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.