2014 - A Keynote
Written by Mike James   
Thursday, 01 January 2015

 What happened in 2014 in the programming world? What sums up the feel of the year and predicts what is worth getting excited about? Read our keynote and find out, or at least get some food for thought. 

The one single development that characterises the year is the wearable.

The Keynote - Wearables?

Should 2014 be called the year of the wearable?

Probably not - even though it tried very hard. 

Despite the fact that there was a lot of talk about the subject and companies launched, or promised to launch, all sorts of devices - the market for wearable apps is still tiny. 

Who's fault is this?

Perhaps the blame should be at the feet of both Google and Apple. 

Apple announced a watch that looks good, but won't be available until spring 2015. This, and the experiences of other smart watch makers, has generally suggested to most thinking people that the whole smart watch "thing" is probably going to be a flop - at best a short lived minority interest.

The reasons why smart watches are a flop isn't difficult to see.




A tiny screen and UI makes doing complicated things difficult. So after no-one has manged to make working with a tiny interface easy when there are so many complex things that need to be achieved. The fact that so many smart watches basically need a smart phone to do a full job is also a big downer. Why bother strapping an expensive smart watch to your wrist when the phone that has to be in your pocket is so much more capable and so much easier to use.

Consider the simple fact that phones are getting bigger, not smaller, e.g. the phablet, and it isn't difficult to understand that most users are driven by what they can easily accomplish with a single portable unit. Indeed portability is something that can be traded off against usability to the point that it starts to mitigate against usability itself.  

Perhaps in the future if AI lets voice input work at the next level then a phone can shrink down to a smart watch but even then the screen is going to be too small to present much useful information and in this case voice output is no substitute.

At the moment your choices are to strap something the size of a smart phone to your wrist and try and pretend that it is a "watch" or put up with a very small specific set of functionality. 

Notice that it isn't that Apple or anyone else for that matter is failing to build the best possible smart watch. It is more that the very idea is currently at least, doesn't have a convincing use case. 

So it looks as if next year might be the year when the smart watch market proves its worth. 

The second big wearable flop this year is Google Glass and this does seem to be Google's fault in the sense that with better management and marketing it might well have been the big thing in 2014.

Instead, after the wow factor of Google Glass in previous years, this seems to be the year it finally flopped. Unless, that is, Google suddenly gets interested in it again and has a second launch. 

Users seem to be turned off by the geekyness of wearing something so identifiable and worried by the reactions of other privacy paranoid citizens. Is it worth spending $1500 to be harassed by others in public places over the possibility that you might be recording them. 




What is odd about this situation is that, unlike the smart watch, there does seem to be a use-case for something like Glass. Presenting information in a handsfree way has lots of possibilities that smaller companies and independent developers seem to be developing as niche products. 

However developers don't seem to be backing it for mass market apps and there have been a number of high profile dropouts like Facebook. The complaint seems to be that there just isn't a mass market for the apps - given that there doesn't seem to be a mass market for Glass this seems like reasonable cause and effect.

Survival Of The Fittest

The fact that smart watches or Glass aren't likely to be the next big thing doesn't mean that wearables aren't interesting.

Fitness bands of all sorts, including Microsoft's latest, continue to be obsessively worn.


Most will also tell you that at the moment they aren't very good at accurately tracking anything. At best they measure some proxy for activity like arm swings. Users complain that they work hard pushing a buggy up a hill or cycling for miles or, most common of all, running on a treadmill, only to record a small fraction of the actual activity because they didn't swing their arms. 

You would expect the users to be "up in arms" about the poor quality of the data being collected, and yet many seem to form a deep bond with their fitness band. They wear it in bed and do their best not to lie to it by telling it when they plan to sleep and when they plan to be awake. The band often doesn't keep to the same degree of truth, but they still carry on loving it. 

What this means is that people are desperate for this sort of feedback. Even if the average fitness band is wildly inaccurate, and most are, the user seems to want the feedback as a motivational stimulus. 

This smells of a killer app. 

If users are so desperate for fitness and lifestyle data then there is a market to be served and a lot more money to be made than currently. 

What users want is a dashboard for the human body. So far the hardware is the limiting factor and the APIs are a limiting factor on the software. The big problem is that you generally can't get at the raw data. You can process the already processed data, but doing anything really innovative isn't allowed. There are, of course, exceptions, but in general the fitness hardware world could do with a big dose of open source. 

There is a way to make progress, however, and this is to use the ubiquitous mobile phone in clever ways. A low end Firefox phone, say, can be had for a few tens of dollars and is easily converted into the hardware you need to develop apps that read a much wider range of data than a typical fitness band. 




The future of wearables may not lie in smart watches but, paradoxically, in smart phones.


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