2017 has been a rather mixed year for wearables, with rapid technological advancements leading to some curious products and improvements but the industry as a whole stagnating to a degree, at least in the sense that consumer perception of this product category hasn’t really changed. The global market continued growing but no significant spikes have been recorded over the course of this year, though the segment became more competitive, which is always a good thing for consumers. Even though no one turned the industry upside down in 2017, we have still witnessed some major developments in the wearable space over the last 12 months, all of which are outlined below.
Android Wear 2.0 finally hit the stable channel and got updated to Oreo
While it took nearly a year and five developer previews, Android Wear 2.0 was finally released on the stable channel in early February, debuting a wide variety of features and improvements that Google has been promising for quite a while. The OS then took the better part of the year to roll out to all compatible smartwatches, with that process being painfully slow for some devices. Still, support for standalone apps made the update worth the wait even if you disregard all of the other novelties debuted by the update like a revamped interface with flatter icons made in accordance with Google’s Material Design guidelines and the sheer convenience of the Google Assistant.
Being able to download an app directly to your watch and rely on it even without having it constantly connected to a smartphone is a real game-changer in the wearable segment and definitely one of its 2017 highlights. Additionally, Google also changed Android Wear’s base from Nougat to Oreo, consequently improving the battery life of an average smartphone running on its firmware while simultaneously adding support for seven new languages and new vibration options so as to provide users with even more options for tweaking their wearable experience.
As far as Android Wear is concerned, perhaps the biggest surprise of the year is that the best implementation of the OS was delivered by LG whose Watch Style and Watch Sport are still the smartwatches to beat despite the fact that both came out in early 2017 and industry data suggests the wearable segment became more competitive this year. Still, the latter observation is mostly attributed to the activity in the fitness tracker market, whereas new (Android Wear-powered) smartwatches weren’t scarce but were also largely underwhelming.
Fringe players gave up on the market
Both Adidas and TomTop reportedly gave up on wearables and began preparations to exit the market over the course of this year, while Under Armour and ASUS essentially did the same. Weak sales were reported as the deciding factor in all of those cases as fringe wearable makers found themselves unable to compete with the more established brands in terms of features while simultaneously not being capable of coping with the influx of affordable entry-level fitness bands from Chinese manufacturers. Intel’s commitment to such technologies also waned as the company decided to place a larger focus on augmented reality solutions and ultimately shut down its wearable division, industry sources said in summer.
While all of the aforementioned decisions were made by C-suite executives behind closed doors only to be reported later, 2017 also delivered one rather public meltdown in the wearable segment, with Jawbone shuttering its consumer-facing fitness tracker division amid a major cash crunch and following more than a year of reports about unpaid salaries and empty warehouses that it couldn’t afford to restock. While its out-of-date website still claims the now-liquidated company is a “world leader” in wearables and a portion of the firm is said to live on in the form of the Jawbone Health Hub, don’t expect it to be making a comeback.
Consumers still aren’t responding to anything that doesn’t go on their wrists
The story of the Google Glass is a well-documented affair and while many industry watchers are prone to romanticizing its failure by claiming it was ahead of its time, market developments in 2017 suggest that even if that’s the case, that unspecified “time” isn’t coming anytime soon. Snap’s Spectacles were widely touted as being precisely designed to avoid falling into the same trap and present themselves as a cool gadget for millennials instead of a creepy piece of tech that raises numerous privacy concerns, yet saying that the Snapchat maker’s camera-equipped glasses failed spectacularly would be an understatement. Snap ended up taking a $40 million write-down after overestimating the demand for the device by multiple warehouses and doesn’t seem to be willing to make another such gamble in the near future.
Unconventional wearables also didn’t fare any better when handled by parties other than trendy app developers with unrealistic expectations of becoming successful hardware manufacturers, with the majority of such products revealed in 2017 ending up as either vaporware or commercial failures. Some seemingly viable ideas like the Motiv Ring and FrontRow didn’t catch on despite showing slight promise, whereas others such as Levi’s and Google’s Commuter Trucker jacket based on ATAP’s Project Jacquard didn’t even try to present themselves as appealing to anyone who isn’t a massive tech enthusiast with too much disposable income. The Commuter Trucker jacket was hailed as one of the most promising wearable concepts going into 2017 but even its extremely limited initial supply proved to be hard to offload, with consumers remaining unphased about its promise of a connected life. All things considered, any wearables that aren’t meant to be worn on one’s wrist still appear to be years away from commercial viability and not much has changed on this front over the course of the year.
Fitbit is now a smartwatch maker…
While Fitbit’s performance has been declining in recent times, the company’s name is still synonymous with fitness trackers and the firm did well to maintain that image in 2017 even while posting some losses. The Charge 2 and recently released Alta HR remain some of the best fitness trackers on the market, yet Fitbit is now also a smartwatch maker, having launched its first such offering in the form of the Ionic. While the Ionic’s launch wasn’t surprising in light of the company’s 2016 acquisition of Pebble whose expertise certainly helped shape the first true watch from the wearable maker, Fitbit’s offering is very much its own thing and a versatile gadget that stands on its own. Fitbit isn’t planning on stopping with the Ionic, either, with its CEO already confirming that a much more diversified wearable portfolio from the company is set to hit the market in the near future. All things considered, the company’s decision to embrace smartwatches reflected on the market in a positive manner and provided consumers with another choice in the ultra-premium segment, the same one that’s meant to serve as a global advertisement of wearables as a whole.
… and Samsung is going all-in on fitness wearables
The world’s largest smartphone maker continued its significant investments in the wearable segment over 2017, having delivered its most capable fitness band to date in the form of the Gear Fit2 Pro. Samsung’s new approach to this product category is now solely dedicated to sporty and outdoorsy people as the firm decided against a direct follow-up to the Gear S3 and instead opted for a more fitness-oriented offering that launched as the Gear Sport. That isn’t to say the Gear Sport isn’t stylish, just that it prioritizes functionality over looking like a fashion accessory, which is a move signaling that Samsung is doing away with its catch-all wearable strategy and is now profiling its new products to cater to specific demographics. The company’s decision to move away from the Gear S lineup isn’t too surprising given how quickly the Gear S3 lost steam and it ultimately paid off, with the Gear Sport now being widely touted as one of the best wearables to hit the market in 2017. Much like Fitbit, Samsung’s wearable division showed signs of maturing in the last 12 months, indicating that the best is yet to come from the Korean tech giant.
Ultimately, smartwatches finally seem to be picking up some steam and latest estimates in regards to their prospects are optimistic, giving them a chance to account for more than half of the wearable market half a decade from now. Five years is still a long time and given the current state of the market, it remains to be seen whether manufacturers will finally be able to deliver more compelling offerings that will convince people to invest in this product category which industry watchers are still describing as “emerging” despite the fact that contemporary wearables were commercialized years ago (e.g. Fitbit’s first tracker launched in 2009).
Still, with the global market now slowly maturing as fringe players continue giving up on it and major ones remain committed to doing a better job of defining their audiences, smartwatches and fitness trackers appear to have a bright future ahead of them and may finally be able to enter the mainstream going forward. As for other wearable technologies like smart glasses, rings, jackets, and wallets, 2017 delivered more questions than answers and such products are unlikely to make any significant waves in 2018.