A sampling of the speculative designs that emerge from a Google search for "iWatch"

Google search results

A sampling of the speculative designs that emerge from a Google search for “iWatch”

Voices


By South by Southwest standards, it was early. Obscenely early. But there we were, tromping out of our hotel into the unusually foggy morning, mere hours after falling into bed, ears still ringing from a band that had sounded excruciatingly like all the others we heard for the past 12 hours.

Hugging our coffees close (no Starbucks line at 8 am during SXSW Music!), we marched down the street and queued up outside a venue. Why were we in line so early? The sports giant Nike was taking a huge step forward in the wearables industry with the release of its Nike FuelBand. And we could be some of the first people in the country to purchase one as part of its launch program; the company sold 100 per day at the festival.

We were greeted by our own personal Nike rep, who guided us into a venue that had been transformed into a glitzy FuelBand showroom. He showed us the FuelBand, and helped us set ours up. We then went out into the world to try our hand at the “quantified self” movement, where you collect metrics of everything you do in your life. Nike’s own metric, “Fuel points,” would let us measure our activity and compare it to ourselves and friends.

Two years later, almost to the day, I recorded my last Fuel point. I had long ago stopped caring about the metric, for a variety of reasons: The band didn’t capture all my activity, it wasn’t very accurate or sensitive to movement, and it wasn’t based on anything that brought meaning to my life.

But the main reason that was my last Fuel point day was that the damn thing had stopped working. I got the dreaded “801” code, which required a trip to the Nike store for replacement. This had happened repeatedly — six times since that day in March.

That was enough for me. I left the device on my desk and never picked it up again. I found that the untracked life wasn’t much different from my tracked life. The only difference was that I didn’t have a watch, which is primarily what I had used on the band.

I wasn’t alone in giving up on the FuelBand. And I’m not just talking about customers churning like me, though my guess is that there are a lot of us. In April, Nike announced that it was discontinuing the device, firing the entire FuelBand team and focusing on “other digital initiatives.”

Even with Nike’s big failure to capture the imagination of the active world, wearable computing is still considered the next huge growth area in technology. Credit Suisse sees it growing from $5 billion in 2013 to $30 billion by 2018. IDC says that companies will sell more than 112 million devices by that year.

It may be the right time in the technology cycle for wearables, too. Sensors of all kinds are smaller, cheaper and much more accurate. Displays are smaller, and even flexible glass looks like a possibility soon. You can imagine that a device with multiple sensors could find ways to track your fitness, as well as providing location-aware features like mapping, shopping and even banking.

Not only would wearables expand a company’s device portfolio, if it sells enough of them, but these firms will have access to all kinds of big data, with enormous amounts of real-time information that could be used for everything from personal communication to advanced location-based commerce. Big, big data.

Wearing out its welcome

So far, though, companies have failed in making wearables something people want to, um, wear. Most of the products have been either for geeky early adopters of new technology, or for hobbyists who absolutely need the data, like triathletes training for an Iron Man event. Sure, there have been technical problems, as well as a couple of health scares with the devices, but the two core issues these gadgets face going mainstream are their design and the product’s value.

Designs have reflected the technical bent of products. Most look more like what you’d expect in “Minority Report” than what you’ve ever seen in a high-end watch store. And the generally bulky form factor lacks appeal for women, who have been underserved by most wearables so far. While the FuelBand may have been a bit different, it’s kinda just a souped-up Livestrong bracelet. In my informal and nonscientific customer reviews of wearables, most of them aren’t something an average customer wants. And don’t get me started on Google Glass.

Minority Report Screenshot

Screen shot

Outside of the design — and maybe even more core to the problem — there doesn’t seem to be much demand for the features touted by the wearables manufacturers. If you start with the standard product-manager mantra of “What problem does the product solve?” there’s not much you can pinpoint. Most wearable devices track activity, but not really uniformly or correctly. Some, but not all, track sleep. The Samsung devices combine some fitness tracking with phone connectivity, but they’re cumbersome. And ugly.

You want to attract the attention and the interest of mainstream consumers? It had better be something people really want. And no company has been better at turning technology into desire than the big one: Apple.

Apple’s wearable moment

It’s clear that Tim Cook is betting big on a suite of wearable products. Bloomberg reports that the company has more than 100 designers working on a device. They’ve hired professionals from the fashion industry, the medical industry, the fitness industry and watch brands, as well as sensor experts by the dozens. All to work on what has been described as a luxury, high-fashion wearable device that will allow customers to communicate and track their vital information, including location and health-and-fitness metrics.

This isn’t the first time that Apple is entering a field where many companies have tried and failed. There were many MP3 players before the iPod, millions of phones before the iPhone, and even tablets before the iPad. It’s an Apple specialty to create something really valuable out of others’ failures by picking the right time, and creating an ecosystem that didn’t exist before. Apple doesn’t invent as much as it perfects.

Wearables pose a bigger challenge. Instead of a single strong compelling value (think “1,000 songs in your pocket”), the iWatch looks like it will package an assortment of features. And unlike the iPhone, which replaced three devices (phone, music player and Internet portal) with a single unit, it’s unclear if the iWatch will replace anything customers already use. At its core, the main purpose of the iWatch appears to be that it will gather data and work well with the iPhone. That will have value to some, but will it be enough to drive the industry to the estimated numbers? I can’t say that it’s a slam-dunk.

Five musts for the iWatch to be “ready to wear”

So, what would it take to make the upcoming device the breakthrough hit that Tim Cook craves? Forgive the impudence, but here are a few categories that Apple must nail if they expect to build the market:

  • It must be fashion-forward. Outside of the Nike FuelBand — and, some might argue, the Misfit Shine (I wouldn’t — I think it looks like it was issued by the CIA) — most wearables are terribly designed, at least if you consider reaching a mass audience. Apple is clearly investing in talent here, but the company needs to deliver the goods on a stylish watch that men and women wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear. This isn’t like any market Apple has entered, as the watch will be compared to classic brands like Tag Heuer, Rolex and Swatch. Jony Ive had better bring his “A” game.
  • The user benefits need to be clear, concise and limited. It has to be instantly clear why you need this device and what its main purpose is. Over the past few years, Apple has gotten away from the simplicity of its marketing pitches. There has also been an annoying habit of throwing in a bunch of half-baked products (Passbook, anyone?) well before they were ready for prime time. The watch can’t have any of these issues. My product-manager adage of “How do you want users to describe your product?” applies here. It must be crystal clear.
  • It has to work. Consumers will forgive many issues. But inaccurate recording or even fine-tuning of the algorithm will drive users nuts. In retrospect, the FuelBand’s problems with activity spelled its doom. After all, if Nike couldn’t monitor activity correctly, what the hell could it do? Apple will be held to a much higher standard than Nike. So what it tracks, and the way it tracks that data, must be baked by the time it ships.
  • Apple must be very careful with the information it tracks. Let’s face it. People hate Google Glass. Part of the hatred is because the device is extraordinary dorkified (see the first “must” on this list), but there are also privacy concerns with tons of people walking around with a camera on their head. The iWatch apparently will gather quite a bit of personal and sensitive information. It goes without saying that keeping that information private and secure will be incredibly important. But it’s also paramount that assuring customers that the rules of engagement around health data in particular are clear, and will primarily benefit users.
  • It has to appeal to an influencer community. Who will lead the adoption of the product? Apple has reportedly been targeting athletes, which sounds like a page right out of Nike’s FuelBand playbook. Somehow that didn’t work for Nike, which could be blamed on product issues just as much as marketing. Making sure that the company targets the right kind of influencers will be just as important as its marketing pitch. I’m not quite sure that tapping only pro athletes will give Apple the vast appeal it seeks. Apple will need to reach into popular culture — like that Steven P. Jobs wannabe and Louis Vuitton designer Kanye West, as well as others who lead cultural trends.

The stakes are high for Apple and Tim Cook. The iWatch will be the first foray into a category outside of its core offerings since the Jobs era ended. But it remains an open question as to whether the company has the intestinal fortitude to ship the right product, or — if it doesn’t live up to the exacting standards of consumers — to cancel the project and do something else with its billions in the bank.

A digital media consultant, Jon Maples was formerly vice president for product and content at Rhapsody and managing editor at Red Herring. He blogs about the industry at JonMaples.com and @jmaples.



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