Published in the Irish Times on July 6th last – just after the Fitbit IPO..
The Tudor Queen, Elizabeth 1st, was reputedly amongst the first in the world to wear a clock on her body, an ‘armlet’ received as a New Year gift in 1571 from the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley. Some believe they were lovers, despite her reputation as the Virgin Queen. The device itself was a richly jewelled armlet “in the closing thearof a clocke, and in the forepart of the same a faire lozengie djamond without a foyle, hanging thearat a rounde juell fully garnished with dyamondes and a perle pendaunt.” It sounds more spectacular than even today’s US$18,000 Apple Watch Edition but unfortunately the device itself, or even a sketch of it from the time, has not survived.
About a billion wristwatches were sold worldwide last year. Shipments of smart watches (watches capable of running third party apps) and other wearable electronic gadgets will be about 47 million units worldwide this year, growing rapidly.
A couple of weeks ago, the San Francisco-based Fitbit had a highly successful IPO on the New York Stock Exchange. The company raised about US$750M of fresh capital, valuing the company at US$6.5B. Fitbit offers a range of bracelets and clip-on devices which monitor your physical activity, especially steps taken, pace and heart rate. There have been several celebrity endorsements of the product, not least President Obama who wore a Fitbit bracelet at his meeting with the Taoiseach on St Patricks Day at the White House.
The challenge faced by companies offering wearable products is boredom by the consumer after the novelty of the new device wears off. Fitbit have – reasonably successfully – overcome consumer fickleness by turning their products into a challenge and game. For example, as you take more daily steps – as measured by a Fitbit device – from 5,000 steps a day (a “Boat Shoe”) through various targets up to 100,000 paces a day (a “Olympian Sandal”) the device vibrates when you have achieved a milestone. It encourages you, rebukes you, and challenges you to do even better.
But back to Elizabeth 1st, and her experience of wearables. While her armlet was a contender for one of the first wearable devices, a stronger case can be made for another wearable which she also owned, a watch set in a finger ring. Her ring watch was similar in spirit to one of today’s game-based vibrating wearables in that it included a discrete prong which gently scratched her finger when a set time was up. No doubt she used it to limit her time consumed by boring interviews and activities.
I have not worn a watch since 1997, and have no intention of going back to one now. The obvious corollary is that I have no particular interest in wearing a device which vibrates, scratches or otherwise seeks my attention when it believes I have done something significant, or – even worse – stays silent and unimpressed when on the contrary I believe that I have done something important. I recall that Douglas Adams ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ had a wrist wearable crisis inducer, to create an artificial crisis situation of selectable severity. I do not think I want one.
Least of all do I want yet another electronic device whose battery I have to remember to recharge. The watch industry started solving this problem back in 1770s, two hundred years after Elizabeth 1st, with the first self-winding devices. It seems so post-modern to replace a mechanical self-winding watch with a smart electronic device that retrogressively needs a daily recharge.
The key battery issue with smart wearables is not the functioning of its sensors (accelerometer, heart pulse detector and so on) but rather the power consumed when communicating data (e.g. by bluetooth) to other devices (such as your smart phone or laptop). However if wearables are to become mainstream, particularly for a skeptic such as myself, then they must cooperate. Your smartphone and your digital trainer wristband and your augmented reality visual display and your audio headgear may overlap in their respective interpretations of your biometric data, such as your heart rate and physical movement and blood pressure. They need to work together, even if from different manufacturers, and so offer you a consistent and, most of all, accurate assessment of your actual condition.
I believe that the true opportunity for the wearables market is not in fact any specific device, and thus Fitbit and other players may need to up their game. The devices are just infrastructure for something else, in just the same way as Google’s search engine is (for adverts), or mobile phones (are for long term contracts), or gaming consoles (are for computer games) or even razors (are for razor blades). There is a very strong argument for giving wearables away completely for free, and so rapidly gain global market share. I believe that rather than monetising any particular wearable device, the major business opportunity is to encourage health and fitness by providing intelligent feedback and physical assessment to individual consumers, based on their biometric data as compared to their peers in the population.