, pushed for turning a headphone company into a fashion statement and the star-branded headphones quickly became the strongest alternatives to Apple’s white earbuds. Apple, a company that rarely does big acquisition, went in and bought the company for over $3 billion and, for the first time in its history, is now running a separate brand altogether. It would not be all that surprising if, in a few years, Apple decides that Puls is a brand it needs to own… unless Google beats it to the party.

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