Wearable Software Ecosystem: Diversity or Monoculture

The 2015 SID Display Week Wearable-Flexible Market Focus Conference hosted a session and panel discussion on Software for Wearables with speakers from Mozilla, Intel, and Runtastic. At this point in the penultimate session of the Wearables-Flexible Conference, I found that I was really happy to have dedicated so much time (a full day) and attention to this topic at SID. Up till this time, I have been relatively skeptical concerning the status and prospects for wearable consumer electronics products. Although I carry a smartphone on my person, I gave up wearing a watch and even jewelry quite some time ago. Of course, I am not the most fashion conscious individual. Nevertheless, this wearables gathering provided the insight I needed to assess the position and importance of this segment of the consumer electronics market. The panel session on software along with the prior sessions crystallized a picture of the early days of wearable hardware and software development.

To begin the panel, Matthew Claypotch, a web developer with Mozilla, summed up that organization’s web-based views and philosophy concerning the wearable software environment. While I did not find the overall Mozilla position too enlightening, the next speaker Chief Architect, from Intel’s New Devices Group, Brian Hernacki, really moved the discussion forward. Intel, through development of its Galileo, Edison and Curie hardware products and platforms, has spawned a number of new product introductions including wearables from Basis, MICA, SMS Audio and more. Hernacki observed that software platforms are now prolific and proliferating still. At present, a common platform (or two) does not exist for all wearables (perhaps smartwatches aside) such as fitness bands, jewelry, etc. Josh Shaeffer, VP of Business Development, Runtastic, noted that his firm fields a substantial number of different apps for specific activities (see image below and link for a list with details).

Runtastic1Source: Runtastic

In addition to apps for the iPhone, Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry platforms, Runtastic offers a number of hardware products. Runtastic’s Shaeffer summarized his brief introductory remarks noting, ”Runtastic has a lot going on”.

During the panel discussion following, Hernacki of Intel posed the question, “What are the use cases that will lead to wide adoption (of wearables)?”- noting that a primary outcome of these uses is to “aggregate information from around (the user)”. Shaeffer of Runtastic remarked that the Apple Watch must be used with an iPhone to get a good GPS track and the coupling between devices ties the user into Apple Health, while also mentioning that Google Fit takes a similar tack. Hernacki cited the need for a 10x improvement in battery capacity or device power consumption in functions such as modems, GPS, radios, etc., so as to enable the wearable devices to be independent of the smartphone. At this point Claypotch, the Mozilla representative, pointed out that the Web provides the cross platform means to utilize the data collected by wearable devices, saying in essence that the web provides the glue to hold the data and the application of that data together.

Shaeffer of Runtastic mentioned that mobile devices are “sexy” while the web itself is not (?) thus developers and users de-emphasize web use. He said his kids do “everything” on his or their smartphone using native apps rather than web apps. However, it was noted that the scenario where 1000’s of Internet of Things (IoT) devices are sourcing data, suggests that the web will provide the best access to data overall. Shaeffer also mentioned that like many data aggregators, at Runtastic they hold the bulk of detailed user data close to Runtastic itself, sharing a minor amount with their iOS or Android partners.

Hernacki of Intel asked if apps or platforms have “loyalty”? In answer Claypotch said he believed that app users are loyal and cited global users’ loyalty to the app WhatsApp as an example. Shaffer does not see much platform switching at Runtastic, concluding that “users are loyal to their platform”. Hernacki then pointed out that users will have and utilize a plurality of wearable devices and that this will drive cross platform compatibility if high volumes of wearables are to be sold.

To wrap up, all panellists discussed the likelihood of open data exchange but agreed that this could take 3-5 years to implement. As this lively exchange demonstrated, while wearables are catching on, it is still early days for the product segment. The trends, needs and opportunities mentioned by the panellists suggest a lively future for wearables going forward. Although I was previously unclear about the potential of wearable technology, my final conclusion after attending the SID Wearables Market Focus Conference is that wearable consumer electronic products will be here to stay as an important, diverse and lucrative consumer electronic market. – Phil Wright