The fuss over wearables: The Economist explainsON MARCH 9th Apple, probably the most successful technology company in history, held an event to launch its smartwatch, which will go on sale next month. In addition to keeping track of time, the watch measures the wearer's heart rate and activity levels, processes voice commands, gives alerts of incoming e-mails and calls and facilitates payments at tills. In other words, it does a lot of what smartphones already accomplish, but is worn on the wrist and must be close to an iPhone in order to function. Why is there so much buzz about this watch?
As smartphones have surged in global appeal, people have started to wonder what the next major technology trend would be. Many analysts have pinned their hopes on wearable devices, which contain small sensors to track and display information. This category includes everything from smartwatches like Apple's, to fitness bands that measure sleep patterns and exercise, to "smart" shoes that measure distance, to smart glasses that can take voice commands and display information. Wearables promise to measure personal data and save people time: a glance at one's wrist to see alerts takes fewer seconds than pulling out a phone. Companies in various industries, from mining to airlines, are also cautiously testing whether wearables can help improve efficiency or customer service.
However, while the number of wearable gadgets has grown, consumers still tend to be geeks and fitness fiends. Last year around 21m wearable devices were sold, most of them wrist-worn devices, according to IDC, a research firm. Wearable devices have failed to become mainstream for three main reasons. First, many of them are unable to function without a nearby smartphone, which limits their appeal. Consumers already have to keep track of several devices without adding another. Second, they are not yet considered cool. Google Glass, a pair of "smart" glasses made by the search-engine firm, were so clunky that even fashion models could not make them look good. Third, there is not yet a "killer app" that proves their usefulness in people's daily lives. Technologists imagine a future when wearable devices will act as verifiers of personal identity, facilitating payments, unlocking house and car doors and tracking people's activity and wellness. That future, however, is years away.
Apple has a record of pushing existing technologies into the mainstream, including the Macintosh computer, iPod, iPhone and iPad. This helps explain why people are so interested in Apple's watch. If the firm's new product is enticing enough, it could validate a whole category of technology. Apple has enough loyal fans to sell millions of watches this year. But wearable devices' utility for the masses remains uncertain. In the meantime, firms and software developers will need to invest more time and resources in designing new applications that will put the "wear" in wearables.
last updated november 2015