There's been talk among analysts that smartphones will slowly become redundant in the future and make way for more innovative communication platforms. Despite the fact that US consumers now own 27 million more smartphones than they did last year, wearables will eventually take the lead, some analysts speculate, as communication requirements evolve over time.
The wearable technology market is expected to grow from US$15.74 billion in 2015 to US$51.60 billion by 2022, at a compound annual growth rate of 15.51 percent between 2016 and 2022, according to market research report 'Wearable Technology Market by Product, Type, Application, and Geography - Global Forecast to 2022'. This strong growth begs the question: could wearable technology replace the trusty smartphone?
The future growth of the wearable technology market, according to the research report, is expected to be driven by consumer preference for more sophisticated gadgets, increasing growth prospects of next generation displays in wearable devices, and the growing popularity of internet of things (IoT) and connected devices. The increasing demand for smart gadgets and gaming devices for interactive gaming and entertainment is "driving the growth of the wearable technology market for the consumer electronics vertical."
"I don't think smartphones are going to disappear in the short-term, but the usage of smartphones may change as people begin to use them for different things, from entertainment to communication," said Hani Yassan, senior director of tsechnology at Qualcomm, speaking recently at 5G MENA in Dubai. "The change in usage will be driven by all the advances in technology that we are seeing through LTE and 5G."
Analyst Jonathan Collins, research director at ABI Research covering smart homes, believes that smartphones will remain the central interface in most locations, but will sit alongside other interfaces in the homes of consumers, such as AI-powered digital assistants (e.g. Amazon Echo, Google Home). Google CEO Sundar Pichai even suggested in 2016 that the world is moving from being "mobile first" to "AI first".
Contrary to this argument, the Consumer Technology Association's 19th Annual Consumer Technology Ownership and Market Potential Study says televisions remain the most popular technology device in the US, as they have for decades: almost every household (96 percent) owns at least one TV. However, from 2016 to 2017, the US market saw an increase in the overall installed base of connected devices including smart home devices, smart TVs, wearables and wireless speakers.
Smart home devices, smart TVs, smartwatches, wearable activity trackers and wireless speakers each saw an increase in household ownership of four percent year on year, according to the study. The wearable tech market is thriving, despite the fact that some wearable fitness brands, such as Fitbit, have lost demand, IDC's Worldwide Wearable Device Tracker indicates.
In March 2017, IDC reported that the worldwide wearables market reached a new all-time high as shipments reached 33.9 million units in the fourth quarter of 2016, growing 16.9 percent year on year. Shipments for the entire year grew 25 percent as new vendors entered the market and previous champions refreshed their product lineups.
Xiaomi's wearable products experienced the fastest growth, up 96.2 percent from 2.6 million to 5.2 million, due partly to its growing exposure to the Western world, but also because of Chinese shipments for its newest trackers such as the Mi Band Pulse. Apple also experienced a steady increase in growth, from 4.1 million to 4.6 million, following the launch of the Apple Watch Series 2.
Fitbit maintained its dominance in the wearables market, holding the top position for both the quarter and the year. However, the company also faced one of its largest declines ever as it remained heavily focused on the US, a market that is quickly approaching saturation for fitness trackers. Though the company has grown in other parts of the world, it also remained challenged as low-cost competitors eat away at Fitbit's market share.
Samsung, on the other hand, is the only major player offering cellular-enabled wearables (Gear S3 and Frontier). LTE connectivity has been a key differentiator for Samsung's watches as it has helped decouple them from smartphones, but more importantly, it has opened up a new channel (telcos) to help promote the Samsung watches. Outside of watches, Samsung's portfolio also includes the Gear Fit 2 and the Icon X, though without any smartphone bundles, volumes for these wearables were lower than expected.
Early on, the wearables market was split between those that were capable of running third party applications and basic wearables that couldn't. However, despite the additional features and tech available on smart wearables, their utility and necessity has been "questionable". Earlier this year, two major platforms, WatchOS and Android Wear, pivoted towards fitness and health applications. This is no accident, says IDC, as that has been the only use case with any "stickiness" and the ability to run third party apps has taken a backseat.
"Like any technology market, the wearables market is changing," noted Ramon Llamas, research manager for IDC's Wearables team. "Basic wearables started out as single-purpose devices tracking footsteps and are morphing into multi-purpose wearable devices, fusing together multiple health and fitness capabilities and smartphone notifications. It's enough to blur the lines against most smart wearables, to the point where first generation smartwatches are no better than most fitness trackers."
"Meanwhile, smart wearables are also evolving," Llamas continued. "Health and fitness remains a major focus, but once these devices become connected to a cellular network, expect unique applications and communications capabilities to become available. This will also solve another key issue: freeing the device from the smartphone, creating a standalone experience."
The evolution of smartphones into more wearable and practical communication tools could greatly benefit the emergency response sector, says Peter Clemons, founder and managing director at Quixoticity, a company founded in 2012 to develop new ideas in the field of critical communications.
Critical communications, emergency services and public safety currently function with mission critical voice and data which is limited and not always 100% reliable. This has served the industry sufficiently, says Clemons, but 5G will be able to open up new possibilities for the sector in terms of wearables, remote surgery, autonomous vehicles, etc., for use by first responders and for utilities by transport companies to have more awareness of a situation and to respond effectively.
"Particularly in the emergency services space, there needs to be a response as soon as an incident happens. The first responder has to be completely focused on the incident. The smartphone is not a particularly good device for emergency services," said Clemons, adding that emergency responders could benefit from imbedding communications into uniforms to provide in-built coverage.
"If Steve Jobs had lived longer, I think he would have already made the iPhone obsolete, but I think the people who took over from him saw the cash-cow in it and it may take a new company to disrupt that," Clemons said. "We are just at the beginning of a long road towards where we want to get to, and it's important for us to continue taking advantage of existing investments that have been made."
2016 proved that there is more to wearables than just wrist-worn devices, according to IDC. Ear-worn devices (hearables) surpassed 1 percent of all shipments for the first time in a quarter and sensor-laden clothing accounted for more than 1 percent of the entire market for the full year 2016. Though these numbers were miniscule, they show promise as numerous new devices are expected from notable vendors in 2017 and beyond.