One of the hallmarks of the tech industry is claiming your product or service is the "next big thing," and wearable technology is the latest example. Hailed as everything from the next evolution in computing to a passing fad, wearables have gained traction in the consumer space, and are front of mind for consumers and IT leaders with the recent introduction of Apple's first foray into the space with Apple Watch.
While industry pundits and device manufacturers will tell you they've got wearable applications all figured out, the truth is that no one really knows what an effective wearable application looks like, or whether these devices are the next smartphone or the next overhyped failure.
The app paradox
One of the interesting aspects of the original iPhone was that Apple CEO Steve Jobs didn't see a place for apps on the original device. Presuming consumers would want a highly curated experience, the original release of the iPhone had no app store or developer tools beyond what could be run in the mobile Safari browser. Like many successful innovators, Jobs soon realized the error of his ways, and quickly developed an app ecosystem that continues to define mobile devices today.
Apps have defined the current crop of mobile devices and services, and many predict that developers will soon create a "killer app" for wearables. However, unlike tablets that naturally extended the navigation and user experience queues defined by the iPhone, no one has successfully defined the experience for wearable devices. Even the vaunted product designers at Apple seem to be hedging their bets with Apple Watch, offering interactions ranging from pressure-sensitive taps, to a scroll wheel, to voice-based commands.
It's easy to forget that the iPhone stood on the shoulders of several generations of smartphones, which had experimented with everything from pen-based input, to limited gestures, and even voice control over the course of several years. With wearables, there's far less precedent to how to build a successful interface. Even basic notifications have not been fully resolved. Is a beep, a buzz, or a flash the most effective way to interact with a user?
Rather than a killer app, we still need a "killer" way to interact with wearable devices that enhances how we interact with the world, versus just trying to make a smaller version of popular smartphone apps.
Jump in or wait on the sidelines?
With so much uncertainty, it's easy to assume that now is not the right time to experiment with wearables. While this is a fair conclusion in absolute terms of risk mitigation, innovation rarely occurs by avoiding risk. Furthermore, many of the key enabling technologies for wearables — ranging from analytics to integrating with enterprise systems — are the same technologies that are applicable for mobile, commerce, and other user experience-related initiatives.
Intelligently investing in wearables now allows for the rare opportunity to help define an entirely new category of devices, and how they'll be used. Companies like Lotus defined how businesses interacted with personal computers, just as startups like Uber are shaping how we use our smartphones to summon cars driven by "amateur" drivers. Most of the cost in successful new user experiences is connecting the right data and systems to deliver simple, yet compelling functions on a mobile device. For relatively low costs, it's possible to prototype new use cases for wearables, while making long-term investments in the systems that support those use cases.
The bottom line
Even if Apple Watch and its ilk are the next Zune, you'll end up with some interesting use cases that can likely be applied to other mobile platforms, a better understanding of your user community, and investments in supporting technologies that can contribute to everything from today's mobile app to whatever comes after wearables.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.