What are 'appcessories' and why should we care about them?

This new category of mobile technology is starting to draw some attention from research firms in the sector.

As society hurtles forward into the post-PC era, the smartphone will overtake the PC as the platform that connects the greater computing infrastructure with the non-computational. The difference is mobility: smartphones that are smaller than an iPod and have more power than PCs of just few years ago are able to connect with new types of low-cost devices. Some, like the Nike+ Fuelband, are well-known, while some are still in design and others have not yet been developed.

What is happening is the large mobile software developer community is targeting low-cost devices built from standard components and radios that have also undergone rapid cost reductions.

Technology advisory Canalys has defined these phenomena to be a new category, which they have named appcessories. Chris Jones, Canalys Co-founder, VP and Principal Analyst, said:

"Some appcessories will be wearable devices, such as bands designed to be worn on the wrist, arm or leg, eyewear or devices in clothing. They will have sensors, wireless communication technology, storage and many will have screens. But appcessories don’t stop there – basketballs, bathroom scales and pianos can all interact with an application on a smartphone or tablet."

Canalys believes that appcessories are going to be a major product category that will really start to take off this year, as the likes of Apple and Google bring major products to the market.

Smartphones have many sensors: motion sensors, environmental sensors and position sensors. But advances in plastic moulding, solid state fabrication and Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) make it impossible to anticipate all the potential combination of various sensors and control logic and their applications that could be included in a cloud-connected smartphone to serve a user’s mobile lifestyle. This is especially true when the device is loosely coupled using Bluetooth to log data to a smartphone or deliver an alert either to or from a smartphone.

A quick look at what $79 can buy, the retail Sensors Kit for Arduino, gives one insight into the inexpensive prototyping that is possible within the reach of all mobile developers who want to create a new product within this category. Once a market of millions of consumers is identified, these devices can be manufactured at scale at very low cost using new fabrication techniques for bonding MEMS, integrated circuits (ICs) and injection molding.

Inexpensive off-the-shelf components will allow developers and manufacturers to create reasonably priced end products, which will drive progress in the market. The most critical issue is best summed up by Canalys Analyst Daniel Matte:

"The greatest challenge for technology companies seeking to make an impact in this space will be to provide compelling new use cases and experiences, such that consumers will demand these products in addition to the mobile devices they already own."

Once a design is worth the risk to take to market, manufacturing and design engineers can turn the dials and optimize the end-product appcessory for price and performance.

Greg Milette, co-author of "Professional Android Sensor Programming," cites a lumbar spine posture sensor as an example of how diverse appcessories can be.

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