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What’s the “killer app” for wearables? Think context.

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So here’s a good question: What exactly is going to drive the wearables market to the heights that some analysts are predicting? Juniper, for example, predicts 130 million smart wearable device shipments by 2018 while Gartner expects $5 billion in sales for wearables by 2016. But former Apple(s aapl) and Palm exec Michael Mace still isn’t sure there’s a reason to support such lofty figures because there’s no “killer app” for these devices. I disagree, or at the very least, I think the start of such an app is already available.

On Wednesday, Mace penned a great post on the topic, with one of the core thoughts being this:

“[T]he reality is that today’s forecasts of a wearable explosion are based on faith, not analysis. If you believe a wearable killer app is coming, then it’s easy to convince yourself that many millions of these things will be sold. I want to believe that too. But I think I need to see the app first.”

Smart wearables aren’t new and many are stuck with old ideas

I can understand Mace’s skepticism, mainly from the perspective of an early adopter. How many of us can say we spent $150 on a Microsoft(s msft) SPOT watch that got its data from FM radio waves back in 2004? I’m raising my hand. Yup, smartwatches themselves aren’t that new. The capabilities and features of them, however, are. Unfortunately, most of these are simply refined second screens for our smartphones and have little “smarts” by themselves.


Of course, there are other wearables beside smartwatches. Look to the quantified self products for a nearly endless list of examples: the Jawbone UP, Nike(s nke) Fuelband and Basis B-1 just to name a few. And if there weren’t already enough of these available, quite a few more launched at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show from nearly every recognizable industry name as well as others you might not expect.

Mace notes the success of these, again pointing to the “killer app”: These health trackers have one and that’s why consumers are buying them without much of a marketing push.

“We have seen some traction for wearable devices in vertical markets, especially sports and health. Smart watches and other wearable fobs are a great way to track your exercise, and sports goggles are a cool way to make videos of your ski runs. It’s very telling that these devices have sold well on their own, without any need for hype or even a heavy marketing budget. That’s what happens when you find the right app — it takes off on its own.”

So there are plenty of different wearable types: Smartwatches, health trackers, and even wearable displays such as Google(s goog) Glass. Mace thinks the negatives of Glass currently outweigh the positives at the moment.

Pushing the same notifications from one screen to another isn’t that smart

Having worn Glass for the past few months, I can appreciate his opinion. Aside from being one of the fastest ways to get a first-person image, Glass largely provides notifications with the added benefit of voice searches. Smartwatches generally offer the same notifications. And some of the health trackers are or will be doing this too.

For wearables to be truly disruptive though, they can’t just be wearable chimes that sound off every time someone sends us an email, retweets something we’ve said or likes our Facebook(s fb) photos. We need wearables — very personal objects — to smartly separate the signal from the noise.


That’s what Mace is getting at, and I agree. But I’m surprised he doesn’t consider context to be the killer app; particularly because of his current work effort, listed as this on his blog: “I’m cofounder of Zekira, an app that helps you recall context around any bit of info in your life: a name, meeting, file, etc.” Seems like Mace has the killer app idea in mind but it’s not yet in a wearable.

Context is the “killer app”

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: Getting contextual information at the right place and the right time from a wearable can be disruptive. It’s why I’ve repeatedly said I want Google Now on my wrist. That sounds like a smartwatch, though I’d be just as happy if that information were on a wearable display or some other form factor that was glanceable.

pebble google now notification

Instead of having my smartwatch (or whatever device I’m wearing) pester me with information that others want me to see, I want it to display information I want me to see. And there are times I don’t even know what that information is.

Take the traffic, for example. If I normally leave by 4:30 pm for a weekly 5 pm appointment, I really don’t know if there’s traffic unless I check. But that traffic data is contextual to my calendar and my location; that’s where a Google Now (or a similar service) comes into play: It can and should notify me in advance with no interaction on my part.

Google Now Google Search iOS

Here’s another example. Let’s say my wife frequents a particular clothing store chain and one of its locations is nearby as I’m going through my day. We’ll go a step further and say her birthday is within the next 10 days. Wouldn’t it be useful to have that information automatically put into context with an alert: “Hey, your wife’s birthday is in 8 days and you’re near Macy’s, her favorite store.”

Perhaps you’ve ordered something online and it requires a signature. You check the tracking information and expect it on Friday. But wait, there’s great news! It’s scheduled for an early delivery on Thursday. Oh, you didn’t get the memo and planned to stay home from the office on Friday? That’s a problem, right? Not with a contextual app that could have notified you of the schedule change not long after it happened.

Google Now cards

The killer app for wearables is one that ties in all data that’s relevant to me — location, task lists, calendar, important people and such — ties it to sensor data and presents it to me in a way that’s helpful while being unobtrusive. Perhaps context itself isn’t an app and therefore can’t be the “killer app.” Intelligent devices built around context, however, have the potential to meet or exceed expectations for the coming wearables explosion.

24 Responses to “What’s the “killer app” for wearables? Think context.”

  1. Peter Fretty

    I see the wearable becoming the filtering conduit bringing all of our other devices and data points and as you say adding context. The goal is that the wearable should be the one key tool to improve collaboration efforts across the board and allow us to work on a more intimate basis with one another — truly achieving what T-Systems calls Zero Distance.

    Peter Fretty

  2. Bill Burnett

    Nice post Kevin, and I agree with a lot of your observations. I do think that context is necessary – but probably insufficient. Other have pointed out that AI will be needed to really make wearables useful. But I have two questions that I never hear asked: (1) Who says wearables are a product category – other than the people who make them? What new human need do they address? The whole thing feels a lot like 3D TV – something the industry has been trying to get consumers to need for 4 years to no avail, and (2) the examples you site (mostly e-commerce applications) require a significant breach of my personal privacy to work, something more and more of us (please call us citizens and not consumers) are unwilling to allow. In any case, the assumption that important information about where I am and what I’m doing will be turned over to Google et. al. for free. I question this assumption: if this personal data is so critical to context-driven advertising it will be monetized. I predict business models based on the free use of user-generated (and owned) content will someday be seems as a quaint 1990’s anomaly.

  3. I fail to see the draw for a “smart” watch/wearable. All of your examples are indeed correct, killer apps are the ones that use context to give you info based on Time/Location/Metadata that the “system” is aware of.

    However All of that can be done on a smartphone, the device you already carry in your pocket that already has your calendar, email, browser, phone, text, messaging, apps and EVERYTHING you might need.

    Most importantly your phone is the device with a keyboard (on screen or physical) that will let you actually interact with the data/messages you might receive.

    Finally there’s a huge population of people (in fact many would say the majority) that enjoy/accept having/using a smartphone that would *NEVER* wear a “smartwatch” or wear “Google glasses” because the idea of wearing either one of them is not sexy. In fact it is actually like geek repellent.

    Do you remember that kid that wore the Timex calculator watch? Do you think anyone ever looked at that guy and drooled… man I gotta get me one of those! (Never… it was as sexy as having a piece of toilet paper stuck to your shoe leaving the washroom… even if you are wearing a tux and look like Brad Pitt – you look like a dweeb)

    But Google glasses might be cool! – No they aren’t! No one wants to look like Geordi Laforge (from Star Trek)… heck even the fact I know who that is knocks 50 points off my “sexy” cred. They’ve been shunned just as much as wearing a bluetooth headset. You can’t look remotely “normal” while having an open air conversation with someone far away… when there’s no device you are talking into.

    I’m into tech… I’m a programmer… I write apps… but even I have ZERO interest in ever owning any of these accessory devices. NONE.

    • Good points, but as a new Pebble owner I see the smartwatch as simply a glanceable, wearable display and companion device to your smartphone (in your pocket) and by extension cloud services. Glanceability is something that you really can’t “get” until you live with it.

      • Don’t get me wrong there are and will be buyers… but I think the $5billion market suggestion to me is beyond absurd. I know people that have bought and shelved their Pebble. I see much more potential in Internet enabled devices for the home… a smoke detector that can be turned off when I’m on vacation if it goes off accidentally… that turns off my gas/furnace when it does go off… a thermostat I can control remotely.. door locks I can control remotely… auto-close my garage door if its past a certain hour and I’ve left it open… turn on/off all my house lights from my bed side… trigger my morning alarm 30-60min early if it has snowed more than an inch overnight or there are traffic delays on my route to work… etc.

  4. Hanny Kamal

    The power of context and this “killer app” all comes down to whether or not we have the freedom to leverage data from multiple sources (think The Internet of Things). By breaking down those silos, the opportunities are endless.

  5. Joseph Allen

    Context has to be explicitly tied to identity. There needs to be multiple sources of data confirming identity before context related services will be secure. I want my house to disarm and unlock itself for me as I approach the door, but I don’t want anyone with my phone to be able to do the same. I need to have some additional biometric device/devices to double or triple check that I truly am the one who wants to get into my home. Also, the usefulness of context is proportional to one’s willingness to give up privacy or at least have all of that data at the risk of being exposed and/or exploited. This is a tough problem to solve, but certainly one worth tackling.

  6. Great article Kevin, I totally agree with you that context is a killer app. Your article and examples reminded of a post I made almost 9 years ago on this very subject and I know you’ve been beating this drum throughout the years as well. It’s finally starting to come to fruition with apps like Google Now & EasilyDo but there is so much more that can be done.

    Right now the contextual mojo is going to take place on apps on the smartphone which tie in to a backend in the cloud. Smartwatches will get more sensors but they don’t have the processing power and persistent connection to the cloud to make the contextual mojo happen.

    Smart glasses like Glass are just wearable displays that can overlay data to augment reality but again they rely on a smartphone and a persistent data connection.

    So current wearables are merely sensors and displays with very little onboard processing power, the real magic is software (smartphone apps) tied to backend cloud services. Apps like EasilyDo and Google Now are only going to get better at figuring out context, and once they start ingesting wearable sensor data (HR, BP, accelerometer, OCR, face & object recognition,etc) even more exciting things are going to happen.

    Give apps and services even more information about ourselves and our own personal tastes (Facebook likes, Yelp/Foursquare/Facebook check-ins) along with some AI algorithms that learn our habits and can then infer context with more accuracy, and *that* really is the king of killer apps. For that to happen users need to be willing to trust these companies with a tremendous amount of personal data and forfeit privacy for convenience.

  7. As the Google search value increased directly in proportion to the data available in its initial years, I believe smart wearable technology growth depends on the existing data’s capability to be fed and translated by surrounding electronic devices lying dormant, central and peripheral. Perhaps we will take the longer adoption life cycle led by fragmented strategic alliance in the market place or by joint experimentation among horizontal alliance of multinationals, institutions, or cleverly designed test against willing cities or communities such as Kansas did with Google Fiber. It would be worth testing the idea of lean-horizontal-communities of corporations and makers to make that “wearable” jointly profitable in a compliant way through not merely a design lab at xyz schools with legal contraints but at lean/open/smart communities… the problem may be how do we strive for something better motivated by the rewards that harmony will bring, how do we translate out-right competition into boundaries of co-opetition?

  8. You make a good case, Kevin, and this is the sort of rational discussion of wearables that I’ve been looking for online (and not finding in many cases).

    I agree with you that context is a killer app, but as some other people have noted, to make wearables take off it I think it has to do something far better than a smartphone. I’m not convinced that appointment context on a watch is enough better than appointment info on a smartphone to make me buy and charge a second device.

    The best idea I’ve heard for truly revolutionary wearable context came from a friend who told me that he wanted Glass to recognize the faces of everyone he sees, and tell him information on them — who are they, have you met them before, and if so, what is your history with them? That would be awesome for introverts like me, and it’s the sort of thing that might make me want to wear Glass all the time. But I think we’re several years away from implementing it, which is why I feel the wearables revolution isn’t imminent.

    • Good point on the wearables doing something better than the smartphone. The flipside is — I’m just playing devil’s advocate — some wearable device makers are actually moving the benefit back to the phone. Take Fitbit for example: With the M7 sensor in your iPhone 5s, the handset becomes the Fitbit.

      Regardless, I think we’re more in agreement than at odds on this. Definitely a space worth watching as it tries to find its way. ;)

  9. Sage Osterfeld

    Those examples are interesting, but I don’t know if they’re “killer” since they’re really just replicating notifications that your smartphone can do but on your wrist or eyeball instead.

    I think wearables will get really useful when “context-awareness” goes beyond simple notifications to doing things that I (or another person) would do automatically. For example, my thermal tech jacket turning down its heating coils when I walk into the ski lodge, or my wristbit telling my mom I’m running and will call her back when I get home, or my smartwatch notifying my hotel that I just walked in the lobby, the hotel giving me a room and the watch unlocking the door so I can bypass the reception desk. Or (and maybe this is the real killer app), my glasses warning me off about going into that bar because it just saw my ex-posting to Facebook in there.

    When your wearables become your wingman, that’s when the whole thing will go big.

  10. laurenteymard

    Will not be one killer app but multiple, what is going to be a killer app for you will not be for someone else …
    There will be killer apps, for Health, Sports, Productivity, Kids …
    It is coming and accelerating but not yet ready for mass market !

  11. Travis Henning

    So you’re essentially looking for “smart,” proactive notification device rather than reactive notification viewer? If that’s the case, the wearable is still going to be a just a second screen that displays information. I think in the near term, that’s all these wearables will be.

    I have a Pebble. I like it for what it is, a way to discretely view notifications without having to overtly interrupt the situation I’m in (theater, restaurant, exercising, etc). If its an important notification, I’ll excuse myself and pull out the phone. I love the idea of the contextual notifications. But that’s done today via a device I already carry in my pocket. Why not utilize that device and simply display those notifications on my second screen? At least until the day arrives when they can integrate everything into a small wearable form factor for a reasonable price.

    I believe there will still be a UI challenge with such a small device. Voice control will be there, but its not always an option for users to talk to their device. And its difficult to browse content via wearable… for now. Many times its just easier to take out the phone and perform these kinds of activities. So I think people will still carry another device for this reason.

    The next year or two will be very interesting in this space.