Will an Apple(watch) a day keep the Doctor away?

Smartwatches: fashion or function?

With the Apple watch and a number of other smartwatches on the rage, it’s not idle to wonder whether this kind of devices are just a transient fashion or they are here to stay. Tech companies themselves seem to lack a clear picture of what is the value proposition behind this kind of product, given that marketing strategies range wildly from geek-captivating videos to Vogue covers.

Smartwatches do have some distinctive features that phones don’t have: think the barebone user interface and the constant proximity, the property of being literally always at the tip of one’s fingers.
However, as far as these peculiarities are concerned, here at Mikamai we think that the technology is not there yet for a smartwatch to represent a viable proxy for your phone. Definitely none of these characteristics of smartwatches is distinctive enough or refined enough to warrant the watches popularity once the current fashion trend has waned.

Fitness trackers

There is, however, one thing smartwatches and other wearables can do, while phones can’t: wearable devices have the capability to real-time track physical data, like heartbeat, blood oxygen level and so on.
For this reason, health-related applications of the wearable technology could be a real difference-maker in the marketing of these devices.

Smartwatches have already offered new solutions for the personal safety of people with medical conditions, such as for instance diabetics. There obviously is, though, a far larger potential to be tapped in the ability of wearable devices to monitor physiological parameters in everyday life, and to share such data – for instance about daily exercise or physical performance – in real-time.
Furthermore, with respect to other existing wearables that are function-specific, the smartwatch has the advantage of potentially integrating several functions, and of providing a seamless connection with a user’s digital profile. In other words, smartwatches are especially suited for becoming an hub for health and fitness applications.

Clearly also this usage of smartwatches could be just a transient fashion. Sharing data about your daily workout to get feedback from your friends? Quick and easy as the wearable technology can make it, it sounds like something people might get bored of really soon. However there are forces at play which could consolidate this trend into something durable and of relevance.

Healthcare in the age of facebook

Medicine and healthcare are undergoing a wave of profound change in the last decade, and one of the most significant tendencies behind this change turns out to have a certain relevance to the spread of the wearables technology.
Both within traditional, nation-level healthcare systems and at the level of public discourse at large, an increasing role is acknowledged to prevention of several health issues through promotion of an healthier lifestyle. Parallel to the increasing importance of prevention is the rise of the concept of personal responsibility in one’s health, since the notion that several health conditions can be avoided or made less severe through lifestyle choices creates awareness around people’s responsibility over their own health.

Clearly, this tendency creates all the conditions for success for technologies that facilitate the process of making the “right” choices. People look for applications that can help them chart a diet or a workout plan, but even more for applications that can motivate them and eliminate any excuses for not leading a healthier lifestyle.
The eatery, a Massive Health Inc. app from some years ago, provides a clear example of this trend. The application consisted in a social platform where users shared pictures of their meals and were rated by other users for the meal’s health value. Thus, the app was promoting healthier eating by exploiting both gamification and social aspects. Interestingly, at the same time, the eatery was also part of one big data collection effort, aimed at mapping eating patterns of users. This latter fact shows that the connection just highlighted between the healthcare and the technology contexts can be a two-way one, i.e. that health and fitness apps can in turn have an impact on healthcare by providing a platform for the generation of data that have a medical relevance.

It is easy to see how wearables, and watches in particular, could extend this kind of dynamics to a whole new level, by integrating data about almost every aspect of our lifestyle. Crucial, to this effect, will be the integration of the unique life-tracking capability of the watches technology with an ecosystem of applications that are able to leverage it in an effective and equally unique way. We can regard the news about Massive Health (the creator of the eatery) being bought by Jawbone as sign of interest around the creation of such an ecosystem. It is still an open question, though, whether this drive will be strong and successful enough to warrant a durable success for smartwatches.

TL;DR

  • The core value of wearables, and watches in particular, is that of acting as near-body peripherals for several apps, from personal to social ones
  • The application of the watches technology to health- and fitness-tracking could be a field of particular interest, in light of a shift towards prevention and personal responsibility in one’s health that is currently underway in healthcare and medicine
  • In order to ride this wave, the crucial maker or breaker of the smartwatches technology will be the creation of a large enough set of apps that can exploit the devices’ unique life-tracking functionalities

A special thanks goes to my colleagues at Mikamai who were tricked into collaborating to the drafting of this article and provided extremely helpful cues and insightful discussion

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