Wearability is Not Enough

I want to believe.

The forecasts for wearable computing are remarkable. The headline in Wired declared, “Wearable Tech Will Be as Big as the Smartphone,” but the article went even further:

“We’re...seeing an explosion of these devices on the market.... A new device revolution is at hand...wearable devices are poised to push smartphones aside.” (link)

So wearables aren’t just a new market, they’re the replacement for the smartphone.

The article acknowledges that may seem like an outlandish prediction, but argues:

“It may seem laughable to suggest that people will soon neglect their iPhones in favor of amped-up watches, eyeglasses, rings, and bracelets. But then again, 10 years ago it seemed laughable to think that people would use their smartphones to email, surf the web, play games, watch videos, keep calendars, and take notes.”

Just for the record, ten years ago the PalmOne website told people they could use their Treo smartphones to do e-mail, surf the web, play games, watch live TV, keep calendars, and yes, take notes. It didn’t work as well then as it does now, of course, but people weren’t just thinking about doing those tasks on smartphones ten years ago, they were doing them.

It makes you wonder if Wired’s editors are all under age 25 or stricken with a tragic case of group amnesia. But I digress.

I’m a gadget guy. I love devices, and I especially love the emergence of a new computing platform, because it creates so much opportunity for developers and so much innovation for customers. So the idea of getting in on another new platform is incredibly enticing to me. If you work in technology, it should be exciting to you too.

But precisely because a wearable revolution would be so enticing, we should be super-careful that we don’t get swept away by optimistic groupthink. For every computing revolution I’ve lived through, I’ve seen several others that arrived decades late or fizzled out entirely.

So while my heart wants to drink the wearable Kool-Aid right now, my head says to step back, think about it, and ask if the foundations really exist yet for a new computing revolution.

So far, my head is winning. I do believe wearable computing has a bright future, and in some vertical markets it’s already taking off. But is it the successor to the smartphone? Not now, and maybe not ever. Here’s why.

Two fatal flaws

I think there are two big problems with wearable computing today. First, the term is a catch-all, not a category. Second, even if you get the definition right, I think we haven’t yet found the killer app.

What is wearable computing, really? The term is kind of self-referential: wearable computing is computing gear that you wear. It attaches to your body or clothing, like a pair of glasses or a watch or a brooch. But those are extremely different form factors. I’m a Google Glass user and I’ve followed smart watches ever since Fossil worked on its late, lamented Palm OS watch in the early 2000s. Watches and glasses are completely different beasts, with different usage patterns and very different strengths. Grouping watches and glasses together in a single category makes as much sense as grouping together missiles and cargo planes and calling them flyable devices. The label is factually correct but meaningless in terms of predicting how the market will develop.

So rather than talking about a wearable revolution, we should be asking if there’s a smart watch revolution or a smart glasses revolution coming. When you look at the world that way, it gets a bit less exciting, because you see the weaknesses in each category of product.

Will wearables eat the smartphone? The tech industry is always full of predictions that some new type of device is about to swallow another one. It’s called convergence, and I’ve been hearing about it ever since the late 1980s, when Apple strategist Ken Lim started talking about it.

But there are always many more convergence predictions than actual convergence events. In an example of successful convergence, home stereo systems used to consist of separate modules: disc player, amp, tuner, etc. They eventually converged to a single unit for many buyers.

On the other hand, for decades many computer manufacturers predicted the imminent merger of the printer and personal computer. Converged computer/printers were promoted heavily in Japan, and several prominent efforts were made to bring them to Europe and the US. They all failed. Today PCs and printers are still separate devices.

Why do tech products sometimes converge and sometimes not? The general pattern is that devices converge only when the merged product is a fully-functional substitute for the devices being replaced. So smartphones rapidly killed the PDA because they could do everything a PDA could. Printers and PCs never converged because making a combined PC and printer required some pretty heavy compromises on the quality of the printer. Instead, printers merged with scanners and fax machines, which did not require major compromises. The only place where converged PC-printers got serious traction was Japan, where desk space is sometimes at such a premium that people were willing to accept a lower-quality printer in exchange for a smaller footprint.

So, for smart glasses or smart watches to replace smartphones, they have to be able to take over all of the functions of smartphones, without a major loss in functionality. Can they do that? Absolutely not.  The screen is too small on a watch to browse, and smart glasses lack the touch controls that would let you control a browser or sophisticated app.

Even more importantly, neither device has the battery power needed to function as your full-time phone. In fact, today most of them rely on the smartphone to give you wide-area connectivity when you’re on the go. In other words, they are smartphone accessories, not replacements.

I can imagine a future wearable product that could do a lot more. You could browse the web or run a complex app if the glasses or watch had a full gesture-driven interface (something like Leap Motion, not the awkward stem-swiping interface of Glass). And eventually batteries will become powerful enough that a small one fitting in a watch or glasses could power a cellular radio for a full day. But that will require at least several years of development, plus a significant breakthrough in battery chemistry that can’t be forecasted. We’ve been waiting for it in smartphones for more than a decade; don’t hold your breath. By the time it happens, we’ll have bendable screens, and we’ll be able to create smartphones that collapse down to the size of a roll of LifeSavers candy.

So the real competition to a smartphone-replacing watch or pair of glasses is probably a smartphone so small that you can wear it on a cord around your neck or wrist. Everything eventually gets small enough that it’s wearable, and yeah I guess you can call that a wearable computing revolution. But it won’t happen this year, it won’t happen next, and we may all be quite a bit older and grayer before it becomes practical.

Where’s the killer app? If glasses and watches can’t replace a smartphone in the foreseeable future, the other way they’ll get broad adoption is if they do something else that a smartphone can’t do at all, or cannot do as well. This is the way most major computing platforms get started: They enable something new and compelling, people buy them for that purpose, and the devices then branch out into other usages. Mainframes started as military calculators. PCs started as word processing and spreadsheet machines, BlackBerry started as an e-mail pager, and the iPhone started as a phone that could also browse well and play music.

What’s the compelling, broadly appealing usage that could drive adoption of a smart watch or glasses? So far I don’t think there is one.

I’ve been playing with Glass for weeks now, and have put a lot of apps on it. It’s a bold experiment, I applaud Google for trying it, and there are some things I really like about it. I had tried camera glasses before, but without a screen you couldn’t tell where the camera was pointed. People often move their eyes rather than their heads, so a camera focused straight ahead often doesn’t show what the user is looking at. Because there’s a screen in Glass (and a surprisingly bright, readable screen at that), you can see exactly what you’re photographing. The sound playback also works surprisingly well (sound recording sucks in a noisy environment).

But for me, the negatives outweigh the positives. Battery life is very short, and the user interface based on swiping the stem of the glasses is alarmingly nonintuitive and limited (it’s like trying to have a conversation where you can only say “yes” or “no”). The spoken commands work a bit better, but I’m not comfortable speaking to my glasses in public, and I doubt most other people will be either.

But the biggest problem is that none of the apps I’ve seen so far makes me want to wear Glass on a regular basis. The apps are vaguely interesting, and the geek in me enjoys playing with them. But I’m not getting the sort of big revelatory feeling I had when I first used PageMaker on the Mac, or when I first browsed the web on an iPhone.
We have seen some traction for wearable devices in vertical markets, especially sports and health. Smart watches and other wearable fobs are a great way to track your exercise, and sports goggles are a cool way to make videos of your ski runs. It’s very telling that these devices have sold well on their own, without any need for hype or even a heavy marketing budget. That’s what happens when you find the right app -- it takes off on its own.

Unfortunately, fitness is too narrow a vertical to carry a platform to the takeoff point. You may get nice sales for the company that made a device, but the installed base of devices won’t get big enough to attract a large group of third party developers who then create the apps that take the device horizontal.

The main horizontal usage for wearables that’s being advocated today is notifications. You can configure Glass to show incoming messages, and most of the smart watches can display things like caller ID for your smartphone. The idea is to let you consume (and send) small amounts of text and images without taking out your smartphone. To save a few seconds per notification, you have to pay for a separate device, learn to use it, and remember to recharge it every night.  Will the benefit exceed the cost and hassle for tens of millions of people?

It’s been tried before. Does anybody remember Spot, the smart watch platform Microsoft promoted in the mid-2000s? You could configure the watches to give you notifications, headlines, and messages, and they didn’t even require a smartphone because they received notifications from sideband FM broadcasts. Despite a hefty Microsoft investment and several licensees building devices, Spot went splat in the market.

That does not mean notification wearables are destined to fail forever. Many tech product categories fail repeatedly before they succeed. But Spot did prove, very decisively, that just adding notifications to a wearable device won’t drive demand. There’s some additional step of clever software, improved user interface, or integration with other products that’s needed to make the app a killer.

If it can become a killer at all.

So the reality is that today’s forecasts of a wearable explosion are based on faith, not analysis. If you believe a wearable killer app is coming, then it’s easy to convince yourself that many millions of these things will be sold. I want to believe that too. But I think I need to see the app first.


Anonymous said...

Spot on perspective. I think you hear a lot about wearables as smartphone replacements because the people who write that stuff think only in one dimension -- device size. They are not thinking about physical form factors and "jobs to do ."

I sometimes wonder if Apple leaks information about its smart watch efforts just to throw competition off. It certainly fooled the fast follower, Samsung. Meanwhile, Apple quietly works on 64-bit processors and TouchId and similar sustaining innovations. It may be working on disruptive innovations, but I'll bet those efforts are highly secretive.

Anonymous said...

Completely agree. Wearables in their current form do nothing to capture the mass market. I'm a Pebble Smartwatch owner, and whilst I think it's a great device and does actually add something to my life, I think it's far too hard a sell to anyone beyond the early adopters.

Tog did a nice piece on what a smartwatch could be, which is fairly compelling.

However, we're a long way from that vision. The only thing that has made me go "wow" is getting a pertinent Google Now notification on the watch, but that's more due to the wow factor of Google Now than the smartwatch itself.

The problem I see for smartwatches in their current form is that the best ones will demonstrate good aspects of "quiet design", such that they provide little ambient snippets of information in as unobtrusive a way as possible. And that sort of thing isn't really shiny enough to sell...

Michael Mace said...

I agree completely regarding Apple leaks.

Apple does best when it can watch the failures of others in a market and then improve on them. If I were still there, I'd be very tempted to deliberately leak "news" that we were working in a variety of different categories. We'd force our competitors to waste time and money all over the map, and then we could cherry-pick the categories in which we thought we had a useful product insight. I don't know if they are doing that, but it would be a logical approach.

Anonymous said...

I agree with overall premise of your article in terms of wearable computing but i would nonetheless like to point out that as accessories especially in health and fitness market they have huge potential, probably not enough for giants like Apple, Google but others who are a notch below.
Simply two predictable trends smartphone ownership and demographics (more older and obese/physically unfit population) will need them a lot more. This smartphone-wearable device would be almost akin to computer - printer combination and could provide health-IT sub industry.

Chuck said...

I have seen very little wearable "computing". There are a lot of wearable sensors (a camera is a sensor, as is a heart monitor) and minimal displays, but very little computing. Most all "wearable" devices use a smartphone as their compute engine. No different than last week/year.

Jeffrey Siegel said...

Fitness is too narrow a market but healthcare and well being isn't. Our healthcare system is bankrupting world economies. And yet, most of the major illness can be solved. Even CNN did a segment called, "The Last Heart Attack" (which should be watched).

Let the chance of that knowledge absorb into the minds of consumers and your watch may very well be the thing that'll save your life.

MikeTeeVee said...

For me, the Pebble makes phone notifications far less intrusive. My phone is now totally silent, and it can usually stay in my pocket. My wrist buzzes, I quickly glance at my wrist, and I'm done.

Adding a remote notification display to my phone has completely changed the way I use my phone. For me, it's a phone accessory, akin to a bluetooth earpiece. And the battery life is comparable for both accessories, several days on a charge.

Oddly, discussions of wearable technology rarely seem to mention bluetooth earpieces, which are pretty ubiquitous, and often seem to be worn as jewelry.

Aaron Miller said...

"grouping together missiles and cargo planes and calling them flyable devices" good one!

i agree with most of your analysis, we're not there yet. But a ways down the road...way down...I can foresee a good case for wearable devices once voice recognition and size are improved significantly. (Or ideally, a neural interface?). If I could whisper, hum (or think) a few commands into a computing device, with a fast connection to vastly powerful cloud-servers, I think we'd all use them and use them well.

For now, my Fitbit is pretty dumb, but it works well...

Steven Hoober said...

Agree almost entirely. I could nitpick the stereo convergence (ask me sometime) for a better example, and I think the Pebble nailed the interaction much more closely (notify, little or no activity) than the Gear. I still use mine almost exclusively, so my other watches sit gathering dust.

Unknown said...

The smartphone is pretty much the personal computer today -- it's not a phone,, it's a general purpose computing platform. There aren't any wearables that are general purpose personal computing platforms (except, maybe, Glass if you accept "augmented reality" as the only output, contextual cloud computing as the processor, and input limited to voice and pointing your head in a specific direction as "the new mouse").

There's no technology today that can support wearables of acceptable size with their own radio WAN connection. Wearables need to talk to smartphones. If you want a "sanity check" on the penetration of wearables, just calculate the addressable installed base of smartphones that support Bluetooth Low Energy, so whatever else their low-pwer local connections might choose to use. That's the gate for market growth, not the availability of wearable devices.

best regards,

TDC123 said...

I think the company that gets wearable right be it apple, Google, Samsung etc. will need to make a device that has really long lasting battery and I mean months or even years rather than days. Battery technology may or may not get better but something which may have a good chance is energy scavenging, from light, vibrations, hand movement, heat etc. Something like citizen watches eco drive, if any company can crack that, it has a good chance of being a success. Apple seems to working towards that.

Anonymous said...

Michael, this is the first serious blog where I have read the suggestion that the Apple iWatch rumours were false, leaked by Apple with the aim of wrong footing the competition.

I do believe they are false stories put out by Apple to wrong foot the competition. But what are the precedents for this? Is it something they have done before? And what was the effect, or what did Apple gain, if not just time?

Chan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chan said...


Please please please

We need a better editable comments system. Move over to wordpress may be?

Chan said...

Kudos Mace, Thanks again bashing the vaporware!

Pardon my none-native English, but this manageable I guess :-)

And you just re-established the me in me, and made sure he just isn’t gone insane, the notion I just thought whether the geek in me had just died when I pass by 35 years. :-) I am iWatching the Google Glass and iWatch menace takes place, being totally uninterested.

Boy, Google (Andy) fans were head-over-heals over me echoing why the hell that I am not wearing any. (even owning) That sh..sh.. Head-Gear or Hand-Gear, not that I actually had any meaning to get that glass thing near me anyway.

Seriously you are proving me, "that geek part of me" just isn’t dead.

Naturally I was so compelled to try the newest tech trend in market since when, I presume my early obsession with the SONY Walkman in my childhood days kick started this. And my list is equally interesting just as anyone was born in to that golden era before the Wired people hired new stuff. I scented early most of the tech marvels lately.

Last in the line was Galaxy Note 3 I guess, ironically some shops here (Sri Lanka) were selling it pre-bundled with that sh.. sh… thing for additional 250 odd bucks. I passed and just went with the Note 3 and even that now back in my re-sale list.

Not that I think Note wasn’t unique enough. It is, after a decade of daily Wacom Stylus, and had been a Palm Pilot user. I think it’s the next revolution in education. People call it productivity computing. Whatever, Samsung just didn’t figure it out right yet. May be a Productivity Pen needs bit of Google or Apple push from the OS end. That’s all. It’s already a Killer App.

On contrast I heard in the circles someone who had brought the gear over the hype, had just returned it back to the shop and smashed in front of the sale person, saying few %*#%@ words, that they have given him an inferior product. That it’s battery life was so unbelievably lousy. The shop had a hard time convincing him what he got was what it was mentioned in the spec. Bummer!

It may be an isolated case. But it tells a story. Samsung, you've got a be bit imaginary when the norms were set so high, or running after the Apple grapevine. In my view until now a clock's battery life was measured in months if not in years. You can’t crash-the-party without a Viagra shot in it. (a killer app in Mace’s words)

So here were are.. basing another set of Newton, Tablet PC or the likes before their times have come.

Even when they do. I personally only interested in the none-intrusive notification part of the wearables. But there may be an killer app hidden there for journalist, sportsmen or for some special tasks which we haven’t figured out yet.

And also it gives us one hope. I don’t think that Steve told that he cracked the code for wearables but something TV.

But fingers crossed, sh… sh… what he may have meant of this.

Also for the record, only common tech wearable, Bluetooth Headsets were never main stream. They were there, I always keep them loosing somewhere one in a month pace. They never helped me much, unless keeping me away from Police tickets, or almost did caused me an accident which they supposed to prevent, and always being an more of an annoyance.

And Mace, good that you are back in to writing business again. How’s Zekira thing going?