Wearable technologies have a huge future. For Apple, they'll create a new product category with an iPhone-like revenue stream! No so fast. Smartwatches and other wearable consumer products lack key attributes for breaking out of the novelty prison.
'I Think the Wrist Is Interesting' Thus spake Tim Cook on the opening night of last May's D11 conference.
When pressed to discuss his company's position on wearable technologies, Cook was unusually forthcoming: Instead of pleading Apple's Fifth, Cook launched into a substantial discussion of opportunities for his company to enter the field, calling wearables "a very key branch of the tree".
But when asked about the heavily publicized Google Glass he parried the question by suggesting that people who don't otherwise wear glasses might be reluctant to don such an accoutrement.
I don't find Tim Cook's dismissal of eyewear very insightful: Just go to a shopping center and count the eyewear stores. Many belong to the same rich Italian conglomerate, Luxottica, a company with about ten house brands such as Oakley, Persol, and Ray-Ban, and a supplier to more than twenty designer labels ranging from Armani to Versace. (As the perturbing Sixty Minutes exposé on Luxottica pointed out, the company nicely rounds out its vertical dominance of the sector through its ownership of EyeMed, a vision insurance business.)
Eyewear, necessary or not, is a pervasive, fashionable, rich product category, a fact that hasn't escaped Google's eye for numbers. The company is making an effort to transmute their geeky spectacles into fashion accessories. Courtesy of Counternotions I offer this picture of Sergey Brin and fashionista Diane von Furstenberg proudly donning the futuristic eyewear at the NY Fashion Week:
On a grander scale, we have a Vogue article, Google Glass and a Futuristic Vision of Fashion:
The company's efforts to make Google Glass fashionable might be panned today for pushing the envelope a little too far but, in a not-too-distant future, they stand a chance of being viewed as truly visionary.
If eyewear doesn't excite Tim Cook, what does? To him, the wrist feels more natural, more socially acceptable. We all wear one or more objects around our wrist(s).
The wristwear genre isn't new (recall Microsoft's 2004 Spot). Ask Google to show you pictures of smartwatches, you get 23M results and screen after screen like this one:
The genre seems to be stuck in the novelty state. Newer entries such as Samsung's Gear have gotten mixed reviews. Others contend a 2010 iPod nano with a wristband makes a much nicer smartwatch.
Regardless, by comparison, pre-iPod MP3 players and pre-iPhone smartphones were getting better press - and more customers. Considering the putative iWatch, the excitement about Apple getting into this class of devices appears to be excessive.
The litmus test for the potential of a device is the combination of pervasiveness and frequency of use. Smartphones are a good example, they're always with us, we look at their screens often (too often, say critics who pretend to ignore the relationship between human nature and the Off button).
The iWatch concept makes two assumptions: a) we'll wear one and, b) we'll only wear that one.
Checking around we see young adults who no longer wear watches -- they have a smartphone; and middle-agers use watches as jewelry, possessing more than one. This defeats both pervasiveness and frequency of use requirements.
Then there's the biometry question: How much useful information can a wearable device extract from its wearer?
To get a better idea about what's actually available (as opposed to fantasized), I bought a Jawbone UP wristband a little over a month ago. With its accelerometers and embedded microprocessors, UP purports to tell you how many steps you took, how long you've been inactive during your days, it logs your stretches of light and deep sleep, and even "makes it fun and easy to keep track of what you eat". Once or twice a day, you plug it into your smartphone and it syncs with an app that displays your activity in graphic form, tells you how well you're doing versus various goals and averages. It also suggests that you log your mood in order to "discover connections that affect how you feel."
At first, I found the device physically grating. I couldn't accept it the way I'm oblivious to my watch, and I even found it on the floor next to my bed a couple of mornings. But I stuck with it. The battery life is as promised (10 days) and I've experienced none of the first versions troubles. I traveled, hiked and showered with it without a hitch other than the cap covering the connecting pin getting a bit out of alignment.
Will I keep using it? Probably not.
Beyond the physical discomfort, I haven't found the device to be very useful, or even accurate. It's not that difficult to acquire a useful approximation of hours slept and distance walked during the day -- you don't need a device for these things.
As for accuracy, the other day it declared that I had exhibited a substantial level of physical activity... while I was having breakfast. (I may be French, but I no longer move my hands all that much as I speak.)
The app's suggestion that I log my food consumption falls into the magical thinking domain of dieting. A Monday morning step on a scale tells us what we know already: Moderation is hard, mysterious, out of the reach of gadgets and incantations.
For a product to start a new worthy species for a company as large as Apple, the currency unit to consider is $10B. Below that level, it's either an accessory or exists as a member of the ecosystem's supporting cast. The Airport devices are neat accessories; the more visible Apple TV supports the big money makers -- Macs, iPads and iPhones -- by enhancing their everyday use.
With this in mind, will "wearables" move the needle, will they cross the $10B revenue line in their second or third year, or does their nature direct them to the supporting cast or accessory bins?
Two elements appear to be missing for wearable technologies to have the economic impact that companies such as Apple would enjoy:
- The device needs to be easily, naturally worn all the time, even more permanently than the watch we tend to take off at night.
- It needs to capture more information than devices such as the Jawbone do.
A smartwatch that's wirelessly linked to my smartphone and shows a subset of the screen in my pocket...I'm not sure this will break out of the novelty category where the devices have been confined thus far.
Going back to Tim Cook's oracular pronouncement on wearables being "a very key branch of the tree", I wonder: Was he having fun misdirecting his competition?
PS: After two July Monday Notes on the company, I'll wait for the Microsoft centipede to drop one or two more shoes before I write about the Why, When, How and Now What of Ballmer's latest unnatural acts. There in an Analyst Day coming September 19th -- and the press has been disinvited.
PPS: In coming days, to keep your sanity when trying to drink from the Apple kommentariat fire hydrant, you can safely direct your steps to three sites/blogs:
- Apple 2.0 , where Philip Ellmer-DeWitt provides rational news and commentary, skewers idiots and links to other valuable fodder.
- Asymco, where Horace Dediu provides the absolute best numbers, graphs and insights into the greatest upheaval the tech industry has ever seen. Comments following his articles are lively but thoughtful and civilized.
- Apple Insider. You might want to focus on learned, detailed editorials by Daniel Eran Dilger such as this one where he discusses Microsoft and Google (partially) shifting to an Apple-like business model. Daniel can be opinionated, animated even, but his articles come with tons of well-organized data.