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The Mobile Eclipse?

Why wearable devices are at the precipice of a new era of innovation

An incredible new era of invention, opportunity, and growth is at hand. Once the realm of science fiction or toys for those with deep pockets, wearable devices have now gone mainstream. Fitbit, Jawbone, Pebble—these vendors have quietly and quickly launched wristbands, trackers, and other wearable devices for a vast number of consumers.

Wearable devices may enhance and revolutionize the lives of humans, and, as has widely been reported, could well eclipse mobility in terms of total market value. The impact on lives, businesses, and society are nearly impossible to predict. However, those who have witnessed the birth of the personal computer (PC), the smartphone, and cloud computing have learned one simple lesson: commoditization means opportunity.

Commoditization also means that building better, less-expensive devices than previous generations is no longer the primary goal. Instead, the challenge is in using cost-effective, ubiquitous devices to do fundamentally new things. Imagine a scenario in which the model for wearable devices indeed displaces mobility. Consider the necessary conditions and the key opportunities for IBM, in particular, to capitalize in this wearable devices space.

Dethroning the smartphone

In the Wired.com article, “Why Wearable Tech Will Be As Big As the Smartphone,” Bill Wasik writes, “A new device revolution is at hand: Just as mobile phones and tablets displaced the once-dominant PC, so wearable devices are poised to push smartphones aside.”1 This prediction requires breakthroughs in both form and function of wearable devices, and they offer ample opportunity to be custom tailored for specific activities and demographics. If this and other recent predictions hold true, be prepared for an incredible ride.

Perhaps more importantly, these devices represent a fundamentally new human-computer interaction. The Apple iPhone is a phenomenal computer, but the end-user experience can immediately suffer merely by pulling it out of pocket and unlocking it. The stage is clearly set for innovative designers to conceive a world of simpler and more efficient purpose-built devices than smartphones. Moreover, rapid prototyping such as 3–D printing and crowd funding such as Kickstarter have dramatically reduced the buy-in for turning ideas into physical hardware.

For example, since Kickstarter began publishing stats in June 2012,2 the site reports more than 60,000 successfully funded projects; 63 percent of those projects raised amounts in the USD1,000–9,999 range, and 24 percent raised amounts in the USD10,000–99,999 range. In addition, of its 1,296 current hardware projects—as of April 21, 2014—34 percent have funding goals in the USD1,000–10,000 range and 60 percent have goals in the USD10,000–100,000.3 Designs as revolutionary as the iPhone are expected to plausibly emerge from these market forces and capture the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of a large number of consumers.

And by further shining the light of commoditization on the mobility analogy, there is so much more to learn. Great devices will be built, but that scenario is far from the complete picture. For example, the iPhone was and is an incredible device. Its form, function, design, and price made the device an immediate must-have. However, the role of applications and end-user demand was clearly critical in cementing the deep penetration of mobility into the general consumer space.

The iPhone is also a canvas, a creative blank slate that lets dreamers easily turn ideas into products, and immediately distribute them to—quite literally—billions of people.4 The same forces are expected to be at play in the realm of wearable devices, but no one has yet filled Apple’s shoes. And while the technical challenges are somewhat different, the opportunity is even larger than ever.

The winner in the wearable device rally may be the one who builds an environment in which creators can leverage the application programming interfaces (APIs) and data across a multitude of devices and end users to create valuable applications. The key requirements for this environment aren’t inexpensive accelerometers; they are open APIs, cloud-based services, and innovative business models. Therein lies a tremendous opportunity for IBM to reclaim a leading-edge role in the consumer space. It can build and operate the backplane for the Internet of Things—namely data, services, and applications.

Revitalizing innovation

With its substantial infrastructure from the SoftLayer acquisition, cloud-based data services resulting from the Cloudant acquisition, and a long heritage of technical expertise, IBM is among a handful of organizations well poised to take a leadership role. Many of the pieces are in place already, allowing IBM to move forward in the Internet of Things wearable devices space.5 And IBM is helping drive innovation in this area through its SportsHack Challenge app-building contest during Impact 2014,6 and by hosting the Wearable Fitness site powered by IBM IoT Labs.7

Please share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

1Why Wearable Tech Will Be As Big As the Smartphone,” by Bill Wasik, Wired.com, December 2013.
2Kickstarter Stats,” by Yancey Strickler, Kickstarter Blog, June 2012.
3Kickstarter, Discover Projects page, April 2014.
4Apple’s App Store Hits 25 Billion Downloads,” by Sarah Kessler, Mashable, Social Media page, March 2012.
5 The opening keynote at Impact 2014 offers a demonstration of the pieces in place to help developers turn new wearable devices and fresh ideas into innovative applications.
6SportsHack Challenge, IBM developerWorks, mobile development.
7 Wearable Fitness sign-up page. Note: registration is required.