Wearable Computing: Smart Money on Smartwatches?

It seems like the rumors about Apple launching a smartwatch any-minute-now are turning into the next Apple Television Set—the rumor that will not die simply because people want it to be true, no matter how many times industry analysts predict it’s going to be announced in the next 12 months... just like they said six months ago, and six months before that.

It’s not difficult to see the appeal of the smartwatch. From Dick Tracy’s 2-Way Wrist Radio in 1946 (upgraded to a videophone in 1964) to James Bond’s various watch-gadgets, it’s an idea that’s been in the public consciousness for longer than most people have been alive.

Smartwatches resurfaced on people’s radar in 2012 with the Kickstarter campaign for Pebble, a clever eInk-based watch that could deliver notifications from your phone. At the time, it was the most successful Kickstarter-funded product ever. In the time it took for Pebble to go from concept to execution, though, Samsung swooped in with the Galaxy Gear, shipping 800,000 units to stores mere months after Pebble finished fulfilling backer orders.

Samsung only managed to sell 50,000 of them.

A photo of three Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatches.
Samsung announced the Galaxy Gear 2 in February, in spite of the Gear’s underwhelming performance.

Is it really any surprise? Fewer and fewer people see a need for wristwatches. With a clock on every computer, cell phone, tablet, and video game system, most people under 25 don’t even own watches anymore—and those who do are more likely to wear them as a fashion statement than as a genuinely useful tool, leading to the rise of companies like Nooka selling watches that pride themselves on displaying the time in a unique way rather than the most intuitive one, or companies selling ten-thousand-dollar watches with ridiculously overengineered internal mechanisms proudly on display.

So no, in spite of the tease that was the 6th-Generation iPod Nano, a touchscreen with a clip that many accessory companies provided wristbands for, I don’t think Apple has anything to gain trying to duke it out with Pebble and Samsung for a market they already killed just for the sake of getting an even tinier screen on people’s wrists. No, the future of wearable technology—and of Apple, if Jony Ive is thinking the same way I do—is in the iPod’s recent past.

Specifically, in a partnership with Nike. The Nike+ module, a bluetooth -based device the size of a small stone that fits into runner’s sneakers for fitness-tracking, was one of the first real pieces of “wearable computing.” The fitness-tracking market has exploded since then, into a $330 million a year industry with Fitbit at the top of the heap. Nike continues to compete with their Nike+ FuelBand, as does Bluetooth accessory maker Jawbone with their “UP.”

Fitbit Force, Nike+ Fuelband2, and Jawbone UP.
All three major fitness wearable wristbands, side-by-side. Fashion is as much of a difference as function.

Apple doesn’t have to care which of these devices succeed. No matter which one you buy, Apple wins—all three prominently feature smartphone apps running on the latest iPhone as a core part of their functionality. Nike, Fitbit and Jawbone are all giving them free a bucket of free advertising and brand reinforcement, while showing them exactly what the future of wearable computing is. In fact, they probably benefit from the competition. Wearable computing is ultimately fashion, and fashion is all about choice and individuality.

Nobody needs a big, bulky smartwatch whose only customization is a wristband and a plastic bezel in a different color. Nearly 3 in 4 Americans have a supercomputer more powerful than the ones that helped us land on the moon in their pocket at all times. A supercomputer that can wirelessly communicate with both nearby devices and with the Internet. Recent iOS device releases have even focused on expanding this capability, incorporating even more efficient versions of Bluetooth that can let devices operate on a single charge for up to three years and a dedicated low-power chip to process sensor data without chewing through battery life.

The promise of wearable computing isn’t in new interfaces, but new, more specialized sensors. The fitness items are only the first wave. Soon, we’re finally going to start seeing medical devices like insulin pumps and cardiac event monitors finally clear the lengthy and costly regulatory process and start communicating with smartphones via Bluetooth rather than by having to manually hook them to a landline telephone for data transmission. After that? The sky is the limit.

I won’t be shocked if Apple comes out with some kind of iOS-friendly watch. But if they do, I expect it to be less like the Samsung Galaxy Gear and more like their Smart Cover for iPad—a first-party proof-of-concept that shows just how cool and useful something designed for iOS devices can be, kicking open the flood gates for imitation and iteration by accessory makers worldwide.

And then maybe they can finally get back to figuring out that TV set thing.

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