The Problem With Wearables

With the news that Google has halted the sales of Google Glass indefinitely, the general failure of Android Wear to blow up and get huge so far, and Apple Watch still quite a ways out, I think it’s instructive to ask why the wearable space has failed to become a thing so far.  Lots of commenters are blaming the “glasshole” phenomenon for Glass, but I think it’s fundamentally simpler: Wearables are going for a fundamentally smaller use case than did smartphones or laptops, or even tablets.  There’s just inherently not that much there.

Here’s what I mean: when you’re getting a computing device, anywhere from a desktop machine down to a smartwatch, you’re trading power for accessibility.  A desktop is a way better computing device than a smartphone!  It has a bigger screen, more fluid input, better speakers, and of course far superior processors/memory/disk-space/etc.  But of course it’s only available to you at your desk.  The smartphone is available to you everywhere.

The last 20 years of computing history have been driven by increasingly omnipresent computing devices.  First laptops meant that you could use a computing device not just at your desk, but any desk, or even on the bus.  Then smartphones meant you could have a computing device with you at all times.  Tablets came in a little later, and tried (with much less success than either smartphones or laptops) to carve out a niche between them.  And now wearables say, “What if you could have a computing device that was even more accessible to you than your smartphone.”

But it turns out that there’s not all that much more accessible than your smartphone.

Have you ever split a bill with a group?  Say you have a $100 restaurant tab.  If you can split it with one other person, then instead of paying $100, you pay $50, and obviously save $50.  Split it with two people, and instead of paying $50, you pay $33, saving…  a kind of disappointing $17.  Still, it’s not chump change.  Split it with three people, and instead of paying $33, you pay $25, and now you may be wondering why you’re bothering to rope in additional people for just $8.  Split with 4 people, and instead of paying $25, you pay $20.  Five people goes from $20 to $16.67.

So the gain there is front-loaded.  Finding one or two people to split your tab with is enormously worthwhile.  Finding another five after that is the same amount of work for massively less gain.

And that’s how it works with accessibility, too.  Smartphones are already massively, massively accessible.  You can, and the majority of smartphone owners do, literally live their entire lives within arm’s-reach of your phone.  To get out my phone and start accessing it takes me literally less than two seconds most of the time.  There’s just not that much more accessibility to get.

If I use a smartwatch instead of a smartphone, I shave maybe a second off the time it takes me to start interacting with the device, and I gain a little convenience in some cases (I can do it less obtrusively, I can do it with something in my hand, I can do it sitting down more easily).  But I lose something on the general order of 85% of the screen-size of my smartphone.  I lose almost all of my ability to do any input.  Even something as simple as reading a text may involve scrolling.  And of course I need to buy and manage one more device.

All the low-hanging fruit in making computing devices more accessible has been picked.  There are no hit products left to find in this space.  That’s not to say that wearables won’t come — they will, eventually, probably mostly when we’ve gone through a couple more generations of making fundamental computing hardware components smaller and cheaper.  It’s just that they won’t be giant game-changers, because there’s inherently little ground in “stuff you can do by making it easier to see a screen.”

I will carve out one caveat: if someone can find a really important new thing to apply computing to, that demands computing be applied in very small increments all the time, then maybe we’ll have created new ground for wearables to exist in in a truly important way.

But those things — what we could call new-idea killer apps — have been thin on the ground even for smartphones.  Smartphones are a massive success, certainly, but there haven’t been many truly novel uses for them seen.  Most of what people do on smartphones are tasks they used to do on laptops: check email (or other forms of messaging), browse the web, play games.  They just can do those in more places.

The only really genuinely big new thing that you can do on a smartphone that doesn’t really make sense on a computer is Uber (or, ahem, its competitors).  Getting a cab dispatched to where you are right now is genuinely a big market and has been awesome.  But it’s an idea that’s well-suited to the smartphone level of accessibility: you don’t need a wearable to shave a few seconds off your interactions with the Uber app — you certainly won’t pay hundreds of dollars for it.

There haven’t been many ideas like Uber.  Most smartphone apps are either just ports of something you’d do on a laptop, or are useless to 99% of everyone.  But if someone can come up with something that’s as universally useful as “transportation,” but is suited to the kind of accessibility that wearables give, then wearables might find their space.

And that, to bring this back around to Glass, is why Glass failed.  The concept of the “explorer program” was that such applications existed, and that all we really needed to do was get Glass into the hands of enough people that they started to see how it could apply to their lives.  And it turns out: Nope.  Nobody came up with something brilliant that made Glass a must-have.  It was pretty much “shave a few seconds off of reading my texts and emails” and “shave a few seconds off of taking out my camera.”  As long as that continues to be true, wearables will never be hits.


2 thoughts on “The Problem With Wearables

  1. Pingback: Microsoft HoloLens | Sandor at the Zoo

  2. Pingback: Apple Watch Predictions | Sandor at the Zoo

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