Here’s a perfect a snapshot of how crazy technology adoption can be. In early December, there was a flood of coverage of wearable technology, mostly focused on how 2015 will be the breakout year. And at just about the same time, we got ‘Adorned: The Shape of Things to Come,’ an exhibit focused on “wearable tech’s past, present and future.” In other words, an entire discipline that is by any definition still in its infancy already merits a museum-style style retrospective. Of course, while most such shows analyze the past, technology forces us to look forward, hence the nuanced approach.
That nuance is vital. There’s no question that wearable technology could explode in 2015, but we could (and many did) say the same thing about 2014, and perhaps about 2013. So what’s the deal here?
First, let’s acknowledge that with or without mass adoption, there’s a lot going on in this field. In particular, one of the industry’s most influential drivers, Intel, is making aggressive moves into the field. The microprocessor conglomerate, which was arguably late to the party with mobile computing, has announced a series of initiatives designed not only to consolidate its own standing in this emerging discipline but jump-start other initiatives as well.
Intel earlier this year acquired BASIS Science, the force behind an advanced health tracker with web and mobile service. It has also formed key partnerships with, among others, the Michael J. Fox Foundation (to use wearable technology for the treatment of Parkinson’s) and with noted rapper 50 Cent (you read that right, and it’s for fitness-tracking headphones). Even more prominently, Intel recently unveiled MICA (My Intelligent Communication Accessory), a luxury bracelet that serves a variety of productivity purposes. And the belief is still that Intel will have a presence in future versions of Google Glass. Similarly, SAP recently launched a partnership with consumer electronics giant Samsung to build on wearable devices for retail and other markets.
There are many smaller companies playing the game too. There’s Pivothead Smart, which is focused on wearable imaging, and a whole generation of rings that bring new functionality to fingers. On another front, the concept of wearable technology is reaching beyond devices and into clothing. Ralph Lauren, for example, has stepped into the ring with Polo Tech, a ‘compression garment’ that relays health-related information about the wearer into a mobile device. And of course, there’s the elephant in the room: Apple Watch. It technically won’t even hit the market until next spring, but numerous third-party developers are hard at work building multi-purpose apps.
And that’s really the X factor, at least for the financial services business. Even if consumers adopt wearable technology is great numbers, what will they be doing that affect our industry?
Maybe we should be asking a different question: What would we like them to be doing?
The history of technology adoption is littered with sad tales of missed opportunities. Sure, we know that consumers will frequently latch on to a new platform and ruthlessly discard whatever they’ve relied on for the past few years/months/weeks. Vendors and other providers, meanwhile, have to discard the development work they’ve poured resources into, and scramble to catch up with the new favorite. But what platforms will they choose? Remember those movie studios that invested heavily in laser disk technology, only to have consumers embrace DVD instead? Neither do we, because some things are best forgotten.
But here’s the inescapable truth: Some forms of wearable technology will inevitably find an audience. It’s simply too convenient, too functional and already too pervasive to remain on the fringe. Just as mobile technology took a while to break through—there were nifty devices around for decades before the iPad arrived—wearable devices will at some point be worn by as many people as now carry around smartphones and tablets. And when that happens, those consumers will look for new ways to pay bills, make transfers and do financial research, just like they do now.
This is not what banking IT departments already strained by mobile apps and social media channels really want to hear. But those that make the right choices now, or at least are ready to develop for whatever devices consumers choose, will win big. The rest will just have to scramble.