Wearable devices: Interesting, but don't bet the farm

There is no doubt that there's a lot of money to be made in wearables, but rush to market with the wrong product, service, or app and it's a guaranteed way to lose a lot of money, and fast.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

All signs point to the fact that wearables are going to be bursting onto the scene over the coming months in the form of smartwatches, fitness devices, and medical devices. There will no doubt be an almost irresistible temptation for companies – ranging from hardware makers to developers – to try to turn on a dime and head off into this new and exciting direction.

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And all that is cool, just don't bet the farm on this stuff being as big as the people pushing it tell you it might be.

I'm cautious about wearables – and I encourage others to be careful too – because while wearable computing devices seem like a totally new market that has evolved out of post-PC devices such as smartphones and tablets, they're not. Recent consumer tech history is littered with the corpses of wearable devices. Over the years I've seen things ranging from MP3 players fitted into glasses and watches to wearable fitness devices that log distance travelled, steps taken, route taken, and so forth. Some of these devices were a good idea, others not so much.

Another reason I urge restraint when it comes to wearables is the mixed success with which other smart devices have been received. Again, there have been countless smart devices unleashed on a market that didn't ask for them, didn't want them, and didn't buy them.

Want another example? Take smartphones and tablets. While these devices had been around for years, it was Apple that truly took them mainstream. After that, a whole raft of companies jumped on Android bandwagon as they hoped to cash in. While we have a lot of players still duking it out, they are all trailing a far behind Samsung.

Another example is the app phenomenon. Apps existed long before the iPhone, but it was Apple that made them mainstream. Pretty soon, everyone wanted their own apps and app stores, and while some gained a foothold – such as Android and the Amazon app ecosystems – others have had a tougher time – for example, the Windows and Windows Phone ecosystems – while others died completely – think BlackBerry PlayBook or HP TouchPad.

There is no doubt that there's a lot of money to be made in wearables, but rush to market with the wrong product, service, or app and it's a guaranteed way to lose a lot of money, and fast.  

So, what's going to be the big hit with wearables and what's going to sink without a trace? Well, if I knew that I'd be hip-deep in the market. However, given what I know of the current playing field, I think we can draw a few conclusions.

  • There are no guarantees, and even good products will flounder. The first year to 18 months is going to be a bloodbath.
  • If your wearable device or app for a wearable device does nothing more than duplicate something that a smartphone or tablet can already do, but on a smaller screen, it's likely to die.
  • People are going to want wearables to do everything, and so the design has to allow headroom for this. Also, eary adopters are going to demand new to remain interested. You have to deliver.
  • Medical is a risk-filled sector but it's the area I think most likely to pay off, if for no other reason that it is easier to make people freaked out about their health than anything else. Blood pressure, blood glucose, weight, cholesterol and so on are obvious metrics.
  • The fitness market is another worth looking at, but it is also a fickle one. Style and "wow factor" dominate, and this means that the lifespan of devices can be limited.
  • Fashion is a very fickle market. I would expect a few hits here, but a lot of misses.
  • The market will get crowded really fast, and this will drive prices down aggressively over a short period. The window for making a profit is short.
  • There is likely to be an aggressive upgrade cycle, shortening the profit window even further.

Remember, the "if you build it, they will come," philosophy is only guaranteed works in Field of Dreams.

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