Why Wearable Devices Will Never Be As Disruptive As Smartphones

Four key problems prevent wearables from reaching a mass market—but they still have some important applications, writes product strategy consultant Kevin McCullagh.

Wearables moved from the buzz idea of 2013 into a tangle of clips, bands, badges, brooches, glasses, earpieces and headsets. It’s all too easy to be cynical about the products launched at this annual tech frenzy in the Mojave Desert, but here’s a skeptical case between the tech crowd’s boosterism and the casual scoffing. Let’s step back and try to separate the potential from the hyperbole.

Nike, Google, Samsung, Intel, Jawbone, Fitbit, and maybe Apple can’t all be wrong—right? As the smartphone boom matures, the tech industry is casting around for the next big growth category, and the one now being worn on many manufacturers’ sleeves are wearables. In a typically breathless statement from CES, one analyst summed up the hype: "The first big story [of CES 2014] is the real inflection point for wearable devices... It is about these devices moving from niche applications and early adopters into much more mainstream products."

Image: Jawbone

As many have pointed out however, most of the current offerings are classic cases of technology in search of a use case. Step-counting and onwrist text-messaging are not setting anyone’s world alight. Here are four major problems preventing wearables from reaching the masses.

Fitness freaks are not bellwethers for the mass market.

The case for the current crop of wearables is too reliant on the lazy assumption that advanced or extreme users are bellwethers for the mass market. It doesn’t follow that what sports geeks and self-quantifiers do today, the masses will do tomorrow. Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to track the minutiae of their lives on a tiny digital accessory—they are not that motivated, or narcissistic.

Image: June

The tech sphere doesn't understand how to design for a fashion context.

We carry devices in our pockets and bags, but wear accessories as expressions of identity. People who wear watches and jewelery often have more than one item. This is why there are many more brands in watch, eyewear, and jewelry markets—even some small brands have portfolios with hundreds of SKUs. Apple has captured a large chunk of the smartphone market with essentially the same phone (mostly in black). Even with its brand kudos, the iPhone giant will struggle to overturn a centuries-old culture of fashion accessorizing and sell at the scale it needs. Few in the tech sphere understand the rigors of designing for the fashion context in the way Tag Heuer or Mykita, for example, do.

The technology isn't there yet.

The most obvious obstacle with current devices is limited battery life and the hassle of charging yet another gadget. But even if this challenge can be overcome, there are questions over the accuracy and meaningfulness of the data captured. Beyond step-counting, which many of the activity trackers can accomplish adequately, companies are attempting to widen appeal by trying to capture other elements of users’ "wellness"—making guesstimates of calorie intake from pictures of meals and stabs in the dark about sleep quality. One startup even claims its band can monitor nutrition and calories consumed by shining light through the skin to detect them in the bloodstream. This is all skating a little close to sorcery.

Wearables' usefulness is disappearing.

Wearables are the high-profile consumer face of the wider shift to the Internet of Things. The need to wear extra gadgets, though, is being undermined by other IoT developments, as sensors become embedded invisibly in existing stuff. Why wear a sleep-monitoring wristband when the sensor-equipped mattress beneath you can do a much better job? The biggest threat to the wearable nirvana is the smartphone. The mobiles that we carry around with us are incorporating movement-tracking capabilities. The iPhone 5S’s M7 chip is dedicated to processing motion data from the phone’s accelerometers, gyroscope, and compass sensors. As more health and fitness apps and equipment tap into this functionality, dedicated activity trackers are likely to go the way of the alarm clock, radio, MP3 player, GPS unit and camera, swallowed up by the smartphone.

So what should we do with wearables?

There will be niche markets of course: fitness freaks and self-quantifier obsessives will buy specialized activity trackers, and governments are likely to expand their tagging of offenders with ankle bracelets. But what are the prospects of prying open the volume markets that the consumer tech industry feeds on?

Image: Fitbit

If companies keep a clearer-eyed focus on balancing credible use cases with form factor limitations and aesthetics, all is not lost. For example, the market for tracking the location of employees shows signs of lifting off.

On a less creepy front, remote care of the elderly has huge potential. The number of elderly people wishing to live independently for longer is already huge, and growing rapidly. This group is less attached to mobile phones compared with younger generations, and the current fall detectors and alarm button pendants on offer are demeaning. The telecare industry is also fragmented, antiquated, and ripe for consolidation.

One-way to circumvent the aesthetic issues around wearables is to make them less visible. This is the route taken by glucose monitor patches and Google X lab’s smart contact lens research (although Google has a bunch of technical and legal hurdles ahead, not least of which is the old battery problem).

Finally, maybe there is life in the smart watch yet. Yes, the current crop suffers from many of the fundamental faults listed above. In addition, most devices try to cram in too much functionality, and a whole generation has also lost the watch-wearing habit—another mobile substitution.

There may also, though, be a credible opportunity for a product-service platform that could be licensed to watch and fashion brands—if a few fundamentals are respected. Small screens are a pain to interact with, but there is an opportunity to have high-priority, timely, and context-aware notifications delivered to the wrist, without the need to reach for a phone. As long as they find configuring such devices easy, many people would value en-route traffic alerts, flight boarding alerts for key meetings, emails from VIPs, Twitter mentions, and so forth. Information should be delivered within a UI that requires minimal input. And finally, the platform should allow watch brand licensees a high degree of aesthetic customization. The key to any success will be brutal focus (saying no to most features), the quality of physical and digital integration, and how astute and discerning the notification service is.

There is no chance of wearables emulating the smartphone boom, but some sizable niches are likely to enjoy time in the spotlight—and even form enduring habits.

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  • Sarah Best-Wilson

    I think that if you don't understand the usefulness of a clippable or band tracker then you've never thought about a lot of the common use cases of a clip or a band, such as running wearing shorts without pockets or wearing yoga pants without pockets. Many women's outfits in general don't have pockets.

  • Petros Michaelides

    Kevin I think you should quit journalism/product strategy altogether. You have no idea what you are talking about. Sorry.

  • Some of your arguments hold up in the short-term, but given that you're saying wearables will Never be as disruptive as smartphones I can't help but wholeheartedly disagree.

    "The technology isn't there YET"

    Following the (very well-known) technology adoption model, the first people to buy and use novel products are generally outsiders to the mainstream - "visionary" customers. In time, technical and design barriers are broken down by the work of startups so that pragmatic customers see the potential, paving the way for mass-adoption. The shared trait of visionaries is that they are able to overlook limitations in the technology and product design because they can sense the then-invisible potential. Given that fitness freaks and self-quantifiers fit the mould of early-adopters and visionary customers in this wearable adoption cycle, is it not clear that they actually are the bellwethers of wearable computing?

  • Hi Jay, you assume that all technologies go mainstream, when many don't. Early adopters wore calculator watches to sailed around on Segways and scribbled on Palm pilots (do you remember when pen based computing was the future?)... but alas the masses didn't follow.

  • Well I think that kinetics is the answer to the battery problem. There are those fancy watches that run without batteries. The ankle is the only place that generates enough movement for a computing device though. Now, I am sure that Albert Elbaz could come up with an article of clothing that would decorate the ankle. I am not being rude but there are those black ankle decorations that prostitutes wear when they are standing around the central bus station in Tel Aviv. Hope I haven't offended anyone, just trying to be helpful.

  • Too bad these devices don't really look fashionable. And I just heard from my friend that a company called Linou is also about to launch their new product for wearable technology, which sounds really amazing.Check their site if u r interested in wearable tech.

  • In my opinion "Fitness Freaks" don't use consumer grade wearables because there data is absolutely terrible. If you go for a run or do heavy workouts and want to measure your workout a good chest heart rate monitor and running/workout watch are still the way to go. Finally anyone who absolutely predicts anything in the technology space is a fool. The reality is that no one knows what's going to shake out as the wearables spaces grows and evolves.

  • Michelle French Avary

    Weight Watchers is really going to the big, profitable, wearable win. It is a small, low tech device, that is discreet and plugs directly into all their products, with recurring revenue. Funny how no one is talking about that particular wearable…but I would guess that WW will make bank and put Nike's wearable profit margins to shame!

  • Thanks Michelle, it might prove a profitable niche, but it's will look expensive, cumbersome and outdated to many – compared to a free app on their phone.

  • Fitness freaks! Narcissists! Self-quantifier obsessives!

    These rabid attacks on those who would have the audacity to try and track their activity level throughout the day really deals a blow to this article's credibility. Stick to the facts and quit editorializing. It's not edgy or a substitute for voice, it's simply obnoxious.

  • I think the smartwatches currently in the market are still limited due to technical restrictions: suppose we can integrate all technology as currently used in smartphones in a small enough flexible formfactor to be wrapped around the wrist. Now if you want to read a book or check your mail, you take off your smartwatch, unfold the flexible screen and start reading. When no longer required, the smartwatch can be clicked/wrapped back on your wrist, providing basic alerts, messages, etc. Until then the smartwatch will stay 'niche' I guess (for monitoring your health or in specific usecases like fitness, running, etc).

  • Not sure if the 'think outside the box' paradigm has been explored in this piece? No doubt, for it, the wearable device market, to be disruptive it needs to extent beyond the current thinking. Just substituting one for the other is not disruptive in itself, n'est pas? In that vain, what I am missing as a thought is the extent to which RFID chips integrated into clothing, accessories, cars, books, laptops etc linked potentially to another device such as Samsungs' Gear or any other (l)imitation of sort could change human behaviour and communication. This would apply both in the home and workplace market. As other technologies advance, how could wearable devices integrate to ease or smooth that transition? Follow up piece in the making, Kevin?

  • I question whether wearables need to be "disruptive". I own a few current generation wearables, and find them excellent augmentations to my smartphone. I'm not a "fitness freak", but I use my Fuelband as a motivation tool to keep active throughout the day and to push myself that extra to make the daily goal I've set.

    I don't necessarily need the Fuelband, but for a quick look at my most current data while I'm on the move, I don't want to have to haul out my phone each time (I know, 1st world problem), so in that sense the Fuelband serves it's purpose very well.

    I think the true "disruption" that wearables could have is in contextualizing data into a glance-able format, allowing the phone app to show the broader context: history and further deep details, for example. These devices allow the user to be notified that something has happened, quickly decide to respond or not, without having to get committed to each and every notification.

  • Thanks Sascha, yes RFID was the first generation tech for the Internet of Things. However, what works for logistics is sadly lacking for personal tech use cases, which are much more demanding on the sensor and processing power front.

  • Ok- 2nd attempt to reply. I am puzzled in the conclusion: between the 'lack of processing capabilities' and the actual use of wearable devices, innovation will continue. It may take more iterations and generations before the usage gets a clearer and more defined message. Until then, are you suggesting that Silicon Valley VCs shall pack it in and stop innovating in the wearable devices market? Wouldnt you agree that the wearable design iterations and innovations that we see clearly in front of us, do not necessarily answer whether or not, the wearable devices market, itself has a massive (commercial) potential?