Smart moves off the phone and on to your wrist

cuyoo.com 2013/12/30 637

For much of the developed world, 2013 marked the beginning of a new technological era. More than half the people in North America, the UK, Japan, South Korea and the Nordic countries now own a smartphone, market researchers have concluded. By next year, the rest of western Europe will join that mobile majority.

The rise of the smartphone has already created new winners and losers in the consumer electronics market. According to a November estimate by analysts at US investment bank Canaccord Genuity, Apple and Samsung captured a “remarkable” 109 per cent (correct) of handset industry profits in the third quarter of 2013, a figure that makes sense only if the losses suffered by suppliers such as BlackBerry, Nokia and Taiwan’s HTC are counted as “negative profits”.

But it is not just their mobile rivals’ earnings that Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy devices have gobbled up. Cameras, music and radio players, alarm clocks, navigation systems, even torches and compasses are now absorbed into a glowing screen.

Yet as smartphones increase in sophistication, they are also enabling new categories of gadget that harness their always-on connection, sensors and processing power.

Wearable technology, “smart home” devices such as lights and security systems, fitness trackers and even toys are all orbiting the smartphone, making connected devices one of 2013’s hottest gadget trends.

As innovation in smartphones themselves starts to slow down, the platform that they are enabling is just getting started – even if analysts say mass-market adoption is still years away.
“The nice thing about the internet of things is it’s not monolithic,” says Rob Chandhok, president of Qualcomm’s interactive platforms division, who predicts a “Cambrian explosion” of smart devices. “I expect wearables to be on a very fast cadence as form factors fall out.”
Pebble, one of the best-known independent makers of smartwatches, which raised $10m on US-based crowdfunding platform Kickstarter last year, said in November that it had sold 190,000 watches in total – impressive for a start-up but hardly the sort of volume that would have Apple rushing its rumoured iWatch to market.
As with most smartwatches, the Pebble mainly acts as a way to notify the wearer of incoming messages or other alerts from a Bluetooth-tethered smartphone.
The September launch of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear marked a significant moment for the smartwatch market. Although the device has had mixed reviews, the endorsement of the form factor by the South Korean electronics group – coupled with persistent rumours that Google, Microsoft and others are all working on similar watches – signalled that smart watches may not be a niche for much longer. Even Casio’s G-Shock now has a Bluetooth connection to receive message notifications – and has the benefit of actually looking like a watch.
At the same time as the Galaxy Gear was unveiled, Qualcomm launched the Toq, a smartwatch that uses its Mirasol screen to showcase the potential of the technology.
Unlike the Gear, which needs charging every day and does not keep its watch face lit all the time, the Toq’s screen is always on and the battery lasts for several days.
“Being able to do things at a glance is very powerful,” says Mr Chandhok. “I don’t want to replicate the smartphone, but I do want to use it to raise things above the noise level. Notification really only works when it’s at a glance.”
But Robert Brunner, partner at the design agency Ammunition Group, which works on products such as Beats by Dr Dre headphones, says the appearance of these devices is just as important as what they do.
“We are in the fashion business,” Mr Brunner said at a recent GigaOm conference in San Francisco. “The things that people carry and use define us almost as much as the clothes we wear?.?.?.?Wearable technology needs to understand fashion.”
A similar challenge lies in the smart home market, where devices such as the internet fridge are solutions searching for a problem.
“The magic that we all love of being connected and the things that it does is going, going, gone,” Mr Brunner says. “At some point, having running water in your house was amazing. It’s no longer just about this magic, it’s about what it’s actually doing in our lives.”
Dozens of new devices have emerged in recent months, from smart locks such as August and Lockitron, which open with a wave of a smartphone, to Philips’ Hue lightbulbs, which can be set to match the colour of a photo from a mobile app, as well as other features.
Some are aimed at security-conscious folk: Dropcam’s $200 Pro camera constantly monitors its owner’s home, alerting them to movement after they’ve left the house and letting them watch a live video feed. SmartThings sells kits that enable garage doors to be locked remotely or sends notifications to a phone when the kids get home from school. Large retailers such as Home Depot, Staples and Lowe’s are devoting more and more floor space to such products, even though it is unclear how large the market for them is today.
“It takes time for people to embrace connectivity,” says Tony Fadell, chief executive of Nest, whose “learning” thermostat and app-enabled smoke alarm have attained an Apple-like cult following among early adopters of the “connected home”.
“Most people are just jamming things together because that’s the fastest thing to do. They don’t rethink the experience from top to bottom?.?.?.?Just because it can be connected doesn’t mean it should,” he says.
Ben Wood, analyst at tech consultancy CCS Insight, sees great potential in smartwatches, but says the connected home is “just too hard for the man on the street right now”. The plethora of single-purpose “point solutions” is still a long way from the joined-up vision touted at trade shows, he says.
Amanda Peyton, co-founder of Grand St, a marketplace for creative technology, admits that the “independent, creative, alternative electronics” market is worth just a fraction of the $1tn consumer electronics market today.
“But it is absolutely the fastest growing of any sector,” she says. “Over the next few years, you will see this section of the market just growing enormously. It’s going to cut into some of the existing consumer electronics market, but it’s going to grow the whole thing overall.”
Wearables and other “smart” devices might not overtake the smartphone market any time soon – but they promise to be a much livelier arena for innovation in the coming years.


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