The Challenge of Wearable Computing

I’d like to start out with a question I have been asking myself. Why does Google Glass need to be on my face? More importantly, to get the benefits of Google Glass (whatever one deems that to be) why does it need to come in a form factor that goes on my face? The answer is that it likely does not.

The same question will need to be answered by any potential existence of Apple’s iWatch or any smart watch. My favorite line of critics of the iWatch, or smart watches in general for that matter, is that no one wears watches these days. My standard response is: and those that do don’t wear them to keep time.

I absolutely agree that the wrist is prime real estate, but I’d add that it is also highly valuable real estate. Therefore for a consumer to put something on their wrist, their face, or any other part of their person, there must be a clear value proposition.

In Search of a Value Proposition

This is why to date the only real wearable success stories we have are devices like the Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up, and others in the wearable health segment. The industry term for this segment is “Quantified Self.” These devices track our activity and give us insight into how many steps we have taken, calories, burned, quality and quantity of sleep, etc.

For many this is a clear value proposition and a compelling reason to place an additional object on their body. The value proposition is also a simple one: wear this object and it will give you details about your activity and general health which for many is valuable information. When a segment like wearable computing is in the early stages of adoption, as we are in now, simple value propositions are key to getting initial consumer adoption.

Google’s Glasses challenge lies both in the value proposition and the form factor. Google hopes to flesh out the value proposition with the public research and developing happening with its early adopters. The form factor however, is a larger question. While its true that many people wear sunglasses, or eyeglasses, most would tell you they do not always want to or even enjoying having glasses on their face. There is eye surgery for those who need glasses so that they no longer have to wear glasses. Given behavioral observations around glasses, one would need to conclude that to keep an object on ones face, there must be a good reason.

Whatever the longer term benefits of something like Google Glass turn out to be, it is likely that they will show up in other objects not necessarily glasses. Like displays in our cars, or more intelligent screens on our person like our phones, or perhaps even a smart watch.

Similarly, any smart watch will also have to make its case for existence beyond the techno-geek crowd. Here we come back to my earlier point that those who wear a watch don’t do so to keep time. I wear a watch. I like my watch and besides my wedding ring it’s the only piece of jewelry I wear. I intentionally selected this watch for a variety of reasons. It is not on my wrist because I need it to keep time. It is a fashion accessory for me. I’d argue that for most watch wearers this is the case as well. This is exactly my point on why the wrist is valuable real estate. It is valuable because those who place it there do so for more than just its functionality.

Why Should I Wear This?

Objects we choose to put on our person and go out in public with are highly personal and intentionally selected. The personal and intentional reasons that we wear objects are the things that wearable computing devices don’t just need to overcome they need to add to as well.

A smart watch needs to add to the reasons I wear a watch. Smart glasses need to add to the reasons I put glasses on my face. Addressing these things are the challenges of those who aspire to create wearable computers that are worn by the masses. I am also confident it is where much innovation will happen over the next 10 years.

We have ideas on how this shakes out. Things like relevant, contextual information at a glance, or notifications for example. All the exact value propositions of wearable computing are not yet fully known. Even with so much ambiguity around wearable computing, I am optimistic and looking forward to the innovations that will take place to create wearable computers that add value to our lives.

Apple iWatch vs Google Glasses and the Next UI Battle

iStock_000021284452XSmallRumors of the Apple iWatch continue to sprout. Google Glasses will soon be for sale. The “Internet of Things” and wearable computers are quickly transitioning from the realm of science fiction into our everyday reality. Very soon, sensors throughout our homes, on our pets and possibly inside our bodies, all monitored or even controlled by our smartphone, will be the norm. Imagine now if these were ad-subsidized devices, like Android or Kindle, offering no escape from the latest marketing pitch or sponsored social media update. Is this a tolerable future?

While many analysts doubt the ability of Apple to maintain its margins in the face of stiff competition from the likes of Google and Amazon, companies that sell hardware at cost and make it up on advertising and ‘content’, I think the opposite is true: We are on the cusp of a world where personal computing hardware will become increasingly more important and more profitable. This favors Apple. Moreover, as hardware and computing become increasingly smaller and more personal, the Google business model, which fully relies upon advertising, may simply become too intrusive to tolerate.

Tim Cook recently said Apple is not a hardware company. With iTunes and iCloud, retail, services and accessories revenue, Cook is technically correct. Nonetheless, Apple makes most of its revenues directly from hardware. Google CEO Larry Page prefers talking about “moonshots” and driving “10X” changes in our thinking. He doubtless understands, however, that his company makes nearly all its money – and has from the beginning – on advertising. Following the money helps us not only to properly value these companies, but serves as a lens into their future. I suspect we will quickly witness fundamental differences in the design philosophy and user experience from the new wearable computing products coming out of Apple and Google.

The next design battle will almost certainly not be about “skeuomorphism” versus “flat design”. Rather, monetizing hardware, the Apple way, versus monetizing data and advertising, the Google way, will set the stage for this next great battle.


As hardware becomes ever-more integrated with our physical self, will we dare rely on lesser hardware that is subsidized by advertising? Maybe. While many may reflexively assume that advertising is always bad, this need not be the case. The promise of Google is that it will provide us with the right information at the right time in the right format for the right device. In some cases, this may be an ad. The problem, of course, is that to succeed with such a mission, every user must hand over to Google an exponentially larger set of personal data, more personal than ever before: where we are, who we are with, what we are doing, how high is our blood pressure, how sad is our mood, how many calories in that muffin we weren’t supposed to eat. When will this become too much?


Advertising is not merely built upon data collection. It also requires interruption – what I call the “intrusive business model”. I think the most potentially intractable problem that Google faces in its quest to create connected, personal hardware devices, one that Apple is liberated from, is the fundamentally intrusive nature of its business model. We may all “search” for information, but that does not necessarily mean we want to be bombarded with ads. Ads are already everywhere, it seems; within our (free) apps and games, on Google maps, scattered across web pages, inside YouTube videos, and more and more on the Google search page. Where does this end?

I don’t want my Google Glasses, for example, to pop up ads right in my eye, nor have a commercial play some catchy jingle into the sensor I keep in my ear. I don’t want my iWatch clone, for example, to vibrate every time it thinks I might be interested in some deal or datapoint – when in fact, it’s really because the sender – the intruder – is making money off stealing my attention. As computing becomes increasingly more personal, there is a very real chance that Google’s business model becomes increasingly more intrusive.

Apple is almost the exact opposite of intrusive. What is iPad but a beautiful pane of glass that we operate with the touch of a finger. Complexity vanishes. We are free from intrusion. This is the case for Apple software as well. Consider that both iOS and Mac OS place the focus squarely on, well, focus – and not on multitasking, alerts, notifications and other intrusive messaging forms.


There is an obvious tension here, and it may favor Google. With Apple products, when you want data, you swipe the screen, for example, or beckon Siri. Consider Android versus iPhone differences. Notifications, reminders, alerts, home screen messages and the like are all much more readily presented and visible with Android. Apple’s model favors waiting for the user to seek and request data. For advertising, I absolutely favor the Apple way. But not all data is advertising. In many instances, we want immediate ‘glanceability’ for real-time information. Sometimes, when the data is truly what we need, we want to be intruded upon. I want my maps app to tell me that the road ahead is jammed – even if I am on the telephone. Or, as in the case of a Fitbit bracelet, for example, I may ultimately want to be reminded over and over again to do my exercise for the day. This form of data intrusion favors Google.

The question for Google, though, is can they truly intrude upon our personal space only when we really want or need the intrusion? For a company that has made all its money over the years by flashing advertisement upon advertisement across every one of our screens, I have serious doubts.

Through patent filings, we know that Apple has been working on wearable computing devices for at least several years. Such devices can continuously record our heart rate, monitor our environment, potentially know us better than our friends and doctors. As our devices learn more and more about us, know more of our likes, habits – and needs – there will be a great debate on when and why to ‘intrude’ upon the user. Google plasters extraneous information across all their products and services because their business model demands this. Crossing that ‘intrusive’ line will likely become too enticing for them, I suspect, pushing more and more users to Apple and its “expensive” hardware. Apple, however, needs to understand that sometimes, in some cases, intrusion is good.

The Opinion Cast: The Future of Smart Watches

In this opinion cast, Bill Geiser the CEO of MetaWatch and I have a candid conversation about the future of smart watches. Bill is a smart guy and has quite a history in the connected watch business and he shares some great perspectives about the space.

In this discussion we talk about why the wrist is prime for a connected screen, the role of the smart watch, and what it may take to get smart watches onto the wrists of mainstream consumers.

MetaWatch launched a new project on KickStarter today. So be sure to check out the MetaWatch STRATA smart watch launch on KickStarter which went live today.

You can also subscribe to our opinion cast in iTunes here.

Should Apple Create an iWatch?

Last fall, I wrote an article on our site here suggesting four industries Apple could disrupt and one of the industries I mentioned was the watch industry. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad Nano, he mentioned that one of his board members said he was going to find a way to strap it on to his wrist and use it also as a watch. And shortly after the Nano was released, a cottage industry of Nano watchband makers started to emerge and today you can find over 100 colorful watchbands that turn the Nano into a watch.

But in this article I stated that for the Nano to be disruptive, it would need a Bluetooth connection to the iPhone and serve as kind of a visual companion by showing on the Nano who might be calling, iMessages, news alerts, etc that would come through the iPhone and not make me take it out of my pocket to see these alerts or key bits of information unless I needed to act on them.

To date, Apple has not added any of these features to the Nano but even if they do, they will now not be the first to take this idea and concept and run with it. Last week there were two announcements of watches that would work as companions to smartphones and both show a lot of promise. One is coming from Sony and the other is coming from a small start up called Pebble Technology.

Sony’s Watch is basically like the Nano but with Android’s OS inside and works in a similar manner. It uses a color OLED and connects and serves as a companion screen to Android smartphones. It sells for $149 and is on the market now. But the Pebble Smartwatch is the one that is the most interesting to me since it can be used with Android or the iPhone. And while it’s screen is not a color OLED like Sony’s, its eInk screen means this product has a very long battery life and can be even thinner then Sony’s version. Both connect to smartphones and deliver info on calls from a phones caller ID system, messages and other alerts that can be programmed into the watch and tied to a smartphone.

While Sony’s smart watch is coming from a major company, Pebble Technology’s approach to creating their smart watch is quite unique. Instead of raising funds to build this from friends and family as many start-ups do, they appealed to the public for pledge funds that will be turned into actual shipping orders of their smart watch when it ships in September. They are not the first to try this approach but their pitch seems to have struck a nerve, especially with the early adopters. They had hoped to raise $100,000 from these pledges but in their first week, they actually got order/pledges worth over $2.6 million.

With all of this interest in the Nano being used as a pseudo smart watch and these new entries from Sony and Pebble, as well as earlier models from Motorola and others, is it time for Apple to create their own iWatch with iOS on it and tied directly to the iPhone? Given this competitive pressure, you would think the answer should be yes. But if history is our guide, doing something just to counter the competition at this early stage of smart watch interest is not their style.

We have solid examples of how Apple actually looks at these market opportunities and eventually responds. For example, Apple did not invent the MP3 player. But once these devices had become established as a product with major potential, Apple then brought out the iPod and today it owns 75% of the MP3 market. Now consider the iPhone. Apple did not invent the smart phone. But once these took off, they brought out the iPhone and today their smart phone owns a major position in this market. And Apple did not invent the tablet. But their model with this, as well as with the iPod and iPhone, is to look at the fundamentals surrounding each of these products and then apply their genius of design, eco system and marketing to any category of devices they feel that they can make better.

While they may not be first in a new product category, their approach to making them better and then using their design and marketing prowess to take very strong positions in these markets is at the heart of the way Apple works. Today, Smart watches tied to smart phones are in their very early stages and show promise. But don’t expect Apple to respond in kind just because the competition in this space is heating up. Instead, look for Apple to glean from these early smart watch trail blazer’s and once they believe they can create something that is very sleek, elegant and innovative, then, and only then would they bring out an iWatch.

One side note to this is that watches on a whole have been on a decline since cell phones have come out. This is especially true with Gen Y users who rely mostly on their cell or smartphone to find out what time it is. But if the watch is tied to their smartphone, this could actually reverse some of this decline in watches and even Gen Y and those younger than them just might start wearing watches again.