Wearables – I’m Not So Sure…

The big deal at CES this year was wearable computing and communications devices – smartwatches and such. The next billion-dollar market? Maybe, but big questions remain.

I have heard from many people over the past two or three years how they no longer wear a wristwatch. The reason? Why bother - their smartphone does it all, and their smartphone goes with them everywhere. It's a little hard to argue with this logic - the user interfaces, richness of the information and the experience, and fundamental connectivity of the smartphone easily encompass the primary function of a wristwatch - telling the time - along with adjuncts like alarms and reminder beeps. Well, all functions except one, anyway.

And that one is the technologically-silly but culturally-vital element of the fashion statement. Why would anyone wear a Rolex or similar expensive timepiece? Well, making that statement is very, very important to many. Not to me, however - I still occasionally wear a watch, but it's a $40 Casio that's solar-powered, atomic-clock synched, and great as a backup alarm when traveling. But that "occasionally" is becoming less and less frequent, as my iPhone has become ubiquitous.

Still, we can assume significant (but not a billion dollars or even close to that) gross sales of smartwatches and similar products from those making a technological fashion statement, gadget freaks, and hobbyists. It seems likely that this space will commoditize fairly quickly. Qualcomm's Toq is designed more as a technology demonstrator, and will see only limited production. Samsung and Pebble, among others, are clearly going for volume despite relatively high prices, but I think they will be disappointed once the early adopter market is satisfied. At that point the commodity vendors will introduce US$40 smartwatches, and that will be that. Apple has probably realized that it's now too late to get into this space - they really only do well when they control the paradigm shift - and so it's likely back to the drawing board in Cupertino.

I also worry about building a mass market where users have to learn to use, power, synchronize and etc. yet another device in their already-complex lives. I still spend significant time every month learning about new features, particularly in software upgrades, in products that I absolutely depend upon. Do I really need more complexity? Well, perhaps, yes, I do, but I think most people really do not.

But let's look beyond watches. OK, I don't have a positive forecast for Google Glass and similar head-mounted devices; we're already seeing some pushback on privacy and even safety (such as when operating a motor vehicle) grounds. But what about more specialized applications such as healthcare monitoring and even therapeutics? Now we're talking - the smartphone as control panel and relay point for communications via a WLAN or WWAN for all manner of wearable (or even implanted) devices.

So, wearables as fashion statement, sure. We've seen that with handsets themselves. Some people will really like the operating paradigm of smartwatch as a cache or mini control panel for a handset. The low-priced, commodity market will see many purchases, especially as holiday gifts, but we're not looking at a monster shift in how mobile computing and communications technologies are packaged or used. Specialized applications, like telemedicine, personal security, and peripheral I/O (a second screen, a virtual keyboard, etc.) all hold great promise, however, and, of course, the required technologies like Bluetooth Low Energy and even low-power variants of Wi-Fi exist today. So - watch this space, but don't expect a smartwatch on every wrist.

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