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Will wearables still be their own product category in 5 years?

There was quite a bit of buzz around the TandemLaunch office this morning following some big acquisition news over the last 24 hours: Intel acquired the smartwatch maker Basis for ~$100M, while Oculus VR made headlines (and made a few people angry) with their $2B pickup from Facebook. It was a big day for wearable computing, that’s for sure- with important implications for TandemLaunch companies like Mirametrix and Backtrack. But it got me thinking again about why wearables are currently thought of as their own product category, and how long that will last.

Basis-Watch-review-bottom-angleAsk anyone who reads TechCrunch about the latest trends in startups and technology, and you’ll hear an awful lot about wearable computing. It seems that wearable products are showing up with potential to change the way we do all sorts of everyday things: Google Glass, fitness trackers, the various smartwatches, personal health monitors, and many more are expanding the scope of what ‘wearables’ can accomplish, and making people think hard about what the wearable landscape will look like in 5 to 10 years. My prediction? I bet that in 5 years no one will be talking about wearables as a product category anymore. Why? For the simple reason that we won’t be so fixated on the ‘wearable’ label, and more concerned with what products actually do again.

I imagine that in 5 years, we’ll think of wearable devices in the same way we currently think about touch screens. Unless you work in the display technology or haptics fields, I’m willing to bet you don’t think about touch screens very much. But you probably use one hundreds of times a day, every time you pick up your phone. Even so, I don’t think of my phone as a ‘touch screen phone’, and I doubt you do anymore either. (1) To me, the screen itself is just one of many enabling feature of my phone that doesn’t command my attention very often.

There are other places, however, where you do notice touch screens- on products where touch screens don’t really make sense, or are difficult to use for some reason. Greg Kumparak’s piece in TC the other week about touch screens in cars is a great illustrative example- it’s much easier and safer to turn a physical radio dial than it is to fumble around with a laggy touch screen when you’re driving. Just because it works in other products doesn’t necessarily mean it should be used here. I wrote the other week about this phenomenon creeping into wearable tech: sometimes, taking an existing product that already solves a customer need and making it wearable doesn’t actually add any value, just an extra unnecessary feature.

So why do I think wearables in 5 years will be analogous to the touch screens of today? I’d bet that over the next 18 to 24 months, we’ll see an explosion of startups making wearable products that will be classifiable into two types. The first category will be ‘wearables for their own sake’- products that, although exciting and cool, don’t actually address any significant customer needs in a meaningful way. The second category will be those products whose wearable nature is simply an enabling mechanism for solving a real problem.  In hindsight, we’ll think of products in the first category the way we think about touchscreen car radios, and products in the second category will have become as ubiquitous as smartphones. We just won’t think of them as wearables- we’ll think of them in terms of the jobs that they do for us.

When that day comes, and I don’t think it’s too far off, ‘wearable’ won’t be a product category- it’ll just be one of many design features that innovators will consider when building a new product. That’s when wearable technology will truly have gone mainstream, and here at TandemLaunch we can’t wait.

 

1. It wasn’t always that way, though- remember the bruising physical keyboard versus touch screen typing arguments back when the first iPhone came out? This discussion made sense at the time, because we used our phones differently back then and there was a legitimate case to be made that physical keys were superior to touch screen typing for text messaging and composing email. You don’t hear so many people making that argument these days, though. Phones have evolved, and touch screens simply melted into the background.

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