The Rocky Adoption of Wearables Reveals What We Value Most

December 21, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

Wearables are here to stay, but they still encounter resistance.

Wearables are here to stay, but they still encounter resistance.

Sales of wearables still continue at a glacial pace. Ok, to be fair, perhaps "glacial-paced" isn't quite accurate. After all, there are estimates that Apple may sell around 6 million units this quarter, but that's nowhere near to the number of iPhones currently in use (about 100 million in the US alone). Apple is famously tight-lipped about its real numbers, so for the next day try this: look to see how many people are actually wearing an Apple Watch. In fact, look around at the people wearing wearables at all. This varies, of course, on location and income, but throughout the course of my travels (San Francisco, Boise, Los Angeles),  I've seen at the most about two dozen smartwatch-bedecked wrists out of thousands. Surprising, since everyone from Apple to Disney jumped on the wearables bandwagon. Now ask me how many iPhones I saw. 

There are indications that all is not calm in the waters of wearables. Jawbone, according to TechCrunch, laid off 15% of its staff and closed its NY office last month. Last year, Nike left the wearables market entirely and laid off approximately 55 people. This lack of confidence from Nike and Jawbone, one of the forerunners in wearables, is troubling and a sign that maybe all is not as rosey as the industry had been led to believe.

There's certainly growth predicted, though. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), "...wearable device shipments will reach 76.1 million units in 2015, up 163.6% from the 28.9 million units shipped in 2014. By 2019, worldwide shipments will reach 173.4 million units, resulting in a five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22.9%."

Smartwatches see slow adoption rates.

But there are few willing to talk about real-world factors influencing customers' decisions to purchase a wearable device. So what are some actual reasons customers have been reluctant to join the wearables revolution? Read on:

They're not necessary. Apple knew, going into the smartwatch game, that it would be up against a generation that, for the most part, hadn't worn wristwatches since the 1990's. It also knew that carrying the Apple logo would entice millions to give the new watches a fair shot. What Apple forgot is that cellphones are considered vital devices because they facilitate communication: the watch doesn't. Rather, it relies on the iPhone to send and receive texts, acting as a sort of superfluous intermediary. Cellphones now allow us to perform myriad tasks, but if those tasks were somehow eliminated tomorrow, the phone would still retain its value as a communication device. Humans need to connect, but they don't need to send emoji sketches back and forth.

Having owned an Apple Watch for about six months, I can testify that it was great but forgettable. It made some tasks easier, but I still needed my phone. There hasn't been a moment when I've regretted selling it for a new roadbike. I wouldn't ever dream of doing that with my cellphone. The bottom line is that the Apple Watch didn't enhance my life: it just made it easier to see texts while driving.

They're an additional expense. Part of the reason the Apple Watch relies on the iPhone for the majority of its functionality is that rendering it as a standalone device would incur additional fees through carriers. Americans already suffer from subscription overload; they don't need another monthly bill, so Apple was correct in that approach. The initial cost, however, left many balking. While a basic Fitbit is about $100, an Apple Watch will set customers back at least $250. That's a lot of money to a lot of people, especially at a time when many households are buckling under student loans and credit card debt. In the hierarchy of expenditures, additional devices are the first to be cut.

Fitbit's line for the optimistic health fan.

They're ugly. Both the Fitbit and the Apple Watch don't rank highly on the sexiness scale: they're black screens that remain incongruous with normal clothes, no matter how hard Apple's deluge of tech porn tries to get you to think otherwise. Early adopters may have gotten points for owning the newest and coolest, but until wearables are as integrated into everyday fashion as readily as jeans, they'll still garner insecurity with a whole lot of customers. Consumers still care about their appearance more than they care about owning wearables. Slapping a $10,000 smartwatch on your wrist doesn't translate to high fashion. It just doesn't. There may come a time when that changes, but it won't be within the next year. It may not even be within the next five years. Vanity still trumps novelty.

We lose interest quickly. The sale of wearables will bump this month as customers scramble to find presents to give the un-giftable and magic ways to eliminate holiday pounds. Yet fitness trackers follow the same trajectory as every other weight loss trend: resolution followed by abandonment. So, while sales may hint at optimism, the continued use of fitness wearables levels off past February. Excitement for the Apple Watch has waned as well, and I've never heard anyone get ecstatic over an Android Wear smartwatch. The general consensus seems to be that wearables held interest for a moment, but few are willing to integrate them into daily habits.


While manufacturers desperately try to initiate a widespread adoption, it hasn't happened. In fact, smartwatches in particular have a very narrow customer base, finding their niche with mostly tech-savvy males in their mid-20's to late 30's who have a larger segment of disposable income. Trying to impose technical values over human ones just doesn't work, and the wearables revolution is testament to that. Customers desire, first and foremost, devices that allow them to be better humans. They want to be more stylish, more communicative, and in greater control. Until wearables fulfill those desires, they'll continue to lag behind.

1 Comment
  • happybana December 29, 2015

    I found my Moto360 really useful, especially once it got WiFi. Only drawbacks are the lack of 4G and horrific battery life. I had to charge the thing twice a day. I hear the new one is better about the latter problem, but the Galaxy Gear is the only one that has solved the former. It has the downside of being very expensive and not being compatible with Android Wear, though…which is a deal breaker for me.

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