Jonny Evans: Wearable computing means the death of the smartphone

For wearables to really take off, they will have to cannibalize the smartphone, just as mobile devices have cannibalized the PC

Wearables are the next big thing, analysts and industry watchers say. But are they right?

Take your pick of hyperbolic predictions: BCC Research forecasts that the wearables sector will grow to $30.2 billion by 2018; ABI Research anticipates that 485 million wearables will be sold annually by 2018.

That sounds incredibly positive, but BCC analyst Adam Weigold warns that in order for the industry to hit his firm's prediction, customers will have to feel that wearable devices offer "distinct advantages."

There's the rub. Wearables must be innately useful. They must deliver essential functions. Their existence needs to make sense. They have to supplant alternatives. In other words, these things can't be gimmicks.

At the same time, they have to work as fashion, something the tech industry has no experience in. Intel anthropologist Genevieve Bell told Stuff that existing wearables are "terribly literal" and lack "symbolic meaning." That's important, she said, since in general the things people wear "do symbolic work."

And while wearable computing devices must function as fashion accessories, it's a mistake to make them technology accessories. Not a fatal mistake -- there's a strong accessories market. But to really snag mass-market adoption, wearables need to be essential and work as stand-alones.

Seen that way, the wearable devices we have seen so far have been gimmicks and are likely to be transient. "This market is going through a state of convergence and divergence. I predict that 90% of all wearables on the market right now won't exist in five years," said Carlos Rodarte, a business development adviser at PatientsLikeMe.

This is a market at a starting point.

Samsung has learned a little about wearables since it introduced the Gear smartwatch last year. That device didn't really go mainstream, though some technology fans couldn't resist it. I suspect Gear failed to take off because it's an accessory to a smartphone, rather than being a distinctive, stand-alone product.

There are signs that Samsung sees it this way too. The Korea Herald claims that the company is working with South Korea's SK Telecom to develop a "cellular smartwatch that doesn't require a supporting device." That suggests that Samsung hopes that by telling cash-strapped customers, "It's a phone, a smartphone and a watch," it can convince them that it's essential.

Google seems to have an accessory-led vision. Android Wear, its device platform for third-party devices, such as the Moto 360 smartwatch, is software designed to drive an accessory ecosystem. You have your phone and a family of accessories, too.

The big unknown is Apple. For years there has been speculation that the company will launch an "iWatch" as its take on wearables. But we don't know whether Apple really plans to play in this space. For months, the company has been hinting at big news this year. Wearables may be part of the plan -- we have heard reports that the company has created a huge team that has been working on something for months.

All of that remains rumor. Apple has announced nothing.

We know it to be spending record amounts on research and development, but we don't know what its plans are.

Such is the hype around wearables that Global Equities Research analyst Trip Chowdhry sounded like the voice of doom when he said that " they Apple only have 60 days left to come up with something or they will disappear."

While Apple continues to do what it does best (keeping us in the dark, that is), technology advances continue in ways that will help wearables gain that "essential" rep. Battery life, component miniaturization, user interfaces and storage capacity continue to evolve. It all helps. Who wants an extra device with poor battery life, a display you need to squint at and limited utility? Customers are going to expect voice- and gesture-controlled user interfaces and essential functions. They'll want the processing power that can deliver all of that. And they'll want it all at a price that makes sense.

Implementations we've seen so far appear to be "a solution looking for a rich nerd," as the U.K.'s Register put it. Wearables so far are literally for the world's 1%; recent KWP ComTech figures confirm that under 1% of the population owns a smartwatch, and 1.8% use fitness bands. The systems we have seen so far are not resonating with the mass market -- the data shows the main users of existing wearables are men under 25.

The challenge is to deliver devices that are useful to a much wider market of potential consumers: Wearable devices need to be truly personal and essential in their own right.

When you take all of that together, there's only one outcome to expect.

We are at the beginning of the end of the smartphone.

"For a Wearable World to transpire, where it is the dominant platform, the smartphone has to give way," writes The Register, arguing that wearable computing will need to cannibalize the smartphone market. People will still use smartphones, just as people still use PCs, but a lot of what people do on smartphones today will be done instead on a watch, a button or other wearable device.

Communication, payment systems and augmented information services will drive the wearables mobile world.

Jonny Evans is an independent journalist/blogger who first got online in 1993. He's author of Computerworld's AppleHolic blog and also writes for others in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. Winner of an Azbee Award in 2010, Jonny enjoys new and disruptive technology and likes music almost as much as he likes his large and shiny dog.

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