The Updated Pros and Cons of Wearable Tech

Updated Article on wearable tech.In January of 2014, I wrote a piece for this blog entitled The Advantages and Disadvantages of Wearable Tech.

In it, I made a few informed guesses about a burgeoning, and very intriguing, market. Google Glass had just been released in a limited capacity and companies like Microsoft and Apple had already begun work on competing products. Since then we’ve gotten items like the Pebble smartwatch, the Apple Watch, the Fitbit and the Microsoft Band, to name just a few.

Some of these products have been more successful than others. Head-mounted items like Google Glass still haven’t caught on with the public in a major way. However, smartwatches like the Pebble and activity trackers like the Fitbit have sold well. Overall it’s hard to deny that wearable tech, though it has increased in popularity, is still a niche market. Apple is working to change that with their eponymous Watch, which received more than one million pre-orders within six hours. Indeed, if there’s a company who can make wearable tech more commonplace it’s probably Apple. Regardless, when I wrote my original article, it seemed like wearable tech was about to blow up in a major way. Now it seems that we’re still in a period of transition. Let’s take a look at where wearable tech currently is, and where it will likely be in the near future, with a look at three of its most well-known products. 

Fitbit

People with Fitbit.In 2007 James Park and Eric Friedman came up with the idea of creating a small wearable outfitted with sensors which could monitor their user during exercise. Not having the funds to create a proper prototype they went to investors with nothing more than a single circuit board in a small wooden box. With this crude prototype they managed to raise $400,000 but it wasn’t nearly enough. Not finding a company willing to indulge their vision they had to do it all themselves: finding suppliers, securing a means of production and overseeing the manufacturing of their device. By the end of 2009 they’d sold 25,000 units. Soon they sold enough to get the attention of Best Buy, who they soon partnered with. From there the business continued to grow. New models of Fitbit were developed like the One, the Zip and the Force. There have been a few bumps in the road, with some questioning the product’s accuracy, but such concerns have done little to damage the Fitbit’s success. 

Before the advent of the Apple Watch almost every piece of wearable tech sold was an activity tracker, and most of those were Fitbits. Fitbit activity tracker accounted for 68% of all wearable sales. Only 3% of wearable sales within that calendar year were for non-trackers. In a survey from Rackspace 71% of users reported that their wearable tech improved their health. 54% said it boosted their confidence. Since their domination of the 2013 market, the popularity of Fitbits has decreased somewhat but they still control about a third of the market with close to 10 million active users and nearly double that registered. They are now being sold in 45,000 stores in more than 50 countries. Indeed, in the early days of wearable tech Fitbit was the great success story, the ray of hope in what was a surprisingly slow-growing industry. However, times have changed, and now there are new competitors stepping up to the plate.

Apple Watch

Picture of Apple watchIn September of 2014 Apple CEO Tim Cook walked on stage at a press event wearing an Apple Watch. The device, he said, could be used as an activity tracker, with all of the functionality of devices like the FitBit. However, he also said that it could be used for much more, calling it “a new intimate way to communicate from your wrist.” Of course, Apple focused a great deal on aesthetics, offering many types of band and many overall aesthetics for their watches, which they detailed in a huge spread in Vogue. I had predicted in my original article that wearable tech would become more commonly adopted as it became more aesthetically pleasing. In retrospect I should have guessed that Apple would be the company to take that leap. Pre-orders for the Apple Watch were first made available on April 10th of 2015. They sold out within a few hours. Since then more aesthetics have been announced, including the Hermes outfitted with stainless steel and leather. Apple has kept sales a secret, with the company refusing to divulge exactly how many Apple Watches have been shipped. Estimates are positive. In late 2015 a survey from the International Data Corporation estimated sales of 3.6 million units, making the Apple Watch the second-most popular wearable after the Fitbit. Some predict that the watch sold double that amount by the end of the year.

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Indeed, smartwatches have been in the public’s consciousness for a long time. In a survey from the NPD Group only 52% of responders said they were aware of wearable tech but when asked which product they were familiar with 36% identified the smartwatch ahead of smart glasses and even fitness trackers. Although demand was there, the lack of a well-regarded mass produced smartwatch meant that even if early adopters wanted one it would prove difficult to find. The release of the Apple Watch finally allowed those with an interest in smartwatches the opportunity to purchase one, and they did not pass it up. In a survey from Salesforce about the effects of wearable tech on the corporate lifestyle 62% of responders said that they were planning on using smartwatches within the next two years. But it’s not just business applications that will drive purchases of the Apple Watch. Tractica has predicted that smartwatches will become more widely adopted than fitness trackers within the next few year. According to their current statistics Apple owns a whopping 68 % of the market. 

If these trends continue Apple will not only dominate the smartwatch market, but the wearables market as well. There are few companies powerful enough to combat Apple’s dominance of the market. One of them is Google. 

Google Glass

The imminent release of Google Glass was one of the main reasons I wrote my original blog post two years ago. At the time Glass sounded incredibly exciting as a means of augmenting one’s everyday reality, a way of implementing the power of a search engine into your daily routine to streamline your day and enhance your productivity.

The Google Glass

Glass was announced in April of 2012 and public anticipation grew leading up to its public release in 2015. However, by most accounts Glass has been a failure. Despite it being used successfully in medical and even military applications the devices just have not caught on with consumers. Recently Google shut down production on the Google Glass prototype, ending what the company called the “Glass Explorer program.” They’ve also deleted all of their social media accounts related to Glass. Many critics are calling the end of the product and a quiet admittance of Google’s failure. However, Google says they’re not done yet. An ex-Apple executive, Tony Fadell, is hard at work on the design for a new version of Glass, one which the company hopes will be more widely adopted. Whether that will come to pass is something we’ll have to wait and see.

In my original article I said that people would be slow to adopt head-mounted wearables because of the inconspicuous nature. Because it has not been widely adopted wearing Glass still brings the user a lot of attention. It also still makes people nervous. In a survey from Rackspace 51% of those surveyed said that privacy was the primary hurdle in their adoption of wearable tech. It’s easy to be paranoid when you’re in the same room as a guy with a camera on his head, and that fear isn’t going anywhere. If Google Glass is widely adopted a great many people will probably be recorded without their permission. As a part of that same survey 67% of responders said that wearables like Glass were in need of regulation and it’s hard to disagree. However, for a while it looked like Glass was simply a reality that we’d all have to start getting used to. By 2018 Glass was predicted to sell 21 million units, earning Google $10.5 billion in revenue. Now with Google going back to the drawing board and trying to create a product that will appeal to a wider range of users the future seems much less certain. Brand name recognition will both help and hinder the product when it is finally released, if and when it is, as many people seem to have already made their minds up about Glass. However, if there’s one company with the power and influence to take on Apple I’d bet on Google. I guess we’ll see when the new design is released, whenever that might be.

Looking at these three companies can tell you a great deal about the current state of wearable tech and current consumer attitudes towards it, but what about the current pros and cons of wearable tech. How are they different, and how have they stayed the same? Let’s end with a quick rundown. 

Pros and Cons of Wearable Tech

Pro: Wearable Tech is Convenient

Fitbit and similar products took off because they offer the user a convenient way to monitor their progress during exercise or even just throughout the day. It allows the user to keep track of stats like their heart rate, the number of calories they’ve burned and the number of steps they’ve taken. The Apple Watch is being marked largely as a quick source of information. Businesses adopting the watch are already using it to track customer data or view analytics on the fly. The watch allows users to learn important news stories, check messages and keep themselves informed all with a quick glance down at their wrist. That is a huge part of its appeal and a big reason why its already sold so many units.

Con: Wearable Tech is Limited

Before the Apple Watch most of the wearable tech sold had a very specific purpose. Activity trackers are meant to monitor the health and vitals of the user, and while they may have limited functionality beyond that they do not possess the range of abilities that, say, a smartphone would. The Apple Watch is a much less limited item, but it’s still confined by its size and its design. Based upon the smallness of its screen and its location on the body the Apple Watch still isn’t ideal for some applications, like extended web browsing sessions or making phone calls. As cell phone screens continue to get larger the limited size of the Apple Watch seems more and more problematic, though it hasn’t seemed to bother users so far. However, that may be because said users acknowledge and rationalize its more limited functionality. This may not be a problem in the present, but in terms of the longevity of such devices in comparison to smartphones or tablets it may be an issue in the long run.

Pro: Most Wearable Tech is Discreet

Fitbit and the Apple Watch succeeded where Google Glass failed largely because they are less attention grabbing. Lots of people have watches or bracelets. Not a lot of people have cameras attached to their faces. Overall, it seems that people are much more likely to adopt wearable tech if it can be seamlessly integrated into their outfits, and Fitbit and the Apple Watch are great options for those who want the features they offer without radically changing their look. Discreet wearable tech is becoming more and more common every year, and thanks to Apple it's becoming more fashionable as well. That’s great for adopters who care not just about their experience with wearable tech but also about the way the world views them.

Con: Some Wearable Tech is Not Discreet

Of course as discreet wearable tech becomes more and more popular items like Google Glass will become more and more stigmatized. Google has an uphill battle here, one which they’re honestly not likely to win any time soon. At the time of my original article I said that early adopters of Google Glass would be seen as outsiders and might even be feared or be the subject of prejudice. Two years later that situation has not changed. Many people are still worried about the privacy implications of Glass. Many are still nervous when they see it. As such, some view those wearing Glass with suspicion. This is, of course, not fair, as Glass has infinite applications which are totally above board and even beneficial to society, but the failure of Glass as a commercial product shows that the opinions of the average person have not changed in a significant way since my original article.

Pro: Wearable Tech is Useful

A 2014 survey by Rackspace and Goldsmiths found the wearable tech increased the productivity of employees by 8.5% and their overall level of job satisfaction by 3.5%. The potential is certainly there. Wearable tech outfitted with certain applications could streamline a wide range of businesses processes. In fact, Salesforce predicted that use of wearables in business applications would triple by the end of 2016. Currently there aren’t many companies using wearable tech as a part of their business plan, but it seems that there will soon be a great many more doing so. Whether this will improve performance significantly and change the landscape of the business world in some way remains to be seen. Regardless, it’s hard to ignore the idea that wearable tech could be used to streamline and/or simplify the duties of many employees across the world.

Con: Wearable Tech is Expensive

Currently the cheapest version of the Apple Watch, the Sport, costs around $350. If you want a more fashionable version, like one with a stainless steel or leather strap, that price could be doubled. The FitBit costs anywhere from $100-250, depending on what features you want. Before it was taken off the market Google Glass cost a fairly insane $1500. Whether these prices are reasonable or steep for you likely depends upon your level of economic success and love (or lack thereof) of tech gadgetry. Regardless, we’ve already established that wearable tech has limited functionality compared to smartphones and tablets. The rate at which it becomes more widely adopted will depend upon the attitudes of users. Would I pay $350 for what is essentially a watch that can tell you the news? Absolutely not. I have a phone with a clock in it. I’m sure you do too. I was excited about Google Glass because it looked like it could impact the way I interacted with the world in a pretty major way. I am much less excited about having a smaller, more limited version of a smartphone on my wrist. The longevity of these products will depend upon them offering more and costing less. A niche product can sell well in the moment but its staying power will be compromised. Time will tell whether or not the Apple Watch is a niche product or not.

What's to Come?

None of us can tell the future. That being said, if the projections are accurate it looks like wearable tech will soon see a spike in popularity. In. By 2019 CSS Insights predicts the wearable tech industry will be worth $25 billion. Apple will certainly get a huge piece of that. Whether activity tracking products like Fitbit will continue to enjoy their same level of success or gradually decrease in popularity remains to be seen. Google continues to be a wild card. At one time it looked like Glass would be leading the charge, but with its recent failure to gain mainstream approval it's hard to make any serious predictions about its success a few years down the line. Regardless, the wearable tech market continues to evolve as public perception of its products continues to shift. Two years after my initial assessment of the market a lot has changed (and a lot more products have been sold) but a lot has remained to same as well, like the privacy concerns of consumers. How will the wearables market be different two years from now? We can speculate, but basically we’ll have to wait and see.

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