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Smartwatches Are Hot, So Should We Be Surprised Use of Smartwatches is Only at 1 Percent?
Wearable Tech World Feature Article
January 13, 2014

Smartwatches Are Hot, So Should We Be Surprised Use of Smartwatches is Only at 1 Percent?

By Tony Rizzo
TMCnet Senior Editor

According to a study released today by TNS (News - Alert), a global research consultancy that is owned by Kantar, one of the world's largest information and consultancy groups, smartwatches and most other wearable technology gadgets are a lot better known than they are actually being used. It's one of those research conclusions that would typically inspire a "Duh!" from us, but perhaps it is good to have some quantifiable data to go along with what is clearly today's wearable tech reality.

We have a favorite element of Roberts' Rules of Order, specifically the one that says, "Never state the obvious." It's been our favorite since we were doing our junior year in high school - mostly because it is a rule that is broken so often, these days especially by tech media. The most recent example is the endless (and we mean endless) collection of articles and multimedia stories from last week's CES (News - Alert) that made it seem as if wearable tech has arrived at a pinnacle never before seen in technology. Both the tech and mainstream press were culprits here.

Those of us involved in wearable tech at a fairly deep level greatly welcome the exposure of course (even if it is in many if not most cases premature), but we run the risk as well of creating a large ground floor wearable tech ecosystem that greatly over promises and substantially under delivers. So, untypically, we actually welcome TNS's "Duh" moment today.

With a presence in over 80 countries, TNS advises clients on a real global scale with specific growth strategies around new market entry, innovation, brand switching and stakeholder management, based on long-established expertise and market-leading solutions. TNS maintains a deep ongoing dialog with consumers n a global basis, and we believe the company has a firm grasp in understanding individual human behaviors and attitudes across every cultural, economic and political region of the world. That TNS is owned by Kantar is a further endorsement of its research in our opinion.

To arrive at the simple conclusion noted in our opening paragraph, TNS recently conducted a wearable tech survey 10 times - from August 2013 to January 2014. Each wave of the study had 1,000 respondents consisting of U.S. consumers between the ages of 18 and 64. In other words, it was a substantial study based on a substantial sample size - which is what we always look for.

The study certainly confirms that the awareness levels of wearable products are quite high, yet it also makes clear that consumer adoption isn’t following suit. For example:

  • Since August of 2013, awareness in the smartwatch technology has gone from a modest 49 percent to an astounding 80 percent;
  • Of those surveyed, only one percent are actually using the wearable technology.

TNS rightly notes that while this level of awareness is positive for manufacturers, the real lack of use of the products is not. Despite the deluge of marketing dollars being spent to bring these products to market - and the otherwise positive results of this marketing in terms of buying media interest, the consumer is just not that interested. We would modify this to read, "…just not that interested…yet."

Brian Cooper, senior vice president of TNS and author of the study puts it this way: “There are a number of reasons why consumers are reluctant to adapt to wearing these devices. The technology is still quite expensive for mass adoption, but the most critical part of this is that the technology forces a change in behavior and we’ve seen that when this is required, change is often slow.”

TNS also rightly points out that the problem is not just with smartwatches. According to the study, the same trend exists across other wearable tech categories. The pattern is consistent with head-mounted devices like Google Glass:

  • Awareness of Glass has increased from 52 percent in August of 2013 to 64 percent today;
  • Glass usage however is still around one percent.

We don't find using Google Glass here to be an appropriate device to judge the market from, at least not yet. Glass access is purposely and strictly controlled at this point and the price for entry is ridiculous for consumers at $1,500. For app and content developers it may be a bargain but they represent a far tinier percent of the overall population than one percent. Our own opinion on Glass is that it is the mostly widely known technology the absolute fewest number of people actually knows anything about. Even if it ships into the consumer market at a price of say $299 we suspect it will quickly and widely become an expensive shelf ornament.

The first real wave of measurement that will tell us how wearable tech is evolving into a real market will happen on three fronts in 2014: First, we should finally be able to determine if activity trackers are going to be adopted en masse or if they will prove to be nothing more than a fad; second, the use of wearable tech within the enterprise has to increase substantially; third, the use of wearable tech within life sciences and healthcare needs to show real growth.

We ourselves believe that activity trackers will prove themselves to be a fad, but that enterprise and healthcare wearable tech will blossom with real and highly valuable use - both in terms of workforce productivity as well as in delivering true, life changing and life-saving capabilities.

"There has been great momentum developing in the wearables category, but the consumer market hasn’t begun to adopt this new technology,” Cooper said. “While it’s too soon to say whether wearables are the next big thing or not, it’s clear that tech companies have their work cut out for them.”

On the consumer side we agree for the most part. The issue for consumer wearable tech is that the market - as much as CES may have wowed the media - is roughly at the same place mobile phones were around 2006. BlackBerry (News - Alert) had the Pearl and Curve - the true smartphones of that era, yet the reality was that until about 2010, and following the introduction of the iPhone (News - Alert) in late 2007 (and which took about two years to develop into a real market) there was lots of hype and very little reality. In that case the ecosystem slightly overpromised but then it blossomed and truly over delivered - hence the consequent mad rush of consumer adoption.

Our sense of it is that today's wearable tech is closer to feature phones than to smartphones in terms of their current levels of sophistication and their general role and place on the technology historical timeline. We expect it will take another two to three years before the market is ready to match the overall enthusiasm demonstrated last week's 2014 CES. As we head into 2018 however we remain steadfast in our opinion that wearable tech will become a $50 billion market between 2018 and 2020.

We will note as well that the market will not go anywhere until Apple (News - Alert) finally weighs in yet again. We expect Apple to deliver not only on the fashion elements that are missing from most wearable tech today but as well on the larger purposes for consumers to own use wearable tech. Look for Apple to deliver an ecosystem of iWearables that extend the use of wearables as personal area networks (PANs) out to the cloud and the Internet of Things.

The following two articles are a good additional follow up read:

  • Consumer Electronics Show 2014 - Market Opportunities in Wearable Technologies
  • Is Wearable Technology for Real, Really? Here Are Some Answers for 2014

All of this will be necessary to ensure wearable tech becomes a true overachiever.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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