Wearable technology was supposed to be the next big thing. What happened?

Early pioneers in the field, like Fitbit, are showing signs of strain, while newer entrants are making inroads with cheaper options and new product types

 
Apple Watch

(Crew/Unsplash)

It looks like the rumours of wearables’ demise have been premature. Or at least that’s the case according to the latest figures from analysis firm IDC.

Total global wearable shipments in the fourth quarter of 2016 were 33.9 million units, up 16 per cent from 29 million units a year earlier. Judging by those numbers, you might say there’s life in wearables yet.

A closer look at the numbers suggests there’s some truth to that conclusion, but that the market is also changing considerably.

To start with, it looks like Fitbit—the market leader—is in free fall. The company accounted for 19 per cent of all wearables shipped in the quarter, down a full 10 per cent from a year earlier.

China’s Xiaomi picked up much of that slack, placing second with 15 per cent of the market, up from 9 per cent in 2015. Apple was third with 4.6 per cent, up slightly from 4.6 per cent.

Garmin and Samsung rounded out the top five, each with low-single digit market shares.

“Others” also saw decent growth, going to 13 per cent from 10 per cent.

This group includes newcomers such as Fossil, BBK and Li-Ning, which variously make child-monitoring and step-counting shoes, as well as “hearables” companies such as Doppler Labs.

Taken together, there are a few conclusions that can be arrived at. First, Xiaomi’s powering ahead suggests there’s a lot of demand for traditional wearables in China.

Fitbit’s decline, meanwhile, indicates that the market for traditional step-counting devices is fizzling, which is probably where the wearables-are-dead narrative comes from.

The growth of the “others” category could also mean interest is increasing in wearables that do different things.

Hearables in particular, while only accounting for about 1 per cent of the market so far according to IDC, are promising.

Rather than just telling users what they already subconsciously may know—that they’ve walked a lot in a given day—such devices offer up new capabilities, like enhanced hearing.

Wearables might therefore be dead, but only in the way we’ve known them so far.


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