Apple was at the forefront of the shift towards smartphones and tablets. It didn’t invent the smartphone, but the iPhone changed the way consumers (and competitors) viewed the category. It didn’t invent the tablet, but the iPad defined the market after its release in 2010. Other companies then rushed to develop similar products, or to differentiate their efforts just enough to avoid being called a clone. But Apple’s products maintained their stranglehold on consumers’ perceptions.
Seriously, how many times have you heard someone refer to a tablet, any tablet, as an iPad? Ditto with mp3 players and the iPod or, for a while, touchscreen smartphones with the iPhone? Yeah.
Call it “the Q-tip effect” (or generic trademark, whichever you prefer) — the company’s products became, at least for a short period, synonymous with the rest of the market. Now, as we enter the age of wearable computing, it’s worth asking if we might see something similar happen as “smart” watches and glasses are introduced to the public.
So far the answer seems to be “no.” There isn’t any one company or product poised to define wearable computing the same way the iPhone or iPad defined their markets. The closest we have to a market-defining wearable computer is Glass, which faces stiff competition from companies like Vuzix, GlassUp, or Telepathy One.
“We’re looking at a world of lots of connected devices,” Sam Burd, Dell’s global VP of personal computing, told the Guardian. “I don’t see any magic new form factor like the iPad — I don’t think anybody saw how that was going to change devices. But the number of [computing] devices per person is exploding.”
GlassUp CEO Francesco Giartosio agrees. “I don’t think there will be any one use-case that defines wearable computing,” he says. The devices could differ so much based on who is using them, whether it’s an athlete, doctor, or flight attendant, he says, that it would be hard for any one product to claim the wearable computing throne, especially before the devices make their way to consumers’ wrists and faces. (Never mind that the iPhone and iPad serve doctors, pilots, and other professionals just as well despite the fact that, like a can of Coke, each device is identical to every other one that is sold.)
Wearable computing is at a point where there is no clear front-runner defining the category in consumers’ minds. This could be good for companies that don’t want to compete with products that have become synonymous with an entire market — it could also lead to a flurry of products that congeal in consumers’ minds. Is it better to have a product called by the wrong name, or to have a product that no-one remembers because it’s simply one object surrounded by a sea of similar offerings from other companies?