Feature Story

Would You Wear a Computer?

by Kristi Essick

Are wearable devices a passing fad, or are they here to stay?

On a recent foggy morning in San Francisco, a twenty-something commuter fiddled with his Pebble smart watch as he boarded the streetcar on his way to work, juggling an iPhone in the other hand. Asked why he had two smart devices, he replied, "The watch is just a toy, my iPhone is my life."

Smartwatches such as Pebble and Samsung Gear (and Apple's much-rumored iWatch); fitness trackers like Nike FuelBand and Jawbone Up; and interactive glasses like Google Glass are undoubtedly cool. But are they viable, mass-market products – or just destined for the dustbin of failed products?

Device makers, of course, are betting people can never have too many mobile internet gadgets.

"There is incredible demand for our product, and, this fall, more and more people will be putting an intelligent device on their wrist," says Pebble CEO and Founder Eric Migicovsky in a recent interview. Since May, 275,000 Pebble smartwatches have been sold online, at BestBuy and in AT&T stores, the company says.

As cool as wearable gadgets may be, history has shown consumers mostly stick to one main mobile device – and right now, that's the smartphone. Most of the smartwatch makers aim to succeed by connecting their watches to smartphones via Bluetooth, extending smartphone alerts and apps ‘outside of the pocket'. Other specialized wearables like the highly popular Nike FuelBand, are more or less standalone products – though still can be synced with a smartphone.

Whether billed as smartphone companions or standalone devices, wearable computers may be emerging at the right time to spur mass market uptake. A combination of factors – including widespread mobile broadband, low-cost hardware, and the consumer expectation to be ‘always connected' – have coalesced to create a perfect storm for wearables.

Certainly, analyst predictions on the uptake of wearable devices are rosy. ABI Research, which tracks the mobile device market, predicts ‘wearable technologies devices' such as smartwatches and wristbands will exceed 537 million annual shipments by 2018, with smart watches and glasses being the fastest-growing categories, and wearable fitness trackers accounting for the largest number of shipments.

"Sports and activity trackers are definitely mass market products," said Joshua Flood, analyst at ABI Research. "Furthermore, smart watches are on the cusp of becoming a big breakthrough, and next year, we will see smart glasses take off."

IHS Global Insights predicts the global market for wearable devices, including everything from hearing aids to smartwatches, will reach $9 billion globally this year, and $30 billion by 2018.

"Activity monitors will continue to see rapid growth, and smart glasses will reach unit ships in the low millions by the end of next year," said Shane Walker, an analyst at IHS. However, in terms of overall unit growth, I expect smart watches to experience the highest volume over the next five years as the larger CE manufacturers continue to push the devices, and then Google and Apple make an entry."

Credit Suisse is even more bullish on wearable mobile devices; the research firm believes the market could be worth $50 billion by 2017.

Despite the rosy picture pundits paint for wearables, consumers will ultimately decide whether these devices are essential tools, or just disposable toys. Right now, the buyer verdict is still out.

The Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, in particular, has suffered from some damning reviews. And Samsung has been at the smart watch since 1999, so it's hardly a new player in the space.

"Galaxy Gear just isn't something most folks need; it's not even something I wanted to keep on my wrist all day," said Christina Bonnington, a writer for Wired's Gadget Lab, in her review of the device.

Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester who covers "the internet of things", recently said at a conference:  "You can call me a smartwatch skeptic. I don't see that any vendor, with the possible exception of Apple, can make smartwatches a mainstream success."

When it comes down to it, consumers aren't even sure they want to wear smart devices. According to a survey from Cornerstone OnDemand, 42 percent of workers said they would not be willing to adopt wearable tech devices, even if asked to do so for their jobs.

Cheerleaders of wearable computers say we're simply in the early-adopter phase. After all, before the iPhone appeared, few people thought they needed an internet connection, weather, games, and music on their phones.

"Look at the way we experience mobile communication today; this is not the end point," said Andrew Sheehy, chief analyst at UK consultancy Generator Research, in a recent interview. He believes the smartphone is just the beginning of the mobile device revolution, pointing out the "phone" form-factor is fundamentally ill-suited to quick tasks like composing voice texts, checking information updates, and collecting and responding to automatic sensor input.

Whether wearable computers take off in a big way, or just remain fun toys, remains to be seen. But a combination of forces – including an exponential rise in mobile bandwidth and a huge increase in computing power on tiny chips – certainly give wearables a fighting chance to break into the mainstream.


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