by Al Sacco

How Wearable Tech Will Change the Smartphone as You Know It

Jan 23, 20145 mins
Computers and PeripheralsConsumer ElectronicsMobile

Wearable technology -- smartwatches, smartglasses and more -- may not replace your smartphone altogether, but it's sure to play a key role in the evolution of your handset. Here's why.

The majority of wearable gadgets today are smartphone companion devices, designed to mostly work along with your phone and serve as a secondary display for your handset. The current popularity of smartwatches, smartglasses and other wearable gadgetry raises a number of intriguing questions about how these newfangled gizmos will affect the smartphones in so many of our pockets and purses.

Wearable Tech and Google's Nexus 5 Smartphone
Wearable Tech and Google’s Nexus 5 Smartphone

As these device get “smarter” and evolve, will we still need our phones? Will there still be a place for the humble smartphone in 10 or 15 years?

While working on a recent story about wearable technology in the enterprise, I asked a handful of smart people for their thoughts on the subject. Opinions vary, but most of the sources agree that wearables will play a prominent role in the evolution of the smartphone.

Four Expert Opinions on Wearables — and Four Rebuttals

CA Technologies CTO John Michelsen thinks that if wearable technology does replace the smartphone, next-generation display technology will need to play a key role.

“It depends on the visual technology. It’s the display,” Michelsen says. “What am I going to do when someone emails me an Excel file and I need to do a quick review and respond? The smartphone is barely viable as it is. If we can get display tech that lets me hit a button for a display, I think the cell phone goes away.”

Valid point. But I still don’t see any form of currently available wearable technology completely replacing the smartphone, just as tablets have not fully replaced the PC. I see a place for the current smartphone form factor and the PC for years to come, though it may be a specialized place or niche for both.

Gartner Research Director Angela McIntyre didn’t hesitate for one minute to shoot down the idea of the smartwatch replacing the smartphone.

“The smartphone is going to be alive and well for the foreseeable future,” she says. “I don’t see the smartwatch replacing the smartphone.”

I agree. But I also think smartwatches and other wearables will eventually cannibalize the smartphone market and, perhaps, play a role in its demise.

Forrester VP and Principal Analyst J.P. Gownder also thinks display technology will play an important role in the evolution of wearables and says holographic displays could be in the future.

“You need to be able to see a large amount of information” while taking up as little space as possible, Gownder says. “Holography could help.”

Gownder also predicts that wearables will someday be just as popular as smartphones. “As many people will be wearing these devices as people carry[ing] smartphones today,” Gownder says. “People can wear more than one wearable, but nobody really carries more than two [smartphones or tablets].”

This argument makes sense. But people could soon reach a kind of breaking point when they want fewer gadgets, not more. Today I have two smartphones in my pocket, along with my Fitbit. There’s a tablet, another handset and a Google Glass in my bag. And there’s a laptop in front of me, which I’ll pack up when I leave the office for the day. I love gadgets, but it’s becoming overwhelming — not because I don’t have space or a purpose for them all, but because they generally don’t “like each other,” or work together seamlessly. Even the devices that are supposed to get along don’t, at least not seamlessly.

Wearables will only complicate this issue. “There’s an extreme amount of difficulty in getting all of our devices to coordinate,” says Redg Snodgrass, CEO and co-founder of Wearable World, a wearables industry group. “We just haven’t solved that problem yet. But we will.”

I hope he’s right. It is an extremely complex issues. Many vendors don’t want their products to Play Well with Others; they want you to invest specifically in their ecosystems. Those same vendors want you to buy more devices, not fewer, so it may not be in their best interests to consolidate technologies. That could bode well for the smartphone.

Snodgrass is passionate about wearables, and he strongly believes that the smartphone’s days are numbered. “Smartphones are eventually going to go away. The writing is on the wall, and it’s etched in stone.

“The people who say, ‘There’s not enough real estate, the device is too small, it’s too hard to operate, the experience isn’t pleasant enough, it’s not robust enough, it’s not fast enough’ — all of those arguments make me yawn,” Snodgrass says. “They’re the same arguments you heard during the emergence of the smartphone. It’s the same thing. In reality, people adjust. Inevitably smartphones in general will go away into something else.”

So will wearable tech completely replace the smartphone?

“I don’t know yet,” Snodgrass says. “But smartwatches are at least a large piece of the pie in what is inevitably the demise of the smartphone.”

I’m not so certain. But one thing is for sure: Wearables are taking both the consumer-tech and enterprise-IT worlds by storm, and they have real potential to impact our personal and professional lives in meaningful ways — smartphone or no smartphone.


Al Sacco covers Mobile and Wireless for Follow Al on Twitter @ASacco. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.