The Growing Value Of Wearables
Updated: Sep 14
The wearable market has always been misunderstood. Right at the beginning, most industry watchers made the mistake to assume that the volume of sales these kinds of devices will achieve would be almost one to one to that of mobile phones. The reality has been quite different. Sales have been pretty flat over the past couple of years. Yet, I firmly believe that the value of wearables has been underestimated almost as much as the initial sales forecasts were overestimated.
A Quick History of Wearables
Let's do a quick recap of where the wearables market started and where it had gotten to.
You might be forgiven to think that Apple kicked off the wearable market in 2015. As it is often the case, Apple was able to capitalize on the efforts than others had made from the likes of Pebble, Nike Fuel and Jawbone UP, all available on the market by the time the first Apple Watched launched. The value then was pretty simple: fitness.
When Apple entered the market, Apple Watch was positioned like a piece of jewelry that was able to give you notifications and run apps. It did not take long for consumers to make a couple of points quite clear:
While smartwatches need to be visually attractive, they were not jewelry
Trying to replicate all the functionalities of the phone onto a smartwatch was more confusing than helpful, a pain-point that particularly resonated within the Android Wear ecosystem
Fitness and notifications were the two strongest selling points.
Apple decided to pivot to fitness and health with Apple Watch 2 and they never looked back.
Outside of Apple, there were brands like Fitbit, mostly successful in the fitness band category and Samsung that tackled both the fitness band and smartwatch market with its own OS, sports brands like Garmin and Suunto that delivered professional sports level data and fashion brands like Withings, Fossil and Montblanc that focused on hybrid watch designs.
In 2016, when Apple launched its first AirPods, the term wearables started to expand to include earbuds. The earables category became the new exciting category to be in as voice-first interfaces and digital assistants rolled out across operating systems. While we are still in the infancy of what earbuds can do from a sensor perspective, it is clear there will be a significant role for them to play in creating a personal ambient computing experience as XR experiences start to pick up
The Unseen Value
So now that we went down the memory lane of wearables, where is the market today? From a sales perspective, the overall wearables market, including earbuds, is growing. You might disagree with me, but I believe it is important to look at the wearables opportunity in such a way to appreciate the value these devices bring when considered a platform rather than an accessory.
As brands expanded from fitness into health, the value of wearables has become more critical. Equipped with more and more sensors, these devices have gone from counting steps and using heart rate to measure calorie burn to measure irregular heartbeat, sound pollution, fall detection, stress level. In the process, wearables have gone from being an accessory to your phone to a device in their own right.
During the COVID-19 quarantine, wearables played a role in keeping us healthy and in touch with the people we love. Not having access to your gym or regular outdoor activities drove many of us to be creative in how we have been trying to keep healthy. Whether you are taking a Peloton class or do yoga with your kids, wearables have been helping us to keep track of our activity and nudge us not to be trapped in front of a screen for hours on end or simply validated that we felt as bad as we did because of a bad night sleep.
For people with older relatives, the inability to go and visit them created more worry than usual. While video calls helped have a visual check-in on their loved ones, they could also rely on wearable devices to alert them in case of an emergency, providing some extra peace of mind.
Moving from Useful to Critical
As much as wearables played a role during the shelter in place phase of this pandemic, it is really as countries across the world open up to return to business that I see an even more prominent role for wearables to play. A lot of the attention today is around contact tracing and, in most cases, the story is about smartphones. Still, smartwatches and fitness bands have one great advantage over phones and other devices, which is that they are always on our body.
As quarantine restrictions are lifted, there is a lot of opportunity for wearables to play a role in helping us touch fewer surfaces either by using mobile payments and tap and pay or opening a door at the office.
While a lot of the attention on contact tracing has been on consumers through the Apple and Google initiative, there have been some exciting steps on the enterprise side as well. As we return to work, wearables can play a critical role in keeping us safe not just by contact tracing but by informing companies on changes needed within an office, a manufacturing floor or a school to minimize the risk of exposure. Just last month, Ford and Samsung talked about a trial they started in Michigan where a group of employees was using a wearable device to determine their 6 feet of distance.
Research is also interested in figuring out the role that wearables can play to track infectious diseases by predicting the onset even before any symptoms start. In the case of COVID- 19, in particular, Stanford healthcare Innovation Lab has been attempting to predict infection before the symptoms emerge to alleviate the issues with testing availability and turnaround time. They have been asking for Apple Watch and Fitbit users who have had a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, or have been exposed to somebody who has known or suspected COVID-19, or are at higher risk of exposure to share their data. The data collected will help researchers validate their algorithm.
I am sure we are just at the start of hearing about companies working on solutions involving wearables, as one thing is clear, we can must do as much as possible to be prepared for the next COVID-19 moment. With sensors becoming more sophisticated, battery life improving thanks to smarter silicon platform designs and connectivity attach rates growing, I see wearables graduating from a nice to have device to one that positively impacts our life in areas such as health and fitness, safety and all-around wellness.
This article first appeared on Forbes.com
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.