I am confident that 2015 will be dubbed the year of the wearable. The introduction of the Apple Watch will validate the ever-growing number of devices and use cases that we currently see on the wrists, lapels and even faces of early adopters. Wearables are the first real wave of the Internet of Things (IoT), where virtually everything will have a connection to everything else. The reason wearables lead the IoT is that they have a killer application: personal health. Tracking steps, miles, heartbeats and sleep has both perceived and real benefits to a wide variety of individuals.
Classes of wearables
Wearables come in two classes: dedicated wearables and wearable accessories.
Dedicated wearables are not limited to the many step-tracking wristbands that have become the emblem of the health-conscious, tech-savvy set. One interesting example that I have seen is SunSprite, a small lapel-clipped device that measures and tracks how much light you are getting and lets you know if you need to get outside more or use some sunscreen. Another lapel device is Lumo Lift, which warns you when your posture is bad.
These devices clearly fall into the health category. But there are two other types of wearable applications that hold great promise. I call these access and payments wearables. Access wearables allow people to enter or leave areas without having to use a key, badge or other pocketable artifact. This could be an employee badging into a corporate building or a doctor entering an operating room; or it could be a child leaving a playground or yard. We already have a good parallel for wearable payments with transponders for cars going through tollbooths. This can easily be extended to people using mass transit, entering a theater or riding a taxi. Interestingly, the best example of both is the same device: the Disney MagicBand. This wristband is both the key to your room at a Disney hotel and a way to instantly pay for items at the Disney theme park.
Wearable accessories are devices that require connection to a smart device (such as your phone) for communication and data storage. They are generally multipurpose devices, the smart watch or smart glasses being the best examples. Wearable accessories are poised to replace some of the dedicated wearables, particularly in the area of health.
What this means for mobile applications
From a mobile app development point of view, dedicated wearables tend to be closed systems. The company that owns the device tends to own the application or applications that are enabled. However, some companies might be able to provide unpublished application programming interfaces (APIs).
Let's say you want to build an app that warns you if you are starting to fall asleep when driving. It would be very cool to use something like the Lumo Lift to trigger the warning, and the company’s website does mention private APIs, so you might be in luck. But in most cases, a device would need to be modified and APIs would have to be opened up. So unless you are heavily investing in the devices themselves, you should probably focus more on wearable accessories.
Wearable accessories tend to be open systems, with APIs available to add capabilities to and/or pull data from the device, as well as developer support. There are now growing ecosystems around iOS and Android wearables, and soon we’ll likely see mobile application platforms, such as IBM MobileFirst Platform, to support wearables.
Key considerations for wearables
If you are planning to incorporate wearable accessories into your mobile application strategy, first consider whether your target users will actually wear the device when you need them to. In other words, is the wearable accessory always with the user? The answer isn't just a simple yes or no. It needs to be compared to the current "always-with-you” device: your mobile phone.
Let's look at the smartwatch. Do you wear a watch? I do, and I almost always have it on (when I also have my phone). However, my kids do not wear watches. Their phone is their watch, and it’s farfetched to think that they’ll start wearing one (however cool) to get information that they already have on their phones. That said, we who do wear watches will likely want more features before we consider that our primary device. The phone will still be the default, go-to experience.
A second consideration is what should be written to phone experience versus device experience. Aside from the inelegance of having duplication on both devices, we do not yet have any best practices on what we should run where. Low-level considerations such as battery life, storage and communications are important factors. More significant will be when the user experience is actually different—for example, how much of a benefit is it to swipe your watch (versus taking out your phone) to pay for your coffee?
Until we better understand the benefits and desired user behavior and outcomes for wearables, I would recommend that the main focus remain on the phone.
Ultimately, we may find one or more perfect wearables, but today the phone is always primary (and even required), and the wearable remains a nice to have—or in the case of the Apple Watch, a very nice to have!To share your thoughts on wearables, please connect with me on Twitter @DavidMarshak.