If you keep up with the tech news these days, you know that wearable computing is all the rage. Research firm Gartner projects that wearable smart electronics will be a $10 billion industry by 2016.
Smartwatches started us down this path but it was the announcement of Google Glass that really caught the market’s attention and piqued people’s interest in this new category of wearable computers.
While Google’s Glass project is pretty cool, it’s not going to be a serious product for the mass consumer market anytime soon. In fact, most technologies like this get adopted within vertical business markets first and over time, as the technology gets perfected and costs come down, they eventually get the apps and prices that appeal to a more consumer-centric market.
My guess is that Google Glass will first be adopted by vertical business markets such as diagnostics, the medical industry, first responders, the military and other fields before it ever gains serious traction with consumers. If history is our guide, the evolution from business to consumers takes at least five years — and sometimes much more — before something ever becomes a mass market hit.
However, the utilitarian nature of a smartwatch will most likely be an exception to this rule. Wrist watches have been around for over 100 years and while the focus has mostly been to tell time, as early as 1981 when Seiko introduced the first calculator watch, dozens of companies have tried to add more intelligent features and functions to wristwatches.
However, only in the last five years, as watches became more digital and other technologies like screens, processors and radios have become miniaturized have we seen more activity in smartwatches. Clearly, a lot of companies see the smartwatch as a new battlefield and want a piece of what is expected to be a very large market over time.
Last week Samsung introduced its Galaxy Gear smartwatch and Qualcomm, the number one mobile processor company in the world, showed off its new TOQ smartwatch for potential licensees. Sony also updated its smartwatch, now called SmartWatch 2.
By my count, there are now at least 18 smartwatches to choose from. As of this writing, I have tested about five of them and members of my staff have tested another four. From our viewpoint, all of them are pretty much big, gaudy and clunky. While most have some type of intelligence built in, none of them can be considered stylish by any means. In fact, all of them pretty much appeal to male geeks at the moment, and given the state of the current technology, that may be the case for a while.
One important thing to know about wristwatches is that while people do buy them for telling time, the majority are bought with an eye on fashion. In fact, fashion and design are the top criteria when purchasing a wristwatch, while functionally in most cases is secondary. Of course there are some exceptions: Divers want something that tells time but also allows them to monitor the amount of air that is left in their tanks or the depths of their dives. Pilots want a watch that tells time but also has info related to flying their planes. I am an international traveler and I often buy a watch because it can give me various time zones for when I am on the road. But whether it be a Rolex diver’s watch, a Breitling pilot’s watch or even a multi-time-zone watch, the way it looks is often quite important for those who buy them.
This is a key reason Apple has not jumped on the smartwatch bandwagon yet. Apple is known for design and is very conscience of fashion issues when designing all of its products. Given Apple’s history, I don’t expect it to make a smartwatch unless it conquers the fashion issue along with smart functionality.
But there’s another big reason Apple has not introduced a smartwatch yet. If you follow Apple’s history closely, you know that Apple does not actually create new categories of devices. Rather, the company monitors markets for new technologies to see what the features, functions and adoption rates are like. If these products show serious market potential, then — and only then — does Apple enter the market with an eye on redefining the products for that particular category of devices.
Apple did not invent MP3 players. It watched to see how this market would develop and once it saw it had serious potential, it reinvented the MP3 player with the iPod. Apple did not invent the smartphone. Once it saw its market potential, it reinvented it with the iPhone. And it did not invent the tablet, but when it saw its potential and — equally importantly — had the technology available to deliver a sleek, stylish and multifunctional tablet under the Apple brand, it reinvented the tablet.
I expect no less from Apple this time around. Given the interest in smartwatches, there is no doubt that Apple is monitoring the products and advancements in various wearable devices and has R&D focused on multiple wearable products in the works. Given Jony Ive‘s penchant for design, I doubt anything will come to market before he has the right look, feel, design and technology in place to create a product that is not for male geeks, but rather men and women who value both fashion and smart functionality. Then — and only then — will Apple enter the smartwatch market and, if history is our guide, reinvent the smartwatch category.
While I have no clue when this might be, I actually believe Apple may have an interim entrance into the wearable marketplace that could come sometime in the first of half of 2014.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has been using the Nike Fuel Band for some time and apparently has become very fond of its functionality. In fact, Apple recently hired Jay Blahnik, a fitness expert who advised Nike on the Nike Fuel Band.
Although I would expect that health and fitness apps would be part of any eventual Apple smartwatch, it would make sense for Apple to seriously improve on the current batch of wearable health monitoring devices such as Jawbone’s Up, Misfit’s Shine, Nike’s Fuel Band and Fitbit, among many others.
For example, I wear the Nike Fuel Band and would like it to monitor my pulse rate while working out, too. I also would like it to have a GPS in it so it could map distances run or walked. And I would like it to be more stylish. It also has a minimal read-out, which is great, but given Apple’s engineering prowess, I suspect the company could make that better as well.
As a male geek, I have to admit that I have been bitten by the lure of even some of these early smartwatches. My Pebble watch introduced smart alerts to my wrist. The upcoming Samsung Galaxy Gear will be fun to test since it does even more to make it an actual extension of my smartphone screen, viewable on my wrist.
While perhaps a lot of male geeks will buy these at first, none of these represent a product that will drive broad acceptance in the mainstream consumer market anytime soon. I believe it will take much more stylish, fashionable smartwatches and reasonable prices before this part of the wearable market takes off. Given Apple’s track record, it would not surprise me if it eventually creates the smartwatch that actually drives this category into the mainstream consumer world. I just don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.
Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.