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Rise of the wearables: just how far away are we from ditching our smartphones?

Nike Fuelband

When will the reign of the smartphone be over? The explosion of the wearable market within the past two years could signal the ringing of the death knell for mobile phones. But many still aren’t sure about our wearable future.

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There is plenty going on in the wearable space right now, and the futuristic appeal of chatting on a miniscule wrist phone is undeniable. But its sustainability remains in question. As the UK’s Register points out, implementations thus far appear to be “solutions for a rich nerd.” Beyond the sphere of health and fitness, the benefits of wearable gadgets have yet to be defined. Still, there’s no shortage of speculation surrounding the future of the market.

Nike’s decision in April to lay off a significant fraction of its Fuelband team and shift from hardware to software reverberated through the industry. Apple quickly snapped up former Fuelband engineers Ryan Bailey and Jon Gale, and while it’s unclear if they were hired specifically to fine tune the iWatch, both have serious expertise pertaining to wearable tech. Apple is particularly good at keeping markets in the dark until the last minute, but it’s safe to say that they are planning something big for the debut of their newest offering.

As of right now, there’s no definitive answer about what the iWatch will look like, or what it will provide for consumers that the iPhone doesn’t already. By this point, our appetite for Apple products could very well be sated.

It’s important to remember that wearables are still in the stage of infancy. The digital ecosystem is crammed with tech vying for consumers’ attention, but most are replacements or upgrades of devices or mobile applications that already exist, and as of now, the smartphone remains the core which wearable devices must orbit. The look of the wearable devices is still too often clunky and unfashionable, as their style doesn’t necessarily mesh with the wardrobe of contemporary wearers. Unless you’re a fitness fanatic, it’s hard to develop the habit of slipping on a semi-helpful tech element before leaving the house each morning.

BusinessWeek explored why even those less concerned with device design may take issue with unattractive watches: “No one wants to lug around a laptop that feels like an anvil in their backpack, or a smartphone that doesn’t feel like something you’d want to have with you all day. But wearable technology takes that element to another level—when something is on your body it becomes more intimate.”

That said, while the critiques of wearables raise important points, the momentum of the wearable fad may still surprise us. Technology continues to advance in ways that will help wearable devices evolve and deliver more of what consumers want. No one wants, or needs, an extra device with a hard-to-read screen, poor battery life, and limited utility. But as progress marches on, user interfaces, storage capacity, component miniaturization and battery life only improves. Over time, wearable software and technology may come to fulfill a genuine need in consumer’s lives.

The healthcare industry is one of the biggest proponents of wearables, perhaps because they recognize the limitless applications for a technology that encourages wearers to be more in tune with their bodies. Fitness bands can help modify their owners’ behavior by reminding them to take medicine, exercise, and reduce their caloric intake. By harnessing the power of technology, leaders in healthcare also hope to create more accurate views of population health.

As industry blog surmises, “Wearables are shaping up to be a product sector that truthfully exists at the intersection of lifestyle, health, and personal data. While the manufacturers of wearables will be the ones putting the technology into the market, the healthcare industry—and specifically the healthcare IT segment—is very aware that they are a gatekeeper for many of the most exciting potential uses of wearable technology.”

In another 10 years, the continual reduction in size of wearable devices, improved by better glass displays and storage capabilities, may result in complete cannibalisation of the smartphone. If history has taught us anything, it’s that our appetite for new tech products is insatiable. But with costs of developing wearable products weighing heavily against those of creating software for the mobile device most of us already own, it may still be awhile before wearable technology becomes more than just dessert.

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