After Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) unveiled the first Android Wear smartwatches and the public awaits the announcement of Apple’s rumored iWatch, it’s becoming clearer that wearables will be the next competitive market, and the next stage for competing product philosophies to play out. TechCrunch’s Kyle Russell writes that “compromise will shape the wearables market,” a smart way to say that smartwatches and other wearables can’t just be scaled-down versions of existing product forms, but will have to either offer a unified or diversified approach to functionality.
Giving an example of a smart form of compromise, Russell explains that Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) strategy with its product lineup is an example of making “the right compromises” for each product’s form. The divergence between iOS and OS X came about because devices running iOS are optimized for touch, while devices running OS X are meant to be used with a keyboard and a mouse. The choice to diversify those experiences was a good one, as each product is optimized for the functions it’s intended to fulfill.
Windows 8, by contrast, was designed as a universal operating system with no compromises. Across tablets, laptops, and desktops, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) wanted to provide the same, unified user experience and the same interface. Windows 8 was designed to accommodate a keyboard, a mouse, touch, or a stylus to scale from pocket-sized devices to much larger ones. But the approach wasn’t as attractive to consumers as Microsoft had hoped. In the debate — to compromise or not to compromise — Apple’s philosophy so far seems to have yielded greater success, with the iPad outselling competitors running Windows 8 to the point that Microsoft claimed that the Surface 3 tablet was actually competing with the Macbook Air.
As the Surface combines features of tablets and laptops, Android Wear wearable devices combine features of wearable fitness trackers and smartphones. Current smartwatches add sensors — gaining the ability to gather more information — at the expense of bulk and lowered battery life. They also compromise the ability to have a complex interface. Alternatively, simpler wearables exclude everything but sensors and wireless radios, gaining better battery life and a lower profile. Russell writes, mulling the choice that the alternate approaches will present to users:
“It’ll be interesting to see which philosophy wins over consumers. Do people want one device on their wrist in the same way that they generally want one phone, picking the device with the fewest compromises for what they’d use it for? Or will people choose to buy several devices purpose-built for their specific interests or health concerns, like getting one wristband for weight-lifting and another for monitoring sleep habits?”
He also adds another option, pointing to the possibility that users will pick the best single-use wearables because they don’t compromise on the one function that they’re intended to fulfill: “Or maybe people will get over the fact that they look like dorks and just start wearing multiple devices, using a smartwatch on one wrist for notifications and voice searches and hot-swapping devices full of sensors on their other wrist depending on what they’re doing.”
However, while there are a number of single-function wearable devices that function well and are easy to use, the devices meant to unify a variety of functions are currently a little less obviously useful. Quartz’s Dan Frommer recently wrote of the Android Wear watches unveiled at Google’s I/O conference: “These are not the wearables we’ve been waiting for.” Though mildly impressed by the smartwatches, Frommer wrote that it’s still unclear how or why Android Wear devices would take hold in the market:
“Google and its partners have still failed to demonstrate truly compelling use cases—let alone ‘rich user experiences’—that will create a mass market for $200+ smartwatches. In almost every example during Singleton’s presentation, simply accessing a smartphone—an activity Google says its one billion Android users already do an average of 125 times a day—seems like it would be a more capable and comfortable solution. (And there’s no either/or option here—today’s smartwatches must be paired to a phone in the vicinity to access the internet.)”
The essence of what Frommer is talking about is that the smartwatches do — with compromises — what other devices can do without compromises. A better user experience is necessary if manufacturers want consumers to adopt the smartwatch; they’ll have to demonstrate that wearables can add significant and unique utility, rather than just provide the same functionality shrunk to a smaller screen. Frommer lists several simple functions that he’d like to see for a smartwatch, and suggests the possibility of “comically simple tools for creating your own smartwatch widgets” for consumers to create the functionality and utility that would get them to buy a smartwatch.
“So perhaps Google is on the right track, and we’ll all be using smartwatches someday. But we’re not there yet—not in the software, hardware, design, or ecosystem. And Apple is going to have to do better than this if it expects the fabled iWatch to dominate.”
In any case, Google and its competitors will need to think about the compromises that users are and aren’t willing to make with the technology that they use, and the wearables that they may choose to buy. Clearly, Microsoft’s “no compromises” approach won’t work in a product category comprises of tiny screens and sensors that will grow steadily smaller and smaller. The popularity of function-specific devices, those that offer a variety of capabilities, or even some that enable users to create their own actions will depend on whether manufacturers can make the right compromises in bringing a miniaturized computer to the wrist.