A secret about wearables

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel talks about open secrets, or ‘truths that no one likes to talk about’. Here’s a secret you can take home with you: 

There is no wearables market. The wearables market doesn’t exist. 

But that’s okay. Here’s why:

Compare this market study, released by MaRS Discovery District last year:

Screen shot 2014-10-09 at 4.25.05 PM

To this research article from 2008 (6 years old already):

Screen shot 2014-10-09 at 4.25.46 PM

Notice anything? Specifically, that MaRS is anticipating that the ‘wearable health market’ (whatever that is) is anticipated to grow in the next few years to… one third of what the portable glucose monitor market was 6 years ago? Huh?

I don’t mean to bash MaRS here, but there’s something seriously wrong with any definition of ‘wearable health’ that doesn’t include home glucose monitors, which (last time I checked) are one of the best examples of portable technology that fulfills an actual medical need. Yet MaRS is hardly out of line: it seems that the term ‘wearable device’, which at some point was actually a broad category of technology we hoped would be developed in the near future, now means ‘a product whose defining feature is the fact that it is worn on the body, and not the problem it solves or the need it addresses.’

How’d this happen? It’s almost as though wearability has become the end, rather than the means, of wearable technology. And that’s a shame, because when that happens you get a glut of cute but not inherently useful products that attract attention and curiosity from early adopters but not much else. This is yet another good example of how to apply job-to-be-done thinking to assess whether a market really exists or not. Ask yourself: the occasional early adopter aside, does “wear electronics on your body” strike you as a job that a customer needs to be done? No, not really. Compare this to a market that definitely does exist, home glucose monitors. You know why they’re such a big deal? Well, no one wants a glucose monitor. But a lot of people want their glucose monitored. See the difference? It’s a big one. It’s a pretty direct extension of the original and timeless Leo McGinneva quote (often attributed to Theodore Leavitt): “People don’t want quarter inch drill bits. They want quarter inch holes.”

I’m willing to go on record and say there is no market for wearables, because the act of wearing electronics on your body isn’t a legitimate job-to-be-done beyond the occasional hobbyist. Wearable technology might be the drill bit, but it’s not the hole. But that doesn’t mean wearable technology is dead: quite the opposite, in fact. We just won’t think of them as their own product category for much longer. The truly useful, successful examples of wearable technology will go the way of the glucose monitor- they’ll become stable, mature markets that solve real problems and stand on their own two feet. Those products will be those that identify jobs-to-be-done that can be solved better by wearable technology, not wearable versions of existing products. They’ll be defined and described in terms of the problems they solve, not in adjectives describing their portability. And that’s fine by me.


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