Wearables outlook 2022: Smartwatches will still rule, Apple will still dominate

Three years out, Apple's WatchOS will still be the top software platform, but look out for the rise of smart earwear, too.

The market for wearable devices will continue to grow over the next three years and will continue to be dominated by smartwatches, with the Apple Watch continuing to be the biggest player.

Global shipments of wearable devices are forecast to reach 125.3 million units this year, up 8.5 percent from 2017, according to calculations by tech analyst IDC, which also predicts that 189.9 million wearables will be sold in 2022. That might seem like relatively modest growth for a tech product, but it's likely to be much faster than growth for either PCs or smartphones.

IDC includes clothing and 'earwear' in its wearables predictions, but at the moment the big categories are still watches and wristbands. Watches are forecast to reach 72.8 million units in 2018, well over half the total, with smartwatches accounting for roughly two thirds of the total volume. Outside of smartwatches, hybrid watches and some basic kids' watches will also continue to ship in large volumes, although growth for these types of devices will remain relatively flat. Growth for the wristband category, which covers more basic devices, will remain muted, although they will act as a stepping stone into the wearables market for first-time buyers.

IDC predicts that, among the smart wearable operating systems, WatchOS -- which powers the Apple Watch -- will remain in the lead, although its share will decline from 44.4 percent in 2018 to 35.8 percent in 2022 as other platforms gain traction. The second largest OS is expected to be Android with 22.4 percent share in 2022. Behind WatchOS and Android, Google's Wear OS will capture 19.8 percent share in 2022. IDC said the remainder of the smart wearables landscape will comprise smaller platforms and vendors, where it expects Samsung, Fitbit, and Garmin to dominate.

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Image: IDC

According to Ramon T. Llamas, research director for IDC's Wearables team, smartwatch operating systems will evolve in several ways. Smartwatches will focus on convenience by proactively providing glanceable and actionable information, and on providing new means of communication between users, which is where cellular connectivity (available on a few models already) will become important. "Smartwatch operating systems will emphasize connection, not only between users but between wearers and other smart devices and systems...expect further developments focusing on health, with the smartwatch playing a critical role in tracking your health goals and detecting potential ailments," Llamas said.

SEE: How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back (cover story PDF)

Earwear, accounting for less than two percent of the market in 2018, is on track to hit a 6.8 percent share in 2022, largely thanks to the disappearance of the traditional headphone jack on modern devices. Vendors are including biometric tracking into wireless headphones which will further help this category, IDC said.

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