Lowenstein's View: Wearables--hip or hype?

Mark Lowenstein

Wearables are the gadget world's equivalent of frozen yogurt shops: they're popping up all over. Signs of an accelerated hype cycle: analyst reports with hockey stick forecasts, conferences seemingly every other week, and a media frenzy over the next mass market digital gadgets… glasses and watches(!)

So far, the wearable market has been mainly oriented around products such as the Nike+ FuelBand, Fitbit, or Jawbone Up that track fitness activity, sleep patterns and vitals. Walk into Best Buy and you'll see about 20 lookalike products that do much of the same thing, offer a fairly limited range of functionality, and are aimed mainly at health and fitness enthusiasts. Already, this part of the market looks saturated to me.

But we're at an important juncture with respect to the wearable market. A large number of companies, across a broad range of industry sectors, are working on wearable products and technology. Several high-profile product launches are planned in the coming months. The key question is, whether wearables continue along their current trajectory--distinct, standalone products aimed at particular market segments--or whether there's the breakout gadget or concept that has broad market appeal, either as a new product category (like the smartphone or tablet), or functions as an important companion to the existing products in our digital lives.

I believe there are a few things that need to happen in order for wearables to become a mass market category.

Broader Range of Functionality. It appears that the "wristband" and the "watch" concepts are being designed for separate markets and with distinct functionality. But few consumers are going to buy both. The departure point for me would be a wearable device, such as a watch, that combines the functionality of today's wristbands and with location capability found in higher-end TomTom and Garmin watches. Capabilities would include:

  •  Fitness and activity tracking. Like today's wristband products, but would add location capability. For the real fitness enthusiast, a digital pedometer fails to capture many activities.
  • Body measurements. Weight, vitals, sleep, calories burned
  • Elevation and outdoor temperature

Navigation. We've seen navigation follow a trajectory from car-based system to PND to smartphone. The watch could be a very convenient companion device here, delivering step by step directions, providing traffic alerts, acting as a real-time compass, and providing a more accurate way of tracking activity.

Companion to Smartphone. This is where we have to think carefully about what type of functionality would be useful to have in a wearable device, since screen and input capability are limited. Think of how you pull the phone out of a pocket to check the time, confirm a calendar appointment, or quickly scan e-mail headers. This alerting/notification/quick scan capability would be the ideal companion to the smartphone. Features would include:

  •  Calendar--alerts, notifications, reminders
  •  Messaging--some combination of the "hub" concept, incorporating email, text, Facebook, Twitter, etc.--but with headers only and filtering mechanisms for most important/VIP/flagged.
  • Alerts/Notifications. This would cut across categories of apps that have an important alert/notification concept. Examples include calendar reminders, urgent to do items, traffic alerts, weather alerts, and so on.
  • Headlines. Breaking news, sports scores

An important part of this will be appropriate settings in marquee apps to send alerts/notifications to the appropriate device. Think Evernote, weather.com, CNN, and the right options in Facebook, Twitter, etc. to find the right balance between useful and overload.

Low Power Options. A key challenge in a small screen device will be how it communicates with other devices, such as your phone, and the network/cloud. Battery life has limited the feature set in existing wristbands and smart watches--GPS being a good example. One promising development WiFi Direct, which is a framework for integrating Bluetooth, WiFi, NFC, and location technology into wearable/embedded devices. Broadcom, for example, has announced its Wireless Internet Connectivity for Embedded Devices (WICED™) portfolio, which incorporates WiFi Direct. We also have to recognize that these devices will have occasionally work in off-line mode. 

Quantified Self Super-App. One element that will cement wearables as an important new category is the development of a first-rate control center for the "quantified self." This takes what is today a discrete series of data points and combines it into a holistic view. Important categories include: activity, fitness, sleep, certain health indicators (for example vital signs, weight), and nutrition. Over time, there will be opportunities to add additional health information as we move toward electronic medical records. There is a great opportunity here for Apple, Google, Facebook, or Microsoft, or the wireless operators to develop this sort of super-app or control center that syncs information across apps and devices. There are also some companies, such as MapMyFitness, and FitnessKeeper that are positioned to play a broader role as the wearable category expands.

Standards and APIs. A lot of behind the scenes work has been done to ensure that data syncs across devices and apps. Most of this has been centered around fitness, health, and nutrition data, as well as mapping and location. As the wearable market expands to a broader range of devices, functionality, and market segments, we need to ensure that this commitment to standards and openness continues.

Fashion Accessory. Wearables will have to be attractive fashion accessories. GPS watches are for fitness geeks, Google Glass is (at least for now) for tech geeks. Lots of thought has to go into color, fit, UI, and durability. Fortunately, there are companies outside the tech world, such as Nike and Coach, who are working on products or partnering with OEMs. It will take a breakout design, such as the original iPod, to be a real hit in this category. A litmus test: would you buy this as a Mother's/Father's Day gift?

Layer in the Capabilities.  It will be tempting to incorporate voice capability or cellular modems into wearable devices. But there are important tradeoffs in terms of size, power, and performance. Again, I think of the wearable as a companion device, not a replacement device. So, for example, we might consider limiting voice input to commands rather than freeform navigation, which is less reliable and consumes resources. There are important design tradeoffs depending on how many sensors/modules/radios are to be incorporated in wearables.

I just looked around the café where I'm writing this column and out of the 30 people here, two are wearing a watch (both are women). Will this be different a year from now?

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.