Wearables Won’t Make It

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.

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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.

Replies

  1. zackw says:

    Naturally, yes. Unnaturally though? Why inflict that too?

    What surprises me is that all the health problems we suffer through our whole lives are thought of as just the price of being alive. That is to say, shrug your shoulders and just accept that poor eyesight at 5 years old, eczema, obesity, high blood pressure, poor digestion, bad sleep, food sensitivities, allergies, foggy thinking, no energy or zeal, low stamina and no motivation are just normal functions of living. We don't think twice about poor school performance, extreme mood swings, depression, anger, addictions, dependency on drugs. It doesn't strike people as odd to see heart attacks in 30-somethings, cancer in toddlers, diabetes in teenagers, 8 years olds hitting puberty, breast cancer in 20 year old girls.
    A stack of prescription meds is a common sight in any household, kids are getting herded into the ADD/ADHD camp left and right. But it's all just normal cause after all we are dying slowly after we're born right?

    We praise every poison invented by science and medicine, as long as it's got a patent and turns a profit, it's the best thing ever invented for mankind! While vitamins, minerals, organic food, avoiding toxins and processed food, and getting exercise are for quacks and spirit people who live in tents with crystals and heal by the power of cosmic touching.

    But that's not me. The strait decline in human health is directly correlated to our complete immersion in unhealthy food, gadgets, drugs, medicine, and lifestyles.
    It is not normal to be born into obesity, be pumped with vaccines and antibiotics, get on drugs by 7, hit puberty at 8, get asthma and eczema, be hospitalized by 25, and have your first heart attack on your 30th birthday and go shopping for assisted living housing at 45 and your first wheelchair at 50.

    But nothing will change as long as we ignore the damage that we are causing ourselves by our addiction to new technologies supposedly built for our enjoyment and productivity.

    I'm always reminded of the quote in Jurrassic Park. Something like "we're so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we didn't stop to think if we should".

    A wearable device, strapped directly to your skin pumping microwaves into your cells does not sound like a "should" to me.

  2. Science told people that watching TV was harmful for their eyes but people keep doing it, so this perspective is very good but the majority of the people would not care about it. Also, we've been receiving a lot of radiation with our computers and smartphones but we are still here.

  3. We all know what they said about the iPad when it was launched. "No one will need it, no one will buy it.". And we know they were wrong. I get the same vibes when I read this post. I am quite sure wearable devices will be widespread in the future.

  4. It is not normal to be born into obesity, be pumped with vaccines and antibiotics, get on drugs by 7, hit puberty at 8, get asthma and eczema, be hospitalized by 25, and have your first heart attack on your 30th birthday and go shopping for assisted living housing at 45 and your first wheelchair at 50.

    No, you're right, that's not normal. Luckily, since this sort of a life is not normal... it's more like an edge case that's not a big issue. Especially as it pertains to this conversation.

    We all know what they said about the iPad when it was launched. "No one will need it, no one will buy it.". And we know they were wrong. I get the same vibes when I read this post. I am quite sure wearable devices will be widespread in the future.

    I think I tend to agree. I don't want wearables myself. But I will admit that the market is in its infancy still. What use will they be? I... have no idea. If you had asked someone what use the iPhone would be, at the moment of its release, I bet they would not have told you that you'd be remote controlling computers with it, watching high definition videos on a connection faster perhaps than your own land line, and photo editing, document editing, remote controlling cameras, drones, and screens; as well as calling, texting, and etc.
    Just because we can't conceive of the ideas right now doesn't at all mean they won't happen. But, this "wearables will die" is a popular opinion at the moment, and therefore we'll see plenty of articles on the subject, I'm sure. And who knows - it absolutely could be spot-on!

  5. RT_ says:

    You have to consider the huge positive impact these devices can have on health too. Examples being that they can warn you of all sorts of defects, help you get a healthy nights sleep, call an abulance automatically if your health rapidly deteriates (heart attack, stroke, etc). Those are just some examples, there are many more too.

    In the UK 1 in 5 men die of a heart attack, And 1 in 254 people in the UK die of cancer. So lets for arguments sake assume all cancer is caused by gadgets,

    ~60,000,000 people in the UK
    ~20% die of a heart attack = 12,000,000
    ~0.4% die of cancer from gadgets = 240,000
    Assume gadgets can save 10% of heart attack victims by giving early warning and calling emergency services in the event of a heart attack. Thats 1,200,000 saved.

    So no gadgets = 12,000,000 deaths from heart attack alone
    Gadgets = (12,000,000 - 1,200,000 = 10,800,000) + 240,000 = 11,040,000

    Remember this is assuming gadgets cause all cancer, which they dont and that gadgets only save 10% of heart attack victims, which are just one thing they do health wise. And STILL gadgets come out on top overwhelmingly.

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