Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Where Are the Wearable Computers?

Already this year wearable computing has been a hot topic.  Apple iWatch to Google Glass there is talk about integrating computing power with the ordinary items we place on our wrists and faces every morning.  In many ways it is an obvious extension to the way computing has moved, from large bulky boxes to compact tablet computers, some of them masquerading as mobile phones.

Not all the hype is being believed - there's justifiable scepticism over the do-ability of some of these projects.  For a wristwatch to be wearable it has to be pretty small, for spectacles that will be mostly lenses there's virtually nowhere for the electronics to reside.  There's nothing inherently radical about what any of these devices are proposing to do - they are mirroring the capabilities of mobile phones, tablet computers and digital cameras but in a very compact package.  It's the package coupled with the advertised seamless integration of the functions that is setting the interest levels to high.  And the doubt levels are up there too.

There are some rumours floating around that that Google Glass is an elaborate hoax.  If it is, it's an indication that you can have too much money, and if anyone has too much, it's probably Google.

But let's suppose that the wearable computing concept is in fact very doable - and as I said there's nothing technologically difficult here apart from the integration at the minuscule scale.  In fact, the dimensions are probably only an issue if you're aiming at a budget, and for these to take off as consumer devices you have to.  So, it is possible that until economies of scale are achieved, Apple and Google may have to subsidise these products.  Well, maybe not Apple - they have a knack of stringing out a new product, working up the faithful and the packaging it in a way that makes it irresistible - but I'm not convinced Google have that skill-set yet.   The Nexus range of tablets are bumping along despite being good products - I use a Nexus 7 every day and love it - and the Chromebooks, aggressively priced that they are, don't seem to be making much of a dent in the market despite aggressive TV advertising.

So maybe the Google Glass product is giving the impression of a hoax simply because they are trying so hard to work up a head of pressure on the product launch.  They've tried the Apple approach of denial, then a series of carefully leaked reports.  They even allowed a group of  people to apply to trial beta versions for a year before launch as long as they paid $1500 for the prototypes.  Coincidently, $1500 is the projected price for Google Glass when launched.  Some find that a little bit suspicious.  I see two possible scenarios that might be considered possible.

First, they are truly prototypes and the $1500 is a significant enough sum of cash to make sure that only the serious apply to help with the trial.  But of course, $1500 is nothing to what a rival manufacturer would pay for access to a beta product to disassemble and maybe reverse engineer ahead of launch.

Second, running a competition publicly to gather applications for trialling this product provides a realistic focus group of those who probably are the target market for the finished product.  Tell a little porky to say that the successful applicants have been selected and everyone who might be a potential purchaser goes 'shucks' and awaits the launch.  In the meantime, successful 'applicants' are seen wearing the Google Glass in public, in the press and on the web.  They blog, they write newspaper columns, they promote.  But they could be wearing dummy Glass.  Or maybe the real deal, but who says they aren't Google employees?

Now look back at how Apple are managing the iWatch project.  The concept has been leaked, but virtually all the functionality has been second guessed by the on-line Apple community.  Critically the technological aims are relatively modest to that being pursued by Google, but tangible.  And one really important thing to remember about Apple is that they rarely invent new ideas, no matter what the patent lawyers keep insisting. There were MP3 players aplenty before the iPod, even very good MP3 players such as the Creative Zen (we've got a couple of these at home), but the iPod was better.  The Mac Air is hardly the only laptop in town and the iWatch isn't the first attempt at a wrist-based computing device.  But it will probably be the best example.

So the iWatch will appear and it will be a success.  No doubt about that.  When, I'm not sure, but it will come in a fantastically designed box when it does and will cost way more than it should.  Apple fans will queue around the block for days to get one.

Google Glass - fact or hoax?  If they are a fact, then they will turn up late this year or early next.  If a hoax then someone, somewhere will make them a fact, and Google will buy that someone to make sure it's them who sell them. When?  No idea, but expect it won't be more than a couple of years.


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