The Naked Wrist

on July 16, 2014

As you wander about your world, casually observe what people wear on their wrists. You will notice the most common wrist worn device is a wristwatch. But you will also notice most people have nothing on their wrist. If you are super observant, you may notice fewer people under 40 wear watches than those over 40. Fewer under 30 than those under 40. And much fewer under 20 than those under 30. All of this is to say the majority of people have a naked wrist. This is the fundamental challenge any wearable must first overcome. The masses must feel it valuable enough to put something on their body where they have specifically chosen to not place something before.

Is there a job to be done?

Each product must exist for a reason. It must solve a pain point. If the purpose of a business is to find a customer, the purpose of a product is to find an owner. What is the job to be done that only a wrist worn object is uniquely designed to do? That is the question.

Whenever I share my skepticism with this category, and use the “job to be done” philosophy, a common response is “Well, no one really saw the iPhone coming.” It’s as if Apple’s ability to re-invent the mobile device is the benchmark to validate the opportunity for wearables and smartwatches. This is, in fact, a tired response. Many did see the iPhone coming. I would argue anyone who used a Palm Pilot, Treo, Windows Phone, or Blackberry would have known the value of such a product and recognized its potential. Apple came in with a better recipe and, more importantly, one that included value propositions that went beyond the business/professional audience. Since the original Palm Pilot, the job to be done was clear. There is not a single wearable or smartwatch on the market that has clearly highlighted the job to be done beyond a few verticals.

This is not to say someone will not figure out the right recipe that can take these devices beyond niche verticals. But even then, it is up against an adoption cycle issue. Prior to the smartphone going mainstream, many in developed markets owned a basic communications device like a cell phone. The initial barrier to adoption had already been broken by cell phones for smartphones. Wearbles and smartwatches are starting from scratch for the majority of consumers. If we were to use this analogy, wearables are in the cell phone adoption phase, not the smartphone adoption phase. Should the right recipe for wearables and/or smartwatches emerge that can drive mass market adoption, I would expect it to happen faster given it will be closely tied to the smartphone. But the point remains, most people have naked wrists.

While I have no doubt this market will be filled with companies attacking it from many areas, finding the killer app will remain central. I believe digital identity will play a role and, perhaps over time, so will the unbundling of technologies in our smartphones and decentralizing that experience to other devices. The point I want to drive home is timing. The naked wrist is the single observation we need to keep in mind when we think of adoption cycles. While it may likely be a complementary device to the already widely adopted smartphone, the value proposition of any wearable must be enough for the mass market to add a piece of electronics to a part of their body where there is none now.

The other key to addressing the naked wrist is breadth and depth. This is not a one size fits all market. What young people want will be different than what older people want. What women want will be different than what men want. What people in Europe want will be different than Asia and so on and so forth. For any vendor to compete in this market they must have a deep product portfolio that will deliver the same value proposition but come in many styles. This is the one thing I feel will pose the largest challenge for the category to go mainstream, and particularly for any one company to address the mainstream consumer market.