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The Apple Watch and Wearable Hope

Cavan Canavan, @cavancanavan
01.08.16
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The Apple Watch is a failure! Sales are terrible, and it's the next Newton. Not really; but now that I have your attention, let's speak for a minute about this perceived wearable market messiah and its "failure."

For most of us, our first exposure to mass-market wearable trackers was the Nike+ system in 2006. It was a brilliant blend of technology and physical motion, and it pushed us to dream about the possibilities of smart, wearable devices. It made us wonder: If this was the beginning, what would be next? We dreamed of biometric feedback and personal analysis with incredible health benefits. We hypothesized long-term, broad data sets with huge interventional possibilities that would augment our lives, make us healthier, help us lose weight and serve as a personal throughway for all of our biometric data.

However, we were continually disappointed. For the next nine years, we received either false promises, step and stair tracking systems with the occasional heart rate monitor or a face-mounted camera. Our imaginations over-promised and then companies under-delivered.

Crowdfunding leads to crowddisappointing
It didn't help that Kickstarter and Indiegogo debuted around the same time that wearables were beginning to fire our imaginations. Crowdfunding fed our ideals, serving as a hub for campaigns that promised to realize our biometric whims. Never mind that these were unknown companies, often with unknown executives, who didn't understand the complexity of the hardware space and manufacturing need, or have a viable go-to-market strategy. Yet, we pledged just the same because we hoped. And we were let down. Now we approach these promises cautiously because we've realized that hardware is difficult and that, although companies mean well, it's extremely difficult to go from concept to reality to scale.

Google Glass as poster child
Google Glass is a prime example of an audience who was emotionally invested in the potential of an idea before it was realized. We saw Google Glass and imagined a world where we could glean instant insight into the environment around us; a world where computer vision would identify objects and provide prompt feedback or instructions. Fixing a car? Open the hood; here's how to fix that complex engine issue. Walking in a foreign country? Here's an instant translation of that sign you can't read, and here's contextual insight on the history of the museum you're entering. When Google announced that Glass was coming, we let ourselves dream of possibilities. Surely Google would deliver something incredible, and what we had imagined would come true. It didn't. Instead, we received a socially awkward camera on our face that could tweet.

Apple comes to save wearables
Much like Google, when we heard that Apple was entering the wearable space, we thought assuredly they would deliver something incredible, something that realized our imaginations. Apple pushed us into digital music with the iPod, and they introduced ubiquitous web, GPS and touch screen with the iPhone. In many markets they weren't first, but the company has the ability to read a market and wait, introducing technology at the right time. They understand that a great product is more than creating great hardware but also demonstrating why it's useful to us.

So, we hung our hope on Apple for the realization of the health benefits and evolution of the wearable space. Where Google had failed, Apple would succeed. We expected a brilliant device that would create a paradigm shift for the wearable market.

Only, we were let down again. The battery life isn't great, the sensor access is incredibly limited (probably because of the battery issue), and they haven't proven to their users that the Apple Watch is going to improve their lives or health. They gave us great hardware, but they haven't proven why we need it. To be fair, this is version one, but the lack of sensor access that has become an industry standard is restrictive and is holding back what could help make these devices revolutionary.

Fitbit, Misfit, Basis, Apple, Jawbone and even Nike's FuelBand, prior to its discontinuation, don't permit access to the sensors on the device. New sensors equal new data, and new data breeds new insights and ecosystems. Yes, they provide steps, but who really cares? Give us direct access to the raw data from the accelerometer, heart rate monitor, galvanic sensor, and more. As an analogy, GPS as a sensor changed our lives dramatically, but imagine if your phone didn't provide GPS access for developers. Currently, the wearable space is more similar to the early 2000s, when Garmin controlled the complete map vertical with no developer access. They made their own apps, devices and algorithms, and if you wanted to make an app for it, too bad.

Hope
In the end, was it Apple's or Google's fault or failure, or did we let our imaginations drive our expectations faster than the technology could evolve? Is it a bad thing that we can collectively see so much potential for these new technologies? We've reflected, written, read, posted and spoken about the incredible potential benefits that wearables will bring for years, and although we're let down, we still believe. Even though the Apple Watch hasn't seen a holiday season, is still on version one, has sold more units than all smartwatches sold in 2014 combined (estimated 10.5M vs. 6.8M), and managed to sell out of its 14k gold, $20,000 devices in China in less than an hour, we would still label it a failure. That's how strongly we believe.

Depending on your reference point, the wearable space is predicted to be a 200-300 million device shipment market by 2020, representing up to $53 billion in hardware sales with between 35% and 79% CAGR. These predictions illustrate our continued belief and hope that the space will change how we work, live, eat and play, pushing us into a realm of quantum health, where we'll be able to choose a myriad of physiological and health paths based on lifetimes of accrued, correlated data. However, to realize these market shifting predictions, the device hardware must evolve, the sensors must evolve, the algorithms must evolve, and we need open access sensors that let developers innovate and create. Until then, we're stuck hanging this hope on Kickstarted vaporware, tweeting face cameras and uninspiring step trackers.

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