Wearables Won’t Make It

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In recent years, wearable technology has grown very popular. In addition to a wide array of scientific, healthcare, and law enforcement fields, wearables are also starting to appear in consumer markets. Google, Apple, Samsung, and a host of other large technology companies have begun to develop their own consumer targeted wearables, many of which have access to web technology.

As web developers, it’s important that we take a deeper look into this emerging trend, considering if whether or not we should invest in learning the skills needed to build for these new devices.

Defining the types of devices

Now before we go any further, I think it’s important to determine what defines a wearable. For the purpose of this article, a wearable is a piece of technology designed to be worn and for multipurpose everyday use by a consumer.

Examples of these would be Google Glass, Smart Watches, and all day fitness trackers like Fitbit. Many of these devices run an OS, have marketplaces for users to download apps, and are designed to simplify daily life. There are several other electronic devices that can be classified as wearables, but are designed to solve real problems for specific use cases.

In this article, we are not referring to these types of devices. Examples of these would be items such as body cameras worn by police officers, medical devices, and Polar heart rate monitors (I wear one of these when I go to the gym, and it is exceptionally accurate and useful). I’ve done a lot of thinking on this subject, and as far as I can tell, 2015 is going to be the year that the wearables market falls flat on its face. Lets take a look at a few reasons why.

Problem 1 – Web Browsing

Yes, your wearable device can browse the web. The problem is the that your browsing experience may be severly limited. If you’re using some form of smart eyewear like Google Glass, interactive components like hover states and keyboard events can be problematic. It’s because of these types of limitations that Google Glass has implemented a “view only” model of web browsing, where users can zoom and scroll through a website, but they cannot interact with it.

The problem of web browsing worsens for smart watch users. While keyboards and touch interactions are available, the real problem is fitting everything in the viewport. It is in this application where we start to run into things like keyboards that don’t fit on the entire screen, and a myriad of vertical height and zoom constraints.

Sure it might be possible to browse the web from a wearable device, but with all of the difficulties involved, one has to ask why not just use a cellphone?

Problem 2 – Battery Life

When I wind down for the night, I plug my phone into the charger. While admittedly only a personal preference, I would hate to have to worry about charging my eyewear and watch as well. But of course the problem gets bigger than that.

The real problem is that a watch, or a pair of glasses, is typically smaller and lighter than a cell phone. The battery is a lot smaller too. If your small and compact wearable device is expected to do enough to warrant its own operating system, you can expect that its battery won’t last very long.

At this point my cellphone battery doesn’t even last a full day (granted, it’s over a year old), and I’d be surprised to see a watch compete with that. More importantly, one of the reasons that non-smart watches are still sold in a world where everyone can look at their cell phone for the time is because of their dependability.

Non-smart watches can be very durable and their batteries can last for months or even years at a time. The smartwatch can’t compete with that.

Problem 3 – Connectivity

Granted, there are several ways to ensure that your wearable device can have access to the internet or cellular network. You can use Bluetooth (further draining your cellphone battery), Wi-Fi (if Wi-Fi happens to be available), and in some cases a stand-alone wireless plan (if you’d like to pay for another wireless plan).

Problem 4 – Accuracy

While more related to dedicated wearable fitness trackers, smartwatches do come with heart rate monitors and step counters. The problem is that they’re not very accurate. What really counts as a step to a device that is attached to your wrist? Scientific American recently published an article dedicated to this topic.

While their conclusion was that these trackers are ultimately good, as they get users to be more active, the unpopular truth is that they can’t really be counted on, because every fitness tracker reports different results.

Problem 5 – Consumer Demand

While there is a demand for wearables, it’s not very strong in the consumer markets. If you ask me, most of it is related to the issues I’ve highlighted above. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the following –

I think the biggest reason wearable technology isn’t taking off is because anything your device has to offer already exists in your pocket. Your smartphone has a camera, a bunch of apps, and a data plan. What else do you need?

What this means for developers

Even though I don’t believe in the marketability of the product, there’s no telling what I could learn from those who do. That being said, I think it makes sense to pay attention to those involved in developing for wearable devices.

If you’re interested in developing for wearable devices, or at least making sure your site is presentable on them, I would suggest ensuring that your site is as responsive and user/device friendly as possible.

If you’d like to go one step further, consider installing SDKs for the wearable devices your targeting. I’ve found that it’s quite difficult to find good resources for web developers interested in wearable devices, so please sound off in the comments if you know of any!

Conclusion

As a web developer, I’m not worried that I’ll have to acquire new skills, or adjust my current ones, in order to accommodate the wearable market.

While several companies are rushing into the field, the public reception has been lacking. The demand for these types of devices has been very low, simply because consumer oriented wearables just don’t have anything new to offer. Google, Samsung, Motorola, and Apple have been hard at work creating smartwatches and glasses that look great, but do nothing more than bring cell phone level technology closer to the users face.

Maybe we should learn from the decline of the “tablet revolution” before we introduce a new category of device.

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