Will 2014 Be The Year of Wearables? Sadly, yes. (Yawn)

If you were reading the Globe and Mail this weekend, you might have seen my 2014 tech prediction among those in the Globe Focus section. They didn't allow for much space, so here's a deeper dive into why I said: Wearable tech will be highly lauded and written off in the same breath; it will come to market too early to become mainstream.

By Pebble Technology, [CC-BY-SA-1.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Here's the thing that's been bugging me about wearables: I don't think wearable technologies are ground-breaking in their current incarnations. They just don't go far enough yet to get me excited. I mean, where's the innovation?

Let me explain:

When a product has a massive cultural impact, it does so because it manages to solve a nagging problem in a completely new way. Consider:
  • The tablet computer - converted computers into portable consumption devices
  • The Walkman - allowed us to take our music with us (vs. portable radios playing music from stations)
  • The Gutenberg press - allowed us to capture oral history in written form and distribute it to the masses
There are many more, yes, but the point is that these innovations solved a need (whether or not that need was actually known by its potential consumers, who may have only realized the need once the product was introduced).

But what problems do wearables solve?

The ability to wear tech on our bodies isn't really that new and it takes many different forms, and that's where I think lies the problem: Consider some of the popular wearables: Google Glass, the Pebble Watch, the much-anticipated (to be announced) Apple wearable-something-or-other, the FitBit Force or the Nike Fuel Band. They all do one thing (or a few things) really well. And if you had a device for every task, well, you might not be able to bend your arms at the elbow.

Taking some functionality and putting it on a watch is hardly innovative; it could be innovative, if it just went that extra step: make it all-in-one. Where's the smart wearable that doesn't need a phone tethered to it for data and connectivity? (Even Google Glass needs a phone for some functions, like Maps ans connectivity.) Where's my communicator cuff that can tell me the time, give me a read on the weather, receive my email and social media messages, text my hubby something I dictate a-la-Dick Tracy, monitor my sleep patterns and wake me gently with a soothing vibration? Without a phone? Why can't I get a wearable with minutes and a data plan from my telco instead of a phone? And why can't it actually fit my kid-sized wrists, without making me look like I stole my Dad's watch? Now, that would be innovative. That, I would buy.

Our phones are small enough (save, ahem, phablets) to fit into our pockets. They enable access to other people and to any media anywhere, at any time, assuming we have communication plans and connectivity. So we have access to information and can stay in touch, regardless of where we are. But what additional functionality will these interface watches will provide? I mean, unless we are too lazy to fish our phones from our pockets, or do we think that fumbling with a watch will be more culturally acceptable than fumbling with a phone in social situations... personally, I have my doubts.

When the iPhone 5S sells 6.5M units and is considered a failure, the Pebble Watch's 275k pre-sold units prove the point: it's a niche accessory for now. Sure, when Apple or Samsung (possibly) launch their versions later this year, the marketing will make them appear to fill a need and make them hugely profitable. But are they innovative? No. They might be sellouts but these first-generation versions will be a fad accessory. 

Until we truly figure out what to do with them, that is, until they contain all of the necessary functionality to merge together our other mobile tech, to replace a number of items (including our phones, themselves) instead of adding more bulk to our bodies, they will continue to be a nice-to-have, not a must-have. 

So, will 2014 be the year of wearables? Sadly, yes. There will be plenty and they will definitely bring in the dollars. But I won't be interested in the least until they can do one thing: compete with phones, instead of complement them.

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