- Driven by an increasing media hype, the wearable technology industry is experiencing record growth, with many companies striving to position themselves at the forefront of innovation.
- Apple was the most often mentioned company in the recent media discussion, with its wearables becoming the second-largest line of products after the iPhone.
- Apart from tech corporations, the conversation around wearables featured fashion brands like Adidas and Nike, as well as pharma companies such as Bayer and Johnson & Johnson.
Amid all the media buzz around everything related to Artificial Intelligence, Big Data or the Internet of Things, the booming wearable technologies market is constantly under the radar of the daily press. And as with every conversation around consumer electronics, “smart” and “connected” have been the watchwords over the past few years.
Technology outlets overflow with articles on wearable devices, business publications speak about upcoming market disruptions and investment opportunities, while the mass media foretells that automation will change our lives fundamentally. Reporters often let their imagination fly and paint futuristic pictures about devices which are usually described as revolutionary or pivotal. Some publications even herald a new era in the history of homo sapiens engendered by wearable tech innovations.
For example, many believe that such devices will bring about the promise of transhumanism, the theory that the human race can put evolution into hyperdrive by merging itself with the latest technological advancements. These sentiments are reflected in headlines such as “This new wearable tech is closing the gap between humans and cyborgs“, “How Wearable Technology Is Slowly Turning Us Into Cyborgs” and “Will these wearables finally make us cyborgs?“
The science-fiction allure of the industry makes the media hungry for the latest wearable product, be it smart contact lenses which can display statistics like health tracking and other data feeds using augmented reality, or a face mask that uses powered fans to clean and cool the air breathed by the wearer. At this year’s CES, for instance, one of the most lauded products was a pair of hi-tech glasses that superimposes computer graphics over real-world views.
Augmented by the media hype, the wearables industry experienced record growth in 2019, seeing a year-over-year increase of 94.6%, according to recently published statistics from the International Data Corporation. The primary growth drivers were smartwatches and “hearables,” a term referring to smart wireless earbuds like Apple’s AirPods, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds and Amazon’s Echo Buds.
Commenting on the rise of these advancements, a number of pundits predicted that the future of wearable tech will be highly individualised, data-driven and analytics intensive, with AI and machine learning employed to create personalised experiences. Many also foresaw that in the nearest future, the chief application of these increasingly consumer-first products will continue to be the healthcare and fitness sectors. After all, wearables were the number one fitness trend for 2019, according to an annual survey of health and fitness professionals, and the trend is likely to continue.
This comes as part of the technology industry’s push into the healthcare market. While companies such as General Electric, Philips and Siemens already have an established presence in this sphere, we are encountering the names of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and even Uber in a healthcare context more and more often. Having already entered industries such as finance and media, tech heavyweights are eyeing the lucrative health sector.
An EY study found that between 2013 and 2017, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) filed 186 health-related patents, Microsoft – 73 and Apple – 54, which is a 38% increase in the number of such patents by these three companies every two years. EY noted that such a competition poses a new challenge to pharma, and argued that health companies should capitalise on the data they gather to create digital solutions helping patients with their health in a way that Airbnb helps tourists with cheap rooms.
The emerging competition between big tech and traditional healthcare providers is also starting to play out on the media front. Although tech giants already have well-established brands, entering a new market requires fresh PR efforts, not least because the tech industry is facing reputation challenges amid growing privacy concerns, fake news issues and regulatory hits.
An Apple a day
We analysed the media discussion around wearable technology from 1 January 2019 to 1 January 2020 in the top-tier English-language publications and found that Apple was dominating the conversation:
Apple‘s domination is in line with the fact that its devices continue to lead the wearables market. Journalists were eager to note that the company’s wearables and accessories products, including its Apple Watch and its AirPods, accounted for nearly as much revenue in the company’s just-completed fiscal year as its Mac computers, and it seems like they are on their way to becoming the second-largest line of products after the iPhone, whose sales sag.
Some commentators remarked that even though the Apple story has been tied to services for the last couple of years, the main attention could soon be shifted to the company’s wearables business. The tech giant’s rather surprisingly positive performance in this sphere generated a string of headlines such as: “Apple’s wearable business is so hot that it now generates more revenue than Netflix“, “Apple’s Wearables Could Be a $100 Billion Business, Analyst Says” and “Apple put an iPhone in everybody’s pocket — now its growth depends on putting devices all over our bodies“. The media also reacted positively on its move to concentrate on specialist health tech, such as sensors which turn a smartwatch into an electrocardiogram.
As this vertical becomes an increasingly important part of its business, Apple pushed more aggressively into health and fitness by launching a new program called Apple Watch Connected, in which gyms will offer incentives for tracking workouts with the Apple Watch. Furthermore, the company’s purchase of Intel’s 5G modem business led to speculations that this newly acquired capability could be used in its future wearable tech.
Analysts also noted that Apple‘s strong push in the wearable technology market could make it more difficult for longtime rivals like Samsung and Fitbit, the companies that have historically held a strong presence in the industry, to catch up, particularly due to the shift towards “hearables”, in which they haven’t invested as much.
Apple has also been one of the most often mentioned companies in the conversation around the Internet of Things as a whole. It featured in reports on its acquisition of AI startup Silk Labs, a platform for IoT hardware. The company didn’t do much to promote the deal, but there were many articles trying to dissect what might come out of the buy, pointing out that both firms want to design AI systems that operate locally instead of in the cloud, thereby bypassing controversial data collection policies used by companies like Amazon and Google.
Samsung, the second-largest smartwatch vendor after Apple, targeted millennials and Gen Z with its new Galaxy Watch Active, which takes a holistic approach to monitoring exercise, sleep, stress and health. It came as part of three new wearables that aim to help manage fitness and wellbeing. “Consumers are increasingly putting their overall wellbeing at the center of their lifestyle decisions, and they’re looking for wearables that make it easier to get active and stay balanced every day,” said DJ Koh, Samsung’s President and CEO of IT & Mobile Communications Division.
Fitbit, the third-largest smartwatch company in the world behind Apple and Samsung, came second in the discussion primarily because of the media’s interest in its recent acquisition by Google for $2.1 billion. Journalists remarked that Google just went from being a nobody in wearables to a top player which could take on Apple’s dominance. Some also voiced concerns over Google‘s size and influence at a time when regulators have been pressuring Big Tech companies.
Specialised publications pointed out that Fitbit was Google’s biggest consumer electronics deal since it paid $3.2bn for smart thermostat maker Nest in 2014. In fact, Google featured in the discussion around IoT mainly because of Nest, which had operated as an independent unit under Alphabet’s umbrella until 2018. In addition to thermostats, Nest offers video doorbells and security cameras that automatically adjust settings based on user behaviour.
Some journalists also noted that the Fitbit deal will test customers’ willingness to hand over their health and fitness data to Google. Although the two companies pledged that the data won’t be used for advertising purposes, there might be some concerns over sharing intimate health information.
Cybersecurity is the biggest concern around the adoption of IoT solutions, and it’s discussed on par with the applications and opportunities presented by the new technologies. Most journalists and commentators agree that more data and more connectivity mean more risks. In fact, many point to cybersecurity as the most significant obstacle hindering the implementation of IoT solutions at a faster pace. Indeed, research by Bain found that 93% of the executives would pay an average of 22% more for devices with better security, while enterprise customers would be willing to buy more IoT devices if their concerns about cybersecurity risks were addressed.
Consumer concerns about privacy have been around since the dawn of the Internet, and data breaches regularly make headlines around the world, but data protection has recently become a central concern for consumers – after several high-profile failures such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it became clear that improper handling of sensitive information can lead not only to financial abuse but can also influence global politics and people’s well-being. The risk associated with the way data is used versus the way it’s safeguarded is becoming a priority for an ever-larger group of stakeholders, not just regulators and policy makers.
Although with a significantly smaller share of voice, non-tech brands also featured in the media discussion around wearable technology.
Adidas was mentioned for officially getting out of the wearable fitness industry, at least when it comes to making its own hardware, after its wearable fitness trackers, including the miCoach Smart Run smartwatch, didn’t seem to do so well. Some commentators remarked that Adidas is the latest company to learn that wearables are hard and big brands can fail to find success in the space.
The shoemaker will concentrate on software, including the Adidas App and mobile fitness company Runtastic, which Adidas bought back in 2015. According to several outlets, Adidas‘ path more or less mirrored the move made by Nike, which also tried to promote a fitness tracking hardware before pivoting to work on software with partners like Apple, which now makes a Nike-branded Apple Watch.
Nike attracted media attention with its new Adapt BB, a basketball shoe that can tighten or loosen itself to fit your foot via an app or buttons on the soles. Eric Avar, VP & creative director at Nike Innovation, told The Verge that the broader vision is for such shoes to become smart enough to detect your blood pressure and automatically adjust themselves. Nike was perceived as being serious about making adaptive fit a thing.
Having stopped making connected health gadgets since 2017, Under Armour was also in the news for changing its approach: it halted software support entirely for its HealthBox collection, and it pulled UA Record, its mobile app for tracking fitness and weight changes, from the App Store and Play Store.
There were also a couple of pharma companies with some share of voice in the conversation. For example, Bayer led the $25 million funding of Medopad, a UK startup developing AI methods for building and tracking “digital” biomarkers.
In the meantime, Johnson & Johnson was mentioned for partnering up with Apple to investigate whether the wearable technology offered by both companies can speed-up the diagnosis and improve health outcomes of patients with Atrial Fibrillation (AFib).
As with many subsets of the tech industry, the corporate communications efforts in the wearables sector focus primarily on putting companies at the forefront of innovation and digital transformation. If they want to be seen as first-movers, innovators, critical for digital transformation and fundamental for IoT projects, firms should accompany their research and development initiatives with effective communication campaigns focused on promoting their brands as the leaders of the future.
In the advent of IoT, the wearables sector is set to become even more competitive, and the blistering pace of technological development has turned into a race for innovation. As first-movers advantages would be decisive, the need for swift execution of PR campaigns has never been more pressing. Brands should be quick to establish themselves as being in the front rows of the Fourth Industrial Revolution by showcasing their tech prowess while generating excitement for the new connectivity era.