Google Glass has been featured in so many news stories that it’s easy to forget, there are still only a few thousand units floating around outside Google HQ. Wearables, while expected to take off, simply aren’t all that popular yet. So when should we plan to duck and cover for the new era?
2020, according to a new report published by Forrester Research. "This is a rough estimate," Forrester VP and Principal Analyst J.P. Gownder tells Co.Design. "The enterprise space—though certain innovations find their way in quickly—requires all sorts of changes to infrastructure. By the nature of it, you can start to see what’s going to happen, but it takes five to seven years before it becomes pervasive."
"Enterprise" essentially means the broader business market (including everything from offices to hospitals), and typically, this space moves very slowly because of its bureaucracy and immobile infrastructure (all of the decisions that need to be made about things like software and networking standards, along with good old desks and brick and mortar architecture). In the iPhone era, consumers drove the mass adoption of products before big businesses took note (just consider how the former enterprise phone of choice, the Blackberry, is basically defunct because consumers preferred touch screens). In the next half decade, however, businesses will expand the wearables market to the point of making it mainstream, Gownder says—a point at which about 10% of an urban population might be wearing one of these smart, sensor-laden devices.
Consumer electronics products like the Nike+ Fuelband fitness tracker have already had some measure of success. But Gownder sees these devices as far too specialized for mass adoption, appealing only to "fitness fanatics, quantified selfers, and maybe a certain percentage of people who want to lose weight."
But when you take similar specialized devices and build them for an enterprise context, the possibilities of scale shift, he says. Imagine if a Fuelband or Jawbone Up device were integrated with the 48,000 Weight Watchers meetings each week worldwide (which would technically be a B2B2C, or enterprise, solution), or better still, your insurance subsidized its purchase, since your general practitioner used the data to prevent illness. Gownder's point is that the consumer has already bought into certain institutions—like their hospital or health insurance—and it’s easier to sell a large pond of health care providers on the merits of this technology than it is an endless ocean of consumers.
Outside wellness and health care, consider the products made by Motorola Solutions (the division of Motorola not owned by Google, which I admit to mercilessly mocking in the past). Nothing in their product arsenal—their headset, hands-free chatting solution, or chemical detector—looks particularly appealing to me as a consumer. But as Gownder points out, Motorola has seven different wearable devices the company could sell to a single police officer to don at once, essentially multiplying a large market by a huge amount.
In the case of both health care and law enforcement, the central structures that have the buying power have massive incentive to invest. Wearables can not only make their employees more efficient and better at serving their clientele's needs; wearables can offer a new level of data tracking, measuring where an employee or customer has gone and what they’ve done.
You may be skeptical about Gownder's argument. After all, if consumer preference for iPhones reverberated back to businesses to defeat Blackberry at the enterprise level, why won't, say, Motorola Solutions's headset suffer the same fate to a better designed Google Glass? Truthfully, I believe it will, but Gownder's greater view still holds a lot of merit: That businesses represent a massive, immediate market for wearables, and for the time being, businesses will be looking for products that have been honed to their specific needs to make the big money investments to drive this sector forward. (So if Glass isn't durable enough for use in a factory setting, that creates opportunities for Motorola Solutions.)
Another interesting takeaway from Gownder's research is that the implications of enterprise wearables span well beyond the curse of the smartphone, when suddenly every employee with a company-issued Blackberry was expected to answer work emails at home. Consider that example from earlier, the Nike+ Fuelband used by your health care provider, for instance. "We’re going to be looking at a situation that you could cast in two ways. One is rather benign, like the automobile insurance industry, good drivers receive a break in their insurance rates. If you’re active and fit, you’ll get a break," Gownder says. "But there’s a dark way to look at this, where someone says if you don’t take 10,000 steps a day, your insurance rates are going to go up immediately."
As for the role of designers in this new era of wearable electronics, everyone should expect what Gownder calls "a graveyard of failure," in which a combination of shifting technology, legislation, and tastes could make it very hard to succeed in a big but crowded market.
"Every week, I talk to inventors, entrepreneurs, and vendors," Gownder says. "The talent of people in wearables reminds me of the late '90s. Everyone and their brother is saying this is the hot opportunity, along with Internet of things. You’ll see a lot of innovation, but a lot of pets.com style failures."