Are wearables on the decline or poised for a comeback?

By Jonah Comstock
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It's been a rough couple of weeks for wearables. Yesterday, Lenovo announced it was abandoning its Moto Androidwear line indefinitely, with head of global product development Shakil Barkat saying "wearables do not have broad enough appeal for us to continue to build on it year after year,” according to The Verge. Last week it came out that Pebble, which arguably invented the smartwatch space, is being bought by Fitbit for a price that reportedly won't cover its debts. And Angel, which was to be the open source wearable that allowed anyone to adapt the technology to their needs, also shut down recently (MobiHealthNews broke the news last week).

If that's not enough for you, go back a little further and you'll see Intel laying off its wearables group and killing the Basis line and Microsoft essentially killing the Microsoft Band back in October. And that's without even mentioning Jawbone, which has been in a sort of slow motion decline for months if not years without a new product in sight. This is surely not a complete list.

With all that, it's enough for some to start making some rather grim predictions for the industry. Earlier today, Variety magazine pronounced the smartwatch dead, pointing out that even Apple is reportedly seeing big declines in shipments for the Apple Watch. And if the smartwatch is dead, the fitness tracker doesn't seem all that much healthier, judging by most of this recent news.

(Update: Reports of Apple Watch shipment declines were based on a report from IDC, which today Apple CEO Tim Cook denied in a statement to Reuters.)

It could just be denial, but voices in digital health are painting all this news with a slightly more hopeful brush. Dr. Dave Albert, inventor of the AliveCor smartphone ECG, said on his Twitter that he thinks wearables have entered 'the trough of disillusionment'. That's a reference to the Gartner hype cycle, a theory about how technology adaptation happens. In the hype cycle, the trough of disillusionment follows the "peak of inflated expectations" and is the lowest point in the cycle: it's followed by the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity.

All of which is to say that maybe the shutdowns and consolidations are a prelude to the beginning of a healthy market. Rachel Kalmar, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University who has previously worked for Misfit Wearables, gets at the same idea in a blog post she published today. Kalmar posits that the thing that will bring wider, mainstream adoption to wearables is bridging the gap between collecting data and using it productively -- whatever that means for each individual device and consumer.

"I often compare wearables to mills for grinding wheat into flour," Kalmar writes. "Though some consumers have ideas of things they’d like to bake, most don’t want flour, they want cookies. The same is true for data: most people don’t want the data itself, they want cookies: the useful products and services that are built with this data. The problem is that for wearables data, we still don’t know what a cookie looks like. This is not the fault of wearables companies, but rather a reflection of where we are as a field."

Kalmar thinks that as we as a society and an industry solve this problem of a lack of meaning for the data, wearables will have a corresponding comeback.

It's also worth noting that "dead" in the consumer realm doesn't always mean dead in the enterprise. We saw that with Google Glass last year, which, even after its consumer program shut down, continued to have uses in enterprise, especially healthcare. And if Kalmar's reasoning is correct, this makes sense for wearables too: While consumers might still be looking for the reason to wear a smartwatch, a person with epilepsy knows exactly why they're wearing the Embrace watch from Empatica, for instance.

We noted earlier this year that consumer wearable companies seem to be moving more and more into enterprise healthcare. That move could turn out to give those companies an important edge.