Wearables graduate from accessories to hardware platform status as CES opens

by Steve Blum • , ,

Smart watch

CES is underway in Las Vegas. What used to be called the Consumer Electronics Show but now goes by the less modest appellation of “CES 2020, the world’s largest and most influential technology event” kicked off this weekend with pre-show and preview events. Today is press day and the show floor opens tomorrow.

From a product perspective, the consumer electronics technology industry is collapsing into a handful of all purpose products – smart phones, cars, and computers and big screens of one sort or another. That list will grow this year as wearables become full featured hardware platforms that can support complete ecosystems of apps, services and content.

The wearables market is about form factor, not specific device function. That’s true whether it’s smart watches, fitness trackers, sleep monitors or something else. Smart phones are networked, handheld computers that are a convenient parking spot for any app, sensor or content that you can imagine. It’s an accident of history that we call them phones. Similarly, what we’ll end up calling a smart watch will just be a wrist-mounted platform for whatever can conveniently ride on it. I’m seeing fewer and fewer Fitbits and other dedicated fitness wearables on people, and more and more Apple watches, which are often used for step counting and other fitness tracking purposes.

Batteries are the major limiting factor inhibiting the collapse of everything into a single smart watch. There are two problems: battery life and recharging. So far I haven’t found a smart watch that can operate with everything running, including GPS, for more than about eight hours straight. That’s inconvenient for people who just want to put it on in the morning and let it do its thing all day long. It’s a deal killer for people who need that level of functionality for long durations – cyclists, hikers, triathletes for example. Recharging requires users to take the watch off once or twice a day and leave it somewhere to charge. That can limit its usefulness as a sleep monitor, for example. It is also a lot more fussy than we’re used to being about our watches.

But there’s a potential solution to both problems. If someone can figure out a system for wirelessly recharging smart watches with ambient energy, it’ll be a game changer. At that point, it won’t be just fitness trackers that collapse into smart watches, but also many smart phone functions as well. Maybe a low level magnetic field on keyboards, steering wheels, handlebars or anything else that’s regularly near your wrist for more than a few minutes a day?