It’s just three months old, but Apple Watch is already the most tangible, well-known, and successful piece of wearable technology yet to hit the market. Apple is tight-lipped on how the product has performed since launch in April, saying only that it’s “exceeded expectations” and that they “feel really great about how we did”. Research backs that up. Wired estimates that Apple Watch has sold as well as the original iPhone, while the product has received a 97% approval rating from customers, according to a survey by Wristly. That puts it out ahead of both iPad (91% upon release) and iPhone (92%).
On the other side of the tech giant divide is Google, whose Google Glass continues to founder. Sales have been slow, reputation has nosedived, and in early July, the company’s Tony Fadell admitted that they may have made the product available too early. Comparing the rollout to the beta testing phase Google software undergoes, he said: “If you are only doing services based on electrons [like software], you can iterate quickly, test it, and modify it and get it right. But when you are dealing with actual atoms – hardware – and you have to get manufacturing lines and it takes a year or more to develop that product, you better understand what it is and what it’s trying to do and specifically what it’s not going to do.”
Google suspended sales of Glass in January, and though it’s set to return in its second iteration in 2016, a number of questions remain. How can the product find a practical, day-to-day application beyond mere novelty? How can it sell a user interface that’s entirely new and untested for most customers? And how can it persuade customers to remove technology from their hands and plant it on their face? Answers are not easy to come by, and even though Google is looking for ways to solve them (rumours suggest that Google Glass 2 may be enterprise only), a truly robust, complete product seems a long way off.
It’s easy to think that the wearable technology revolution has fizzled out then. After all, if Google can’t get it right, who can? But the leap to wearable technology is a sizeable one. Take up on smartphones and tablets was quick because both, fundamentally, deliver the same functionality and user interface as a desktop or laptop just in a smaller, more portable format. A tablet is a small, flat laptop, a smartphone is an even smaller tablet. You still type, swipe, scroll, and tap your way through any website you’re navigating, you just do it in a slightly different way with only slightly different changes in effort.
Glass, on the other hand, is such a monumental step in a different direction that take-up was always going to be slow. This isn’t just a question of the user adapting to a different piece of hardware (though that too is a significant hurdle for the technology’s take-up), but one of how the user interacts with the technology: through gestures rather than clicks or taps. Technology like this has been in use for some years, but primarily on computer games or in the high-end tech environment. Rarely has it been brought to the mass market on something that the consumer is being asked to take seriously as more than an entertainment.
As if to prove this point, the universal appeal that Glass has lacked seems to be the motivating factor behind Apple Watch’s early success. “I was hearing a few key things,” Wristly analyst Ben Bajarin told the Daily Mail, “early adopters were highly critical, but the average stay at home mom couldn’t stop talking about it.” This makes sense. Early adopters still constitute a relatively niche market: a product aimed at them, like Glass, won’t gain sufficient traction. A wider market is easier to impress, if the application and ease of use is in place. “What I think we showed was that once you put normal consumers into the mix that weighted it towards the high end of satisfaction,” Bajarin added. “The wearable technology that has succeeded are those that have a clear application.”
This is true of other wearable successes. Activity trackers such as Fitbit and Nike+ FuelBand have taken off because they’ve perfected a clear use, allowing customers to track their exercise data, which they can take advantage of to enhance and improve their workout. At the start of the year, Forbes estimated that Fitbit was outselling even Apple, growing revenue by 175% year-on-year in 2014. The smartwatch poses a threat to Fitbit’s dominance, as do its multitude of rivals, but with new Fitbit products launching every year, and the company continuing to define and dominate the market with its clear application and simple UI, it’s well-armed to put up a firm fight.
Wherever you look, it’s always the same story. Ease of use and/or a clear, practical application equals success. Even Glass has found a home in the medical profession, where its hands-free interface and ability to connect users are beneficial for both improved patient care and student training. It’s even formed the basis of a start-up by a Sanford medical student. “The whole goal is to remove the hassle of paperwork, of documentation, from the physician,” third year student and Augmendix co-founder Pelu Tran said. “We do that by giving them Google Glass. When they wear it they can stream the conversation directly to our service, and it gets documented into their electronic medical records.” Other such breakthroughs are sure to follow.
Though wearable technology has been around since the calculator watch in the 1980s, it’s still very much in its infancy. As such, it’s still far too early to judge its long-term viability and its value to both customers and merchants. However, despite the early struggles of Google Glass, the successes enjoyed by the likes of Fitbit and Apple Watch bode well. Portable technology’s present is still very much in the palm of our hands, but the future is likely wrapped around our wrist.