Why Should I Care About Wearables?

by Ben Bajarin   |   March 19th, 2014

I’m as early an adopter as they come. I have about every health and fitness wearable on the market. However, if you ran into me on the street today I wouldn’t have a single one on me. Why? I simply don’t find them valuable. The question I keep circling back to is, “Why I should care about these products?” When I first started using them it was novel to see how many steps I had taken or how much sleep I had the night before. But after a few days the novelty wore off. The data was simply not useful or actionable. There was no value in the data. Everything I put on my body is intentional. There is a reason it is there. This booming wearable market everyone keeps talking about has yet to produce a product I value enough to keep on.

What is strange about my conclusion is it seems as though I am the target for many of these products. I am extremely active and I am conscious about my diet. My health and wellness is a priority for me, and I look to tech to play a role in all aspects of my life. But nothing on the market appeals to me in any way, shape, or form. Oddly enough, I hear often from folks who find value in their health or fitness wearable who do have health issues. It seems if you have specific health issues that wearables address you would find some of these products more valuable than a generally healthy person–at least for now.

Perhaps it is less an issue with the product category and more about the data. What I find lacking in the data is its weakness in helping me take action with the findings. So I know how many steps I took, how does this help me? What can or should be done to change my behavior? So I know how many calories I burned. What changes should be made to burn more?

Recently, I ran into this issue with the Fitbit Aria Scale. This particular scale tracks your weight as well as your body mass index. I got this scale just before the holidays which, in retrospect, was maybe not the best time to be tracking my weight. Post holidays, I set a goal of getting back to my “tennis season” weight. I watched my weight go down and in some cases my BMI go up. I had no idea what that meant or what steps I should be taking to both lose weight and BMI – but I would have found that information valuable. All of these products lack a follow-up step to help us make sense of the data and recommend action based on our goals. This will need to be addressed before these products have mass market appeal.

Apple and Healthbook

Can Apple or Google address this? In some ways yes and in some ways no. One of my driving convictions about the wearable market is it is not a one size fits all segment. There are many different things consumers will want in these devices. It will be nearly impossible for some time to address all the needs of this market with one single product. In Apple’s case, the only way they could address this space is to make many products — all with specific appeal to parts of this segment. This is why I think the Healthbook concept, if real, could be very telling of Apple’s strategy. What if they are hiring experts in the health and medical hardware business in order to understand the vast complexity of sensors so they can support any number of configurations from third parties so these third parties can create meaningful hooks into iOS? In short, what if Apple is preparing to enable and empower an ecosystem of wearables, made by third parties, but with unique and proprietary hooks to the iPhone. Healthbook would simply serve as a mechanism to work with third party hardware, along with specific APIs, and display key data for the consumer. This makes the most sense to me. Apple would encourage and enable third party hardware companies to build value around the iPhone and make the platform stronger. Should Apple make a glucose monitor? Probably not. Should they enable the company who wants to make the glucose monitor extend the value of the device in a meaningful way to their ecosystem? Yes. This is what I think Apple is up to. Let Nike, Fitbit, Adidias, iHealth, or whomever go after market niches in the health and wearable ecosystem — but make sure they work best with iOS.

In the case of Apple and Google, this will be an ecosystem battle. Both are now looking to address complimentary points of their ecosystem in areas they may not have much control over. Some experiences may decentralize from the smartphone and some may not. Apple and Google are in uncharted territory from a platform level. However, embracing and extending their ecosystem with the help of third party hardware is a key strategic element for them both.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • Scott Sterling

    “In the case of Apple and Google, this will be an ecosystem battle.” Yes, and the core demographic of Apple iOS buyers will be far more interested in this than Android buyers. So Apple should have higher engagement, leading to greater availability of third-party products, resulting in another ecosystem win.

    • http://www.amongtech.com/ Niels Bosch

      i Completely agree with you o and Ben, great article, really enjoyed reading it :-)

  • http://naofumi.castle104.com/ Naofumi

    Superb and bold article. This helped me see through the hype and understand what the real issue is in wearables.

  • Kenny

    @Ben
    what do you think of Motorola with their Moto 360 and android Wear?

    • benbajarin

      The 360 is the most ambitious smart watch design yet. I think the round concept is compelling as it can orient itself to whatever angle the person is looking at it. Android wear highlights exactly what Google is good at and the very thing that makes the most sense on a screen you can see at all times, which is contextual / situational data.

      I still think this is a small market but it will be interesting for them to learn by shipping.

  • P.D.S.

    “I have about every health and fitness wearable on the market. However, if you ran into me on the street today I wouldn’t have a single one on me. Why? I simply don’t find them valuable.”

    Ever since the idea of “smart watches” came along, I’ve been saying this is a concept in search of a market, but no one agreed with me. I’m still saying it.

    • smiling_fortune

      It may indeed be a solution in search of a problem. Doesn’t mean there isn’t a market though.

  • stefnagel

    Great take. Medical is a highly regulated minefield. Like cars. That’s why Apple is going at cars gingerly, merely adapting the built in display to iOS purposes. But if Apple supports third party medical devices vendors, e.g., by securing the HIPAA info on its super secure chips, it will get developer love.

  • nuttmedia

    Agree with you on the pattern of waning novelty that tends to surround this initial crop of wearables. Just not enough there to rise to a level that would attract the masses.

    If Apple does enter this space, adoption will be slow. Perhaps even more so than the iPad, the “iWatch” (hell, why not) will be chiefly experiential, underlining the importance of their retail stores and the impending entrance of Angela Ahrendts to the helm.

    Not so sold on the idea of leaving it to third parties. It just does not strike me as very Apple-y to farm out a crucial part of the overall user experience. In my eyes, they would sooner design for the handful of use cases that are most impactful to their customers and ignore the rest. That isn’t to say there won’t be “Made for iOS” sensors to fill that space. I just think the best bits will be reserved for Mother Cupertino.

    • benbajarin

      Problem this is not a one size fits all market. Apple knows this. There will be devices that focus on glucose, heart rate, diabetes, weight management, nutrition, etc, the list will go on. Apple can not service all these markets with a single product. People will also have diverse interests and needs. To cover the wide spectrum Apple would need to make many products not just one. Besides the niche markets for warbles will be the most valuable. Does Apple want to make all these different variants?

      On top of that if the did the device would be quite costly. I know the costs of all these sensors and components and put all those together plus Apple’s margins and you have a product most can’t afford. Why buy that one when Nike’s is cheaper and integrates with your shoes, or Adidas’s is cheaper and integrates with your soccer ball?

      What I am proposing is no different than their current third party accessory program. Only this time with much deeper iOS support.

      What we can not get away from is that it is not the hardware that matters here it is the services. Just like CarPlay, Apple doesn’t want to make the car but they do want to make sure the car is plug and play with iOS. Even if Apple makes a wearable or a smart watch they will have no choice but to make sure that all the other ones work in their solution. Look at Healthbook, its just like Passbook. Apple didn’t tell Starbucks they had to the use Apple provided plastic loyalty card. Instead they enabled Starbucks to tie into iOS in ways that made the service more valuable.

      Health and fitness wearables and ever smart watches are accessories. Low margin products selling at low margin prices as retail. It is much smarter for Apple to not address every segment of this market with 15 products but enable an ecosystem to do so.

      • nuttmedia

        Yep, I’m definitely with you on there being a “Made for iOS” platform — my only point was I couldn’t imagine Apple leaving it for third parties to populate the ecosystem without an Apple-branded centerpiece — iWatch, iBracelet, iDecoderRing… something.

        Which brings us back to the initial premise of your piece: Why should I put this thing on me?

        From a practical standpoint, I think back to a prior Cubed podcast re: wearables and the emphasis on fashion and jewelry: If people are going to be wearing these things every day, they HAVE to be appealing, socially accepted, and fun to WEAR. They will express something about me that I care about beyond its technical utility. It’s been the case with conventional watches, it is the case with the Livestrong-style bracelets — it’s the case for any type of jewelry. No matter how 25th century the technology, the user experience will be deemed crappy if it makes me look weird, or look like everyone else.

        Yesterday’s Android Wear announcement was mildly interesting… but how much more intriguing would it have been if they partnered with a Tag Heuer, Movado, or Swatch?

        • benbajarin

          I have thought about Apple still making one, but again, its the services / ecosystem this enables that makes it the most interesting not the pure hardware. Given the margins, and the volume needed to even make a dent financially its hard to see how the hardware can make any where near the impact of doing this with partners.

          The issue again for Apple is the cost. I’d love for them to make the watch, maybe keep it super premium like $500 or above. Wouldn’t sell enough to truly make it a third leg but could be a catalyst for more innovation around iOS.

          To your last point, partnering with brands is exactly the point of the Qualcomm Toq. Their hope is that they provide the reference platform and the brands take it and run with their own designs.

          • nuttmedia

            Will be fun to watch play out. A great follow column could be “what’s the job to be done for the wearware?” (my personal choice for nomenclature).

            To keep my heartbeat?
            To count calories?
            To check glucose
            So I don’t have to take my phone out of my pocket?

            Maybe the last one… but the leap I have trouble with is form factor, tech, and battery life. You probably have a good view of the parameters here.

            Would also love to hear your view on what *could* be a solid Apple third leg. With execution, perhaps “Services”, but given Apple’s history, that feels a bit wobbly.

  • Will

    “Healthbook would simply serve as a mechanism to work with third party hardware, along with specific APIs, and display key data for the consumer. ”

    There are already a ton of products that do this. Fitbit is far from a simple device, it has the ecosystem, fans and APIs for exactly what you said Health book would do.

    Microsoft has healthvault, Google had a health service too until it shut down…

    I don’t see how Apple can change this. Whoever is interested already uses these ecosystems, Apple won’t change a thing except release yet another Apple app nobody wants and you can’t uninstall.

  • Court Kizer

    You should care about wearables this time. Unlike previously where we were promised these things and they haven’t come about, this is the beginning of augmented reality glasses, virtual reality, wearable, biological, and integrated humans with computers. It’s really happening and everyone will be a part of it. Real easy to use wearable computing starts now. This is the beginning of computers just being an extension of your body.

  • peter

    We used to have GPS units that would only give you latitude and longitude coordinates that you would then have to plot on a map. Similarly, the last time I received blood works report, I had to ‘manually’ Google the data reported to understand what these metrics meant (and remain hazy about the conclusion I should have drawn from this). Clearly, the wearable sensors can provide data points, but you need a proper app to put the data in context and provide meaningful suggestions on how you may want to act on that data.

    Jean-Louis Gassée wrote an article (Internet of Things: The “Basket of Remotes” Problem). His question — Why don’t Consumer Electronics manufacturers provide machine self-description and two-way communication? — is obviously also valid for sensors.

    If appliances and sensors could ‘answer’ questions about their functionality and status then it would be possible to separate manufacturing of the hardware from the development of the software. That could significant speed up the development cycle of the software, improve the quality and avoid data being ‘trapped’ in poor quality custom software. The Apple/Android devices would then just be the computing hub that enables the interaction between the hardware and the software to take place, which is actually a manageable type of business (unlike the manufacturing of hundreds of different small market sensors).

    That is something I could see as a meaningful development. Much better than suggestions that we all might want (1) to use half a dozen poorly made apps that read data from 6 well-made made sensors, (2) to have an app for every appliance in the house, or (3) to operate the phone in our pocket by way of a clumsy wristwatch.

  • Rene Stein

    To answer the question your headline is posing: “You shouldn’t care about them until there is a device that you like.” Liking consumer technology for the sake of it being new is hopefully an attitude of the past. A few people will still hold on to it, but most people will move on.