Last month at Gigaom’s Mobilize conference, I hosted an interactive, breakout Mapping Session on the topic of what it will take to make wearable devices mainstream. We’ve seen some smart watches and Google Glass demos, but those feel like niche products. Is there something on the near-term horizon – or some set of “somethings” – that will tip the category towards mass-market status?
We often use Mapping Sessions to lay the groundwork for deeper analysis on emerging markets where we apply our Sector Roadmap approach. We’ve done Sector Roadmap reports on categories as varied as enterprise mobility management and content personalization. Sector Roadmaps are collaborative research efforts that match up competitors’ abilities to align with what we call Disruption Vectors, i.e., the key technology or market forces that drive emerging markets. Smart vendors can ride Disruption Vectors to gains in revenue or market share.
Two of the first issues that came up during the discussion were definitional: “What is a wearable” and “did smartphones set the bar too high as a definition of success?” Perhaps 10 million units shipped is a good number. That’s a reasonable figure for a small supplier, I suppose, but it wouldn’t rock the worlds of Apple or Samsung. Debating the definition of wearable actually teed off what the participants eventually concluded was the hub of the debate: are wearables just glanceable displays for existing smartphone functions? Or are they something more, something that takes advantage of new sensors and data sources?
Colin Gibbs has laid out his own opinion on which vectors companies need to ride to wearable success. Independently, the participants in the session identified the following:
- General vs. special purpose. Given the context of smartphones, which are full-blown general-purpose computing and communications devices, a key question for wearables is just how much of a subset of this can they be? An alert-viewer probably won’t appeal to every phone user, and perhaps only serious runners need that kind of a monitor. Would-be suppliers are choosing paths as we speak – some head down the general-purpose platform route while others are specializing. One thing’s a given: These devices must harness existing or new API-driven ecosystems.
- Identity/authorization. A wearable wouldn’t have to embrace full digital wallet functionality, but it could definitely be the gateway to premium services.
- Data-driven services. New services could amortize the cost of the device. For instance, a healthcare payor or provider would love to have med-taking and other health-monitoring on the person of customers.
- Pricing. Clearly, luxury goods can easily command unsubsidized smartphone prices. But mainstream watches, for comparison, cost $30-$50.
- We had an interesting debate between fashion vs. utility. If these devices are visible, clearly they have to have a certain aesthetic appeal. But raw utility can trump beauty, at least for early adopters.
- Accessible existing functions. Many of the participants assumed wearables would complement or hijack existing smartphone functions and user behavior.
We welcome your feedback on these disruptive trends, and on what might accelerate the success of consumer wearables. Have we missed or mis-emphasized anything that you believe will be key to driving the sector over the next 12 to 24 months? Continue the discussion by leaving a comment below.
Mapping Session Panelists