Rethinking Wearable Computing

Bring up the topic of wearables these days, and you’re likely to see rolled eyes, shrugged shoulders, and a general sense of “whatever.” The problem, of course, is that wearables were badly overhyped and haven’t even come close to living up to the expectations that many companies, analysts, and industry observers had for the category.

Sales in many of the most closely watched sub-categories, notably smartwatches, have not been anywhere near the level that would make them “the next big thing.” Sure, you could argue a few companies have done OK, but the short attention span of the tech industry has clearly been diverted to newer, sexier devices, like voice-controlled speakers, or AR and VR headsets.

Despite these issues, it may be that we’ve given up on wearables a bit too soon. The problem is that we’re thinking much too narrowly about what the concept, and implementation, of wearable computing really is. To be clear, I don’t see a big future for the individual products that we currently count as wearables, but I think the idea of several linked components that work together as a wearable computing system could have legs.

Imagine, for example, a combination of something you wear on your wrist, something you wear on your face, perhaps a foldable screen you carry in your pocket, along with a set of intelligent earbuds (which might be integrated into the glasses you wear on your face), all of which work together seamlessly.

The devices would each incorporate sensors and/or cameras that would enable real-world contextual information. They would all incorporate high-speed wireless connections, and the entire system would be reliably voice-controlled with an AI-powered digital assistant. Critically, I think a solution like this would need to be sold together as a system—though a componentized system might work as well.

Admittedly, there are some inherent challenges in a concept like this. It’s hard enough for people to always remember to carry their smartphones, so thinking that they’ll regularly walk around with 3 or 4 devices seems like a stretch. Remember, however, that certain elements of these solutions could eventually get integrated into other currently non-technical components of our lives, such as our clothing. Start thinking that way, and some of the concepts may not be quite so far-fetched.[pullquote]Arguably, what I’m really talking about is the next evolution beyond smartphones into a highly personalized, but much less visible form of personal computing.[/pullquote]

Arguably, what I’m really talking about is the next evolution beyond smartphones into a highly personalized, but much less visible form of personal computing. Given that I don’t think people are too eager to give up their smartphones yet, this connected wearable computing vision is still clearly a ways off—maybe even as much as 8-10 years. Nevertheless, if we start to formulate a goal for where computing is headed, we can more easily envision that path from our present to the future. More importantly, we can start thinking more clearly about potential stops—or product concepts and iterations—along the way.

At some point, wearable computing devices or solutions or whatever form they end up taking will be part of our lives. Of that, I am convinced. But in order to start moving towards that future vision, we need get past the broken, highly separated wearable product categories of today and start thinking about a more integrated wearable solution for tomorrow.

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Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

52 thoughts on “Rethinking Wearable Computing”

  1. “Arguably, what I’m really talking about is the next evolution beyond smartphones into a highly personalized, but much less visible form of personal computing.”

    I’m glad you started that statement with “arguably”.
    If the owner of the computer (whatever form it may take) does not fully control it, then it cannot be a personal computer.

  2. I’ve been talking about this for a few years now, a kind of distributed computing mesh with wearable accessories and sensors (an Apple Network of Things to get OEM-specific). It is the obvious future of computing (touch, voice, sensors, mesh). At the same time computing will become more abstracted and simplified as we move towards ‘appliances’, in the same sense that most of what we own and use in our daily lives can be considered appliances that we don’t fiddle with much anymore, from cars to houses to food and more, it’s mostly turnkey. We cede some control (I don’t have to futz with a carburetor these days as one example) and we gain simplicity (which has many benefits) and in a very real sense, freedom.

      1. It is simply the truth, a description of reality. This is the direction in which humans and our tools evolve, away from complexity and towards abstraction and simplicity. Keep this truth in mind, shed your bias, and it isn’t hard to predict the future. Arguing about whether something is or is not a PC (as you and obarthelemy often do) misses the point and will only cloud your vision. I would think intelligent people want to see the world clearly.

        1. There is no bias in truth. A PC is a PC and an applicable is an appliance. I thought we agreed on that. Where there is bias is in spinning the truth by “promoting” (either sense of the word) an appliance as a PC. Words matter. Concepts matter. Since you appreciate the truth, Aces are Aces and Kings are Kings, though they are both cards.

          There is no such thing as fortune tellers, just the laws of nature. You’re not one either.

          1. PC stands for Personal Computer. Computing appliances are PCs. You seek to define the PC to suit your world view. A PC doesn’t necessarily have to be able to create software in order to qualify, that’s a fence you and others have built to constrain the idea of a PC. But the larger point is that the term PC no longer matters, this is what you fail to grok.

          2. The Personal Computer is defined historically, and it’s main benefits were affordability of ownership and freedom from IT (MIS) control. I did not make it up, stop spinning and re-defining.

          3. How we use our tools is what defines them, the tasks, the jobs-to-be-done. This has been changing for a long time when it comes to computing. I am not spinning anything, I am simply acknowledging the reality that computing is changing. You seem stuck on a historical definition. If you can get past that you should be able to understand that personal computing has changed, is changing, and will continue to change in the future. Many of the new devices you would not call a PC actually fit your definition quite well.

          4. “How we use our tools is how we define them.”
            In a pinch, I’ve used a screwdriver as a hammer, but it remained a screwdriver, never was it even a lousy hammer.

            Then we are moving away from the PC and thus from the total control of the user/owner, and that is preferred by most people today. Call it what it is, and stop trying to make a PC out of it, because then you would need to re-define the PC.

            It’s this definition, total user control, that justifies what the PC is and it’s reason to exist.

          5. Computing tools are almost infinitely flexible, your comparison to a hammer or screwdriver isn’t relevant. If you want to use “total user control” to define a PC then most devices you would call a PC actually are not PCs. Again, the point is the term PC no longer matters. Humans use various tools to complete various computing tasks. In a sense the PC is becoming distributed, but it’s more accurate to say the term doesn’t matter anymore (the frame of reference has changed and will continue to change).

            You only want it to matter because you want to be able to point at specific devices and say “That’s not a PC”, and you’re doing that because you want to prove those devices are ‘lesser than’. But the reality is those devices are just different, better in many ways for many computing tasks, and not well suited for other computing tasks, and there are/will be many different devices to take care of all computing needs.

            Think of it this way, everything you’re using today to define a PC will be available on an iPhone ten years from now, maybe sooner. But a desktop-style device plugged into the wall will still be more powerful. Will you then seek to call one a PC and the other not a PC?

          6. “then most devices you would call a PC actually are not PCs. ”

            Fallacy. It’s directly programmable and user controls programs and data.

            ” everything you’re using today to define a PC will be available on an iPhone ten years from now, maybe sooner.”

            And if I can directly program it and control my data on it, it would be a PC. I, not Apple, would have total administration of the device.

            “You only want it to matter because you want to be able to point at specific devices and say “That’s not a PC”, ”

            A netbook is a PC, just not a good one.

          7. You don’t have total control of any computing device right now, they’re all abstracted at some level. You simply choose to draw a line and say “at this point I have enough control, this is a PC”.

            In a very real sense we can already ‘program’ our smartphones and we do control our data (arguably more so on Apple devices, better security and privacy control). But the kind of programming you speak of is coming to tablets and smartphones, and it’s not that far off. Soon even you will have to admit that iPhones, iPads, et al are PCs. I suspect at that point you’ll find some other reason to disqualify those devices as PCs.

            But, one final time, if you let go of the notion ‘this is a PC and this is not a PC’ you’ll be able to see the world more clearly. You’re missing the future because you’re caught up in your labels.

            EDIT: This is timely, from Asymco on 40 years of personal computing:

          8. I was very specific about controlling programs and data. That is still totally under user control. Still. You need no one’s permission to do any administrative task.
            You have less control on iOS due to the “abstracted” file system.
            But, according to you, there’s no such thing as a PC under the historical definition, just the one Space Gorilla accepts, and that’s the iPhone.
            And you still haven’t re-defined what the traditional PC is…
            Case rested, I leave the verdict to the readers.

          9. I never said there’s no such thing as a PC, and I never said the iPhone is the definition of a PC. I said the term PC is no longer relevant, in the sense that you’re using it. I didn’t expect you to understand the point or to change your antiquated views.

          10. I gave you a historically accurate definition, a functionally accurate definition and a commonly accepted definition. You have offered no definition in return, so I will stop here. They happen to be the same definition.
            As far as Dediu goes, I’m utterly uninterested in the market aspects.
            Oh, and the clarity of my vision is razor sharp. I can see clear boundaries.

          11. I’m not trying to offer you a definition of a PC, but rather trying to help you understand that your notion of PC vs not PC is outdated. Dediu’s chart isn’t about “market aspects”, it describes the reality of the last 40 years of personal computing. I suppose, according to you, much of that history doesn’t exist since you do not consider many of the platforms on that chart to be personal computing platforms.

            “I can see clear boundaries.”

            Yes, this is your deficiency.

          12. I’ve ignored SpaceGorilla a few months back. I didn’t find my exchanges with him interesting.

            BTW, I’d say a Chromebook is a PC because they can be chrooted to a regular Linux, and can now run PC-like Android apps (incl. sideloaded ones). And that’s all official via the Dev Mode switches, not hacks.

          13. I didn’t say anything about Chromebooks. Now you’re putting forth the notion that I’m right about Chromebooks not being PCs?

            I’ll frame it another way for you. It’s more useful to think in terms of whether a device helps you accomplish computing tasks. We’re going to see less everything-in-one devices and more distributed computing, and you would say each individual piece is not a PC, but together these new devices are taking care of much of our personal computing. The term PC then ceases to be relevant. If you’re hung up on whether X or Y is or is not a PC you’re going to miss all the interesting stuff.

          14. You should read the chart you post, I didn’t say it, you let Dediu say it for you.

            Now you pose an interesting question about distributed computing. This question has already been answered over 20 years ago by Bill Joy. “The network is the computer”. And no, it’s not a PC it’s something much more. A superset if you will. But if I can totally control my environment and my data within it, it satisfies all the PC function.

          15. Where does Dediu say a Chromebook is not a PC? The chart shows 40 years of personal computing, that’s the interesting bit. But I don’t see where he says any device is not a PC.

            I didn’t pose a question about distributed computing, I’ve been saying this model is coming for years now. I grokked what Bill Joy said back when he said it.

            “But if I can totally control my environment and my data within it, it satisfies all the PC function.”

            Yes, I’ve already said this.

          16. He says a Chromebook is a PC. I say it isn’t, though Obarthalemy gave me circumstances where it might be.
            Thanks for the Gage clarification. Seems that Joy gets all the credit, maybe he’s related to Jobs… 😉

          17. So now you’re saying Dediu did not say that a Chromebook is not a PC? Which is it? Here’s what you wrote:

            “You’re right a Chromebook is not a PC.”

            “You should read the chart you post, I didn’t say it, you let Dediu say it for you.”

            You seemed pretty sure that Dediu said Chromebooks were not PCs, and then tried to make a point of that by telling me that I said Chromebooks were not PCs because I posted a chart where Dediu said Chromebooks were not PCs.

            So, you were simply wrong then.

          18. I did not change position at all. Your mental gymnastics must have confused you. From the start Dediu labeled Chromebooks as PCs. From the start I’ve disagreed.

          19. This is what you come up with rather than admit you were wrong? Sorry, I can’t let you get away with this. Our exchange was very clear.

            In response to the Asymco chart you said to me: “You’re right a Chromebook is not a PC. It’s client/server mainframe stuff.”

            Clearly you were putting forth the notion that I somehow admitted Chromebooks were not PCs.

            I responded: “I didn’t say anything about Chromebooks. Now you’re putting forth the notion that I’m right about Chromebooks not being PCs?”

            To which you responded: “You should read the chart you post, I didn’t say it, you let Dediu say it for you.”

            Again, you are clearly trying to put forth the notion that I said Chromebooks were not PCs because I linked to a chart that said Chromebooks were not PCs, and you implied I read the chart incorrectly and missed that it said Chromebooks were not PCs, as you said “You should read the chart you post”, as if somehow the chart disagreed with my position.

            My guess is you were confused by part of Dediu’s tweet that read “with addition of Raspberry Pi, Chromebooks and Android for 2016”, and in your haste to take a cheap shot you misunderstood what Dediu meant, thinking that he was saying Chromebooks et al were not included as ‘personal computing’, when clearly he just meant he was including the data for 2016.

            There’s no debate here. I asked if you were putting forth the notion that I said Chromebooks were not PCs and you responded by saying “you let Dediu say it for you.”

            I didn’t say Chromebooks were not PCs, and neither did Dediu’s chart.

            You’re busted, plain and simple.

          20. I need to learn to speak Gorilla apparently…

            You should not need further clarification than my previous comment, but here goes….

            Full (not selective) quote:
            “40 years of personal computing with addition of Raspberry Pi, Chromebooks and Android for 2016 Thanks to those who contributed data.”

            I took the comment at face value, not Gorilla abstacted value. Take it up with Dediu, I have no cause to back up his words.

          21. If you understood Dediu’s tweet then you would not have responded to me by saying:

            “You’re right a Chromebook is not a PC.”

            There it is in black and white, you telling me I’m right that a Chromebook is not a PC.

            I never said anything of the kind. Your response to that was:

            “You should read the chart you post, I didn’t say it, you let Dediu say it for you.”

            The human ego is a fascinating thing, you just cannot admit you made a mistake. Clearly Dediu did not say Chromebooks were not PCs.

            Want to keep going?

          22. Chromebooks have never been Personal Computing, except maybe in the context Obarthalemy said. By posting Dediu’s words as supportive evidence, shows agreement. Dediu = Wrong then Space Gorilla = Wrong. I never changed position.

          23. I didn’t say anything about you changing position.

            So, simple question, do you think Dediu’s tweet is saying Chromebooks are not PCs? Yes or no?

          24. He was counting them in a tweet about Personal Computing. So he comes across as considering them as PCs.

          25. I agree, Dediu is counting Chromebooks as PCs. So why then would you tell me:

            “You’re right a Chromebook is not a PC.”

            Implying that I said Chromebooks are not PCs.

            And why would you go on to use Dediu’s tweet and chart as evidence that I’m right about Chromeboks not being PCs?

            “You should read the chart you post, I didn’t say it, you let Dediu say it for you.”

            If you understood that Dediu was counting Chromebooks as PCs then your comments make no sense.

            You have two options here: One, you made a few comments that make no sense at all. Two, you made a mistake.

          26. “You’re right a Chromebook is not a PC.”

            For the same reasons an iPad isn’t either. But the iPad and iPhone are on Dediu’s chart as well. Didn’t want you to think I was picking on Apple. Your belief that iOS devices are PCs is well documented. If you’re to be at all consistent then you need to believe Chromebooks are PCs as well. I say neither are. Do I have a Google bias now?
            There is no bias in my definition, nor it is brand dependent. You offered no alternative as to what to call a PC, so until then we have nothing substantive to discuss..

          27. So you’ve decided on option one then, that you made a few comments that made no sense whatsoever.

            In a nutshell: I link to a chart on Twitter that shows 40 years of personal computing. Neither the chart nor the tweet says anything about Chromebooks not being PCs. You use that chart and tweet to ‘prove’ I was saying Chromebooks are not PCs.

            Then when I call you on your BS you decide to pretend that whole exchange didn’t happen. Sure, that works for me. Are you actually okay?

          28. I guess that depends on which history you focus on. When computers were actually people and not machines, I suppose a PC was your own personal mathematician dedicated to you, like a personal assistant… uh, that is, also before personal assistants became machines, too, I guess.


          29. Maybe so, but even so, more pragmatically than I may be leading on, when computers, were “computors” (Los Alamos human kind) the “owner” still controlled what was run and owned the data.

          30. I don’t think these facts are intricate enough to require him, but it would have been nice to have him.

          31. Maybe, maybe not, but this was certainly in his wheel house and he would have contributed to the benefit of all.


  3. If it doesn’t take declarative input from me, and/or produce no perceptible (readable / hearable) output to me, it’s not quite a PC.
    Again, I think smart glasses could qualify? smart watches are a really edge case, both input and output are severely limited.
    Other stuff may still be a computer, or a peripheral to my computer/cloud, but not a PC.

    That nitpicking aside… I’m sure there are use cases. Me, I want a smart camera that watches what I’m doing and tells me when I’m about to go out forgetting something. But the PC had a natural progression from replacing typewriter and ledgers, to which transformational stuff was added later on. Wearables that do brand new stuff that nobody ever cared about before have a much higher bar to clear. Again, the clearer path I see is smart glasses partially replacing smartphones, at which smart watches mostly fail.

    1. This article doesn’t mention PC once. Why you decided to waste a comment on your thoughts on PCs is anyone’s guess.

  4. I think I read somewhere that prolonged, continuous use of the type of system you are proposing will actually cause permanent changes to the user’s brain to the point that the he becomes debilitated if you take the system away. Wasn’t there a case a few years ago of a researcher who wore such a system (albeit in prototypical form) for about three years and couldn’t function normally when customs or immigration somewhere made him take off all the stuff he was wearing?

  5. I doubt that many people will be willing to trade a smartphone for a set of wearables. Ever. So we aren’t talking post-smartphone. But I also don’t think there is any reason to replace the phone. The phone simply does double duty as the terminal/display for your personal mesh network of devices.

    I’m already seeing the start of this trend but it is still very early. My Apple Watch does things my iPhone doesn’t. I can easily switch my AirPods for audio between my watch and my phone depending on need. If I need a larger screen, my iPad is also part of this ecosystem–far more than my Mac is.

    My current iPad no longer has LTE because it isn’t needed with the iPhone perfectly capable of providing internet services when needed away from WiFi. The watch, being more portable than even the iPhone, does need LTE. There are going to be situations where I have my watch but don’t have my iPhone close. I can’t think of a similar situation where I’m using an iPad and the iPhone would not be nearby.

    Further out is a display that can be folded like the ones in HBO’s science fiction show Westworld. Pocketable phone size unfolds on two hinges to become iPad like. Very cool and something that will exist in the fairly near future.

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