At CES 2015, gadget makers to test promise of a do-it-all wearable

Selling consumers a multipurpose wearable device is clashing with the idea of cheaper, single-serving products. At CES 2015, companies are eager to figure out the future.

The Apple Watch is meant to be a do-it-all device. James Martin/CNET

When it comes to wearable technology, more may not always be better.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next week, device makers will tackle this conundrum as they display cutting-edge new devices on the world's stage, discussing what's to come and how we'll get there.

Wearable devices are undoubtedly a key new technology. By 2018, wearable shipments are expected to jump to 112 million units, more than five times last year's figure, according to market researcher IDC. Even the fashion magazine Vogue put the Apple Watch, one of the most anticipated devices next year, on one of its covers. Smart glasses and virtual-reality headsets, once reserved for sci-fi fantasies, are at last trickling into the market as consumer products.

So what's next? Gadget makers at this year's show will duke it out to see not just who else is in the wearable game, but also whose take is the best fit for the future. Wearable tech's biggest names, from Samsung and LG to Motorola and Intel, are expected to stake out their positions ahead of the Apple Watch's arrival. Other, smaller wearable companies are expected to partner with each other and larger traditional companies, like Adidas and other big names in sports, fitness and apparel, to try to stay in the game.

But the real debate playing out at CES and beyond will be much more technical. At hand is a philosophical question: Do customers want to buy one device that can do almost everything? Or do they want to buy a bunch of connected products -- like shoes, shirts and glasses -- that work together toward a common goal.

Companies are already choosing sides, but analysts say they aren't convinced there's a clear answer yet.

"I think that's going to be one of the real issues in the market," said Wes Henderek, an analyst and director of connected intelligence at the NPD Group. What probably won't work, he said, is any device that tries to do too much, and ends up being good at nothing.

All for one, or one for all?

Apple is solidly in the do-it-all camp. The Apple Watch, expected this spring, will have a full color screen, heart-rate-reading technology, fitness- and health-tracking software and a host of apps, from productivity to communication. It will cost upward of $350.

Apple's approach is not an exception. Google's Android Wear software, which powers smartwatches from Samsung, LG and Motorola, is also designed to do many things. The Moto 360 smartwatch, for instance, can now play games, sport an interactive James Bond-inspired watch face, run note-taking app Evernote and take voice commands to feed walking and driving directions to your wrist. Samsung's Gear S watch even has a cellular radio in it so users can make phone calls, just like Dick Tracy used to in the comics, or even leave their phones behind.

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Dick Tracy's 2-way wrist radio captured imaginations when it first debuted in the comics in the 1940s. Getty Images

But not everyone agrees with this approach. A growing collection of startups are making specialized devices instead. They're outfitting sensors on everything from shirts and skis to assembly plant gloves and 3D-printed prosthetics, and they're generally cheaper than those watches made by the big boys.

Because these devices are not trying to do everything for everyone, they're both less expensive and potentially more useful and powerful in performing specific tasks. There's also the promise of a way for these gadgets to talk to one another, creating a network of devices around our bodies. Smart earbuds could read your heart rate and send the information to a wristband that tracks body movements. A smart shirt could collect more sensitive data like perspiration, skin temperature and hydration levels. Then mobile apps can wrap everything in a neat package and display it on your smartphone.

There are already signs some customers agree. Forrester surveyed thousands of US consumers in March and found a majority of people want a wearable for their wrist, like a do-it-all Apple Watch. But demand is still growing for specialized devices, like jewelry, clip-on devices and embedded sensors for shirts and shoes. In 2015, industry researcher Gartner expects shipments of smart clothing to jump from 100,000 units to more than 10 million, notching almost a third of the total expected global sales of smartwatches.

Even some within Google's ranks say this approach makes sense. When the Internet giant first unveiled its connected headset called Google Glass in 2012, the company thought of it as a head-worn computer. Now, as other devices have proliferated, some Google executives are arguing no one device can do everything.

"Glass is meant to be one device of many," said Astro Teller, head of the secretive Google X research lab, where Glass was developed. "You're going to end up wearing lots of things."

He said Google's approach can be summed up by looking at another wearable to come out of Google X: the smart contact lens. The product, which is set to be produced by the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, has a small computer processor embedded onto the contact lens. The goal is to help diabetes patients by reading the glucose levels in tears.

He said it would be silly to try to load the lens up with different features and uses, especially given how small the product is. "You're not going to want to put everything in the kitchen sink onto a contact lens," he said.

So far, that idea of restraint has proved successful, albeit with devices that are quickly becoming outdated. Startups like Fitbit, Jawbone and Withings, alongside traditional device makers like watchmaker Garmin, have long been selling wearables that do just a few things well enough to catch on with consumers. Smart bands and fitness trackers, as they're called, have become the face of wearable tech.

Though some of those companies, like Fitbit, have begun packing in more features -- like a display for telling the time and showing steps walked -- these devices have focused on specific fitness-oriented functions like measuring workout activity and tracking sleep. A companion smartphone app lets consumers input calories consumed and other things these devices can't measure.

So far, that approach looks to be working. Sales of the company's products represented 68 percent of the fitness tracker market between April 2013 and March 2014, according to NPD. Yet the explosion of smartwatches, particularly with the effects the Apple Watch may have on the market, will result in a slowdown in fitness band sales next year, says Gartner.

Fitbit is expanding its efforts, though. The company in October announced the Surge, a smartwatch of its own. The device isn't meant to compete against Apple though: It doesn't have a color screen or a collection of apps, and it's still geared toward the company's fitness-tracking focus.

Jawbone, Fitbit's primary competitor, released its Up3 this fall. The device, which is a successor to the popular Up bands it's been making since 2012, still does not contain a screen either. But, Jawbone says it doesn't need one to perform popular functions, like heart rate monitoring.

Jawbone's Up devices are part of a class of gadgets that focus on specific tasks, like heart rate monitoring. Sarah Tew/CNET

"I'll probably buy a smartwatch, but the smartwatch is not how I'll track my sleep," Andrew Rosenthal, Jawbone's manager for wellness and fitness, said last month at a wearable roundtable. "We're not trying to build a smartwatch. It's not where we'll win."

There are still indications that specialized devices ultimately won't succeed as large tech companies push consumers toward smartwatches. Apparel giant Nike entered wearables in early 2012 with its FuelBand fitness tracker, a no-frills wristband designed for athletes and fitness junkies.

Yet barely two years later, the company fired the hardware team responsible for FuelBand development, while Nike CEO Mark Parker confirmed the company's focus was moving to its Nike+ software. Nike, perhaps, saw the writing on the wall -- the company has partnered with Apple in the past and Apple CEO Tim Cook has been a member of Nike's board of directors for almost a decade. A Nike+ app is expected to appear on the Apple Watch next spring.

From smartphone to smartwatch

There's a reason to believe wearable devices will ultimately become all-in-one machines: The smartphone market went through the same transition. The first devices were wireless phones, then two-way pagers. But eventually, they added capabilities, replacing fax machines, calculators, handheld cameras, GPS devices and more.

"That's usually how these device wars play out: the battle of general purpose versus single purpose or specialized," Tim Chang, a venture capitalist at Mayfield Fund, said. Chang co-founded wearable maker Basis Science in 2010 and earlier this year sold it Intel for about $100 million.

Why is it different this time? One challenge is battery life.

Marquee smartwatches like the Samsung Gear Live and Moto 360 have been criticized for bad battery usage. (CNET's review of the Gear Live in July called the battery life "terrible.") Apple CEO Tim Cook also suggested the Apple Watch wouldn't last more than a day before needing a charge, saying users would juice it up overnight.

There are some exceptions, though. The Pebble smartwatch lasts between five and seven days of use, thanks in part to the company's choice to use buttons instead of touch, and to avoid a color screen. Microsoft's Band, a cross between a fitness wristband and a smartwatch with a color screen and a heart rate reader, has a battery life up of to 48 hours.

Simpler devices that don't try to do too many things tend to last longer -- as opposed to something as monolithic as a smartwatch, which can be a power suck. Google's Teller said he thinks wearables will be distributed across our bodies in ways that best suit fashion and battery life.

He's not the only one who thinks so. For example, musician Will.i.am launched his own smartband, called the Puls, in October. The device has been panned in reviews, but when he made the announcement, he also talked about other wearables in the pipeline for his company, I.am+. One of the items: a smart jacket that charges your watch when the sleeve touches it.

Ultimately, analysts say an all-in-one design will likely win out in the short term, particularly since that's how it's gone for everything else. Laptops, desktops, printers, smartphones -- they all tend to take on extra functions over time.

Mayfield's Chang notes TomTom grew successful selling GPS units to car owners only to have its primary product become commonplace software built into mobile phones. "It's the specialized ones that have been around awhile that have to be the most nervous," he said.

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