The December 2013 Issue of Wired Magazine has an article by Bill Wasik entitled "Why Wearable Tech Will Be as Big as the Smartphone." That may well be so, but my feeling is "not yet," a feeling borne out by the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where the hype was all about wearable items, but the response by the computer press was, by in large, "not ready for prime time."
The Current State of Technology
Let’s step back for a moment and analyze the reality of the tech industry:
- Software never wears out
- Well-made hardware can have a lifespan of decades
So, if there are no new features, applications or innovations, consumers can sit on the same computers for 10 years, in which case there is no money to be made, and the tech companies may as well close up shop. Therefore, the profit motive is a (or rather the) prime motive for innovation, which may range from the mundane (Microsoft employees staying up nights trying to dream up new features for Word or Excel that the vast majority of the public won’t use, but may pay for) to the amazingly innovative technological game-changers, such as Apple’s iPhone.
Living Up to the Hype?
Beyond the actual products, we have hype, some of which turns out to be little more than that. In the 1980s, for example, there was a period when it was easy to raise venture capital simply by announcing that a product had "artificial intelligence" (AI) capability. That bubble burst as soon as we began to understand the term better; most computer systems and all robotic devices have some AI components, but we no longer see the term as an automatic revenue generator. Other times, hype might be real, but the technology takes so long to develop that the original innovative companies are forced to give way to newer upstarts. For example, the still-evolving "Age of Mobile Computing" mostly lived up to the early hype, but early innovators Palm and BlackBerry has been pushed to the sidelines by the likes of Apple and Google.
Wearables and the Internet of Things
More recently, hype has been centered around wearables and the "Internet of Things." Working backwards, "Internet of Things" refers to the connection of sensors and control units that will take note of environmental changes and react to them. For example, your smoke detector might note smoke or heat and call the fire department, or your outside lights could sense darkness and turn themselves on. Many such functions have been done for years by expensive industrial control systems or expensive "smart houses," but they have not been consumer products.
While the term "Internet of Things" has been around for a good while (in 2009, Kevin Ashton, co-founder and former executive director of the MIT Auto-ID Center, took credit for introducing the term during his 1999 presentation to Proctor & Gamble), attention really became focused on it on January 13, 2014, when Google announced that it had acquired Nest Labs, Inc, a maker of "smart" thermostats and smoke alarms for homes for $3.2 billion.
Wearable devices are exactly what they sound like – devices that are worn on our bodies to capture information, display it to us, allow us to act on it and store it on a true computing device. Most interact with a smartphone that stays in our pockets. The devices include wristwatches, glasses, bracelets and footwear, etc. It’s part of the the Internet of Things too, and many experts are now predicting that just about everything – from your thermostat to your toaster – will be connected to the Internet.
According to analysis from Business Insider Intelligence, more than 18 billion devices will be connected to Web by 2018, including the following:
- Smart TVs
- Internet Things
- PCs (desktops and laptops)
The sources for these predictions and graph include Gartner, IDG, Strategy Analytics and Machine Research, as well company estimates, but I can’t accept the estimates that go into the chart.
I certainly don’t want to be a naysayer on new technology. I have a Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch and I really enjoy making phone calls through it like Dick Tracy did in the comics 40 years ago. I just want to keep them in perspective.
On April 30, 2013, an Endgadget review of Google Glass found it "not-ready-for-prime-time." Admittedly, the reviewer based part of his judgment on the then $1,800 price tag (the public release day price has been rumored to be $600) but he also said that he was "underwhelmed by the product."
As for the Internet of Things as a consumer product, it seems to me that it will be an attractive (although possibly expensive) feature in new houses but will be a tough sell for anything that requires re-wiring. I’m sure that the use will expand evolutionarily as people realize that remote access to many – but perhaps not all – things is quite useful.
In short, I see both wearable devices and the Internet of Things to be exciting, desirable, and marketable in the future. Just not in the time span predicted. More work remains to be done both with the products and the marketing of the products.
By the way, I hope that I’m wrong and that a plethora of new, useful, exciting and cost-effective devices arrive immediately in these areas. My guess is that we’ll have to wait a while.