Wearable Devices: How Geeky Glasses and Wristbands Will Move Mainstream

Wearables have enormous potential for uses in health and fitness, navigation, social networking, commerce, and media. Imagine videogames that happen in real space. Or glasses that remind you of a colleague’s name that you really should know. Or paying for a coffee at Starbucks with your watch instead of your phone. Wearables will transform our lives in numerous ways, trivial and substantial, that we are just starting to imagine.

So what will it take to elevate these accessories from niche to mainstream? Hardware advances in battery life and the way sensors interact with each other will get us further than we are today, but the software platforms that drive the hardware hold the key to consumer adoption. In the same way that Windows took the PC mainstream and iOS and Android are powering the smartphone revolution today, wearables’ success depends on backing from one or more of the big five software platforms — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. These platforms — and their developer communities — hold the key to the consumer connection. How so?

Apple has the most polished marketing, channel and brand. More than any other company, Apple has the potential to make any product go mainstream (witness the iPad). Apple’s expertise in hardware manufacturing, its developer network, its marketing prowess and its channel strength in Apple Stores and partner retailers all add up to a fertile petri dish for wearables. Already, Apple has inspired a number of “app-cessories” built to sync with iOS devices, like the Lark sleep sensor wristband and the (now discontinued) Jawbone UP fitness wristband.

Google has an open platform and a license to dabble. Google’s Android is the platform of choice for WIMM Labs, the Sony SmartWatch and others because it’s open: Product strategists can build whatever products they want on top of Google’s code while still taking advantage of the growing number of developers and companies that build Android apps. Additionally, Google has crucial elements of search infrastructure, with the ability to recognize and retrieve vast amounts of information like location-based data, which could be the basis for many wearable device features.

Microsoft has the best depth sensor yet. Windows Embedded, Microsoft’s operating systems and related solutions for “intelligent systems,” powers a wide range of products from Ford’s Sync automobile information system to Polycom conference phones. But to date, these solutions have been geared more for enterprise use, and haven’t attracted the same breadth of professional and amateur developers that iOS and Android platforms have — a crucial component for taking wearables mainstream. But another Microsoft product, the Kinect for Xbox 360, has captured developers’ imaginations, prompting a Kinect application programming interface for Windows. The potential of a Microsoft powered wearable becomes much more tangible when you imagine the depth sensor of the Kinect turned outward from your body, toward the world rather than toward you.

Amazon has information on more than 100 million products and their buyers. More and more consumers are starting their product searches with Amazon. Its all-encompassing product catalog, detailed product specs and reviews and personalized recommendations would all be assets in wearables. But despite Amazon’s success in manufacturing the Kindle line, we think it’s more likely that Amazon’s wearables strategy will center on distributing apps for other companies’ devices, rather than manufacturing the device itself.

Facebook has a Rolodex — and facial recognition — for 800 million people. Facebook, like Amazon, has the tool kit to be a partner player in the wearables market. Facebook is controversially implementing facial recognition software to autotag photos from its 800 million users — software that would be a perfect fit with a wearable device. Like that guy on the train? Sorry, he’s “in a relationship.”

In three years, we believe wearables will matter to every product strategist, just as mobile and tablets matter today. And because the software platforms are the key to mainstream, these devices have the power to intensify the platform wars among the big five — over issues like talent, intellectual property and patents, developers and customers. Wearables will shift toward mainstream in three phases:

  • Phase one: Apple grows the app-cessory market with a deeper investment in wearables. For instance, by adding more sensors and connectivity to the iPod nano, as well as Siri voice control, Apple could immediately spark innovation in iOS apps and more accessories for nano beyond its existing watchbands.
  • Phase two: Google broadens wearable experimentation with its open platform. Our call that Google will dominate in wearables — at least in the short term — may be surprising given our skepticism about Android’s prospects on tablets in the past. But an open platform for experimentation is exactly what wearables will need to evolve out of the early stages.
  • Phase three: Microsoft competes with an “anti-platform” platform. With Windows 8, Microsoft is pivoting away from .NET/Silverlight to the open Web protocols of HTML5 and Javascript. This shift will be a strength for Microsoft to build on, promoting a future OS for wearables as a more flexible, scalable platform for developers than iOS or Android.

Sarah Rotman Epps is a Senior Analyst serving consumer product strategy professionals at Forrester Research. Follow her on Twitter @srepps. To learn more about this research, visit the full wearables research report here.

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