A Look Back: Start Betting on Wearable Experiences Now
Nov 30, 2016
With a 2017 quickly approaching, it’s sometimes interesting to look back and see what you thought would happen in the coming year, what you thought would change, and what’s ended up turning out exactly as expected. Today, we look back at Joe Bond’s July 2015 post on wearable tech — and see how far we’ve come.
“What use could this company make of an electrical toy?” – Western Union president William Orton, responding to an offer from Alexander Graham Bell to sell his telephone company to Western Union for $100,000. 
It’s easy to dismiss new technology as a passing fad.
I remember looking at an iPhone in 2007 and scoffing at how ridiculous it seemed. I thought that touch screens were absurd, that the battery life must be terrible with that large display, and that there was no way Apple could possibly get double-digit market share.
Guess who sounds ridiculous now? Here’s a hint: not Steve Jobs in his 2007 keynote.
Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I also said that the Apple Watch sounded ridiculous. I guess I just wanted to eat more of my words, but I digress.
Smartphones, as we all now know, turned out to be pretty important pieces of technology, but it was tough to understand that in the bustle of the late 2000s. In fact, the massive amount of uptake in the smartphone market even surprised Mark Zuckerburg, as Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz points out:
Today, smartphone growth seems obviously exponential. But just a few years ago many people thought smartphones were growing linearly. Even Mark Zuckerberg underestimated the importance of mobile in the “feels gradual” phase [see graph below]. In 2011 or so, he realized what we were experiencing was actually an exponential curve, and consequently dramatically increased Facebook’s investment in mobile.
Exponential growth curves in the “feels gradual” phase are deceptive. There are many things happening today in technology that feel gradual and disappointing but will soon feel sudden and amazing. 
In that quote Dixon is referencing the idea that technology is growing exponentially even when growth feels “linear” or gradual. In other words, it’s hard to feel out the pace at which technology growth is accelerating because new technology, at its inception, feels slow and disappointing until it rapidly exceeds our expectations.
To put that idea back in context, we didn’t understand how important the mobile environment was going to be in 2007 because it felt like the technology and experiences were growing linearly—on a basic level, smartphones couldn’t beat our expectations. Plus, most of us didn’t have enough imagination to see how a smartphone could be more than a phone. Somewhere around 2013 smartphones began to exceed our expectations, and by then if you hadn’t invested in mobile you had already missed the first big, post-PC phase.
It’s impossible to know how fast wearables—or in a larger sense the Internet of Things—will exceed our expectations, or, more granularly, when the Apple Watch’s technology will be understood as more than watch. Today, wearables are novelties and the Internet of Things still sounds like something for the rich and famous. Don’t be fooled by wearable tech’s appearance of linear growth, though, because it won’t last long.
I’m not saying that your company needs to build an app for the Apple Watch tomorrow—we haven’t ironed out basic use cases for wearables, yet. What you definitely should do is build an understanding of wearables and their potential impact on your industry as the market matures over the next couple of years. Since wearables fundamentally change the possible ways that a user can experience your product, building a knowledge base around emerging wearable trends will prepare your company to evolve and become more forward thinking.
The Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
Let’s take a look at how smartphone usage evolved—it’s a great example of how quickly our perceptions of technology change and it’s the closest proxy for future wearable development.
According to Ofcom’s first quarter 2014 report, 66 percent of adults in the UK browsed the Internet on their mobile phones both inside and outside their homes compared with 10 percent of those polled using their smartphones only outside or mostly outside of their homes. The paradigm that smartphones are for Internet on-the-go and desktops are for in-the-home browsing is rapidly shifting, and today, in contrast with 2007, it’s not uncommon to see somebody browsing the Internet on a smartphone with a sleeping laptop in the next room over.
It felt like this paradigm shift towards mobile happened overnight because we didn’t understand that smartphones were growing exponentially—in fact, Facebook didn’t even have an iPhone app until 2008, and now (as of March 2015) they average 798 million daily active users (DAUs) on mobile devices with a 31 percent year-over-year increase. Compare that giant number with Facebook’s 936 million total DAUs (which includes desktop and mobile) announced in the same report. If you don’t want to do the math (or you don’t have your iPhone’s calculator handy) that means 85 percent of Facebook’s total DAUs log on through a mobile device everyday. It’s not that PC’s market share of personal computing necessarily declined, it’s that mobile grew.
Yes, some industries have been insulated from the fast global uptake in mobile, but that won’t last because users are continuing to acclimate to the enhanced experience that mobile provides us with. Smartphones and wearables aren’t a trimmed down version of the Internet for use when you’re on the go—they augment our digital experiences by changing the way that we understand connections to the broader world through technology.
All this goes without saying that wearable development will expand digital experiences in a shorter amount of time because the cell phone supply chain has already refined a lot of the components needed to make cost-efficient wearable technology. This isn’t like the 1990s and the early 2000s when we couldn’t build computers fast enough to render the experiences we were trying to create—in 2015 we already have incredible components at our fingertips, we’re just looking for the right use case.
Right now wearables—and, more broadly, the Internet of Things—might not have a clear connection to your industry, but in a couple of years there will be and the competition is moving faster than ever.
What you should probably do next to prepare for any new, emerging technology
I can’t give any accurate advice on how you, individually or your company, should prepare for the future of wearable technology and the Internet of Things. There are no hard and fast rules for emerging technology other than that there will always be something better on the horizon. With that being said, this is how I generally try to wrap my head around new tech:
- I don’t scoff at new technology (anymore), because I can’t know what’s going to be important without an open mind and deep due diligence.
- I read everything I can from Benedict Evans, Marc Andreessen, Chris Dixon, and Peter Thiel—I stole a lot of the thoughts for this post from them, and they represent some of the brightest minds in the technology industry. They’re the closest things we have to tech sector oracles.
- I do my best to engage with all types of new technology and think deeply about how products and services could be meaningful to a set of relevant users in the next 2, 5, 10, and—when it’s applicable—20 years.
- I read the Product Hunt daily email digest to see what new products are being produced around the world.
- I read the Mattermark daily emails to get an inside look at the venture capital game.
- Finally, as Mark Suster said, (and I think this applies to all facets of building great products and companies) I do my best to “invest in lines and not dots.”
Wrapping things up
Take a minute to reflect on how you felt in 2007 when the iPhone was introduced—yeah, most of us we’re wrong about how important mobile was going to be. In fact, most of us miss opportunities to develop new technology because we’re slow to embrace change.
Western Union (circa 1878) is a prime example:
This “telephone” has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a practical form of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.
Don’t say the same thing and let history repeat itself:
This “wearable technology” has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a practical form of personal computing. The device is inherently of no value to us.
The blog posts that got me thinking about all this:
- The Future is Mobile and Apps Except that it isn’t by Benedict Evans
- Mobile First by Benedict Evans
- Exponential Curves Feel Gradual and then Sudden by Chris Dixon
- It’ll Never Work! collection by Donald Simanek