Theory: Wearable tech (hardware) company is a software company

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There has been an explosion of interest in wearable tech or hardware companies in general lately. From meetup groups to accelerators specializing in hardware to a playbook for wearable tech on TechCrunch, everyone is trying to figure out if this new trend is a big new opportunity or at the very least a fad to capitalize on.

I have the following theory:

Wearable tech (or hardware) is connected physical (usually plastic) user interfaces (input devices) to web based software or apps that try to be more a sticky (or natural) way to input useful data and/or interact with software on a mobile device (phone). Without advanced software, there is no value in the hardware.

Wearable Tech solves a problem with web based software — you have to use a mouse (or touchscreen) and keyboard to input data. Phones are better than laptops or desktops as they are more portable but essentially they aren’t ideal. Popular apps like Foursquare which can be incredibly useful to both marketers and customers have been limited because ‘checking in’ has a terrible workflow.

I have to pull out my phone, open an app, type or tap on stuff, then put it back in my pocket.

Why can’t my phone stay in my pocket? Enter Pebble. In the very early days Eric would insist that people really don’t want to pull out their phones every time they wanted to check why it was buzzing. A quick glance at a watch would be a huge improvement. A lot people agreed (I love my Pebble).

What Pebble (and other wearable tech) can do is create that sensor enabled connection and data collection/consumption that is a more natural or low cost interaction. It still requires software. In fact it should be built on software that adds value and the hardware is the sticky part people can’t live without.

Nike Fuel Band, Fitbit, etc.

Update April 21, 2014: There isn’t a lot of information yet but it appears Nike is at least scaling back its Fuel Band and focusing on software. Not sure that should be taken as failure but rather pointing towards the fact this class of wearable tech is experimental. The band wasn’t Nike’s core product but it has allowed them to understand how sensors, software, and their shoes can interact with customers.

Hardware companies that ignore the software and overall User Experience (UX) are in trouble

RIM (or Blackberry) is an easy example to pick on but if you think about it they gained popularity not because they had great hardware but the way Blackberry OS manages messages is arguably still ahead of everyone else. Apple focused the overall UX parts that RIM didn’t focus on: how the customer interacts with the brand, device appearance, apps, carrier billing, photos, and music. For managing messages iOS is still terrible. But the entire User Experience is important.

For upstart hardware companies the UX is super important and should not be ignored. Just because your hardware does something novel does not mean someone will buy it (and use it). Your hardware interacts with software and you need to think about how that happens, always.

Companies like Kiwi are offering products that will enable hardware companies to spend more time figuring out the UX than how to get working hardware prototypes. More useful tools are on the horizon.

There are a lot opportunities in wearable tech and the internet of things

The number of hardware companies that are in trouble because their software only runs on their hardware and isn’t networked is a lot. The opportunities created by having a very powerful and connected ‘brain’ in a phone changes the focus to the UX advantages you can design, the software to enhance that, and spend far less time on extremely complex (and costly) development of hardware that needs to do everything. The low hanging fruit in wearable tech and hardware is building the software that lets you use your phone as the brains behind an array of sensors.

Also, what is being missed in all this hype is that things like hearing aids are the original “wearable tech” and the technology built into them along with how they get to consumers is way ahead of everyone entering the space now. Highly advanced devices in the larger medical space are likely where the big wins are going to be. 

The first round of wearable tech was medical. Then the landscape changed with powerful mobile computing devices (phones). This next round is about people building highly advanced hardware that connects to software for something with more than an incremental improvement in User Experience.

Advances in connected devices brings us one step closer to ubiquitous computing. Exciting times!

2 thoughts on “Theory: Wearable tech (hardware) company is a software company

  1. Kevin Browne

    Definitely agreed that hardware should be viewed as UIs for what are otherwise software startups. To me the biggest appeal of hardware startups are that, 1) People seem much more willing to pay for something tangible rather than apps, 2) The hardware can enable your software to do something unique enough to become either a competitive advantage or allow access to an uncontested market space.

    • jrodgers

      Kevin – totally agree. If you look at the line of toys with tiny QR codes on them that can be ‘inserted’ into games and how insane kids go over them you see the market for real stuff in action. I am sure there exists a large market if simple plastic ‘gifts’ that ‘connect’ to an online world.

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