By Eric Newcomer
One of the most important questions about the future of computing is this: wrist or face?
Google has been trumpeting its Glass devices, which can take photos and run applications like Facebook and Twitter on a small screen within eyesight. Apple, which is working on a secret smartwatch, has been publicly pushing the case for the wrist. “I don’t know a lot of people that wear [glasses] that don’t have to,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the All Things Digital conference in May. “I think the wrist is interesting. The wrist is natural.”
We thought we’d take a look at what consumers today say they would be more willing to buy as a signal of what they’re likely to find more natural. Watches had the clear win. But the largest contingent didn’t want either.
Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed opted for smart watches compared with 10% for smart glasses, according to a survey we commissioned of 417 Americans on SurveyMonkey Audience. Forty-five percent chose neither, while 6% chose both.
A majority of respondents, 62%, said they thought that it was possible that they would own a smart watch in the next five years. Only 41% of respondents thought it was possible that they would own a smart glass device in the next five years.
Even among respondents who considered themselves “quite tech savvy” or “extremely tech savvy,” smart watches won out over smart glasses, 38% to 17%, with 12% indicating that they were interested in both.
Why does this matter?
Many app developers and hardware companies are betting that a new generation of wearable devices will create a new hardware market. In 2014, manufacturers are expected to ship 15 million smartwatches and by 2020 that number could reach 373 million, according to emerging markets research firm NextMarket. That admittedly optimistic estimate is based, in part, on the more than 1 billion yearly conventional watch shipments.
Consumer surveys, of course, have their limits. Plenty of people were initially skeptical that tablets would upend the PC market, for instance. Attitudes can change once users learn more about the full range of features offered by a new class of hardware.
For another metric on the glass versus watch debate, check out this Google Trends graph on search terms over time. The most-searched term, in blue, represents Google Glass. Green is “Samsung Galaxy Gear” and “Galaxy Gear,” red represents “smart watch” and “smartwatch,” and yellow is “smart glass” and “smartglass.”
Google Glass beats other search terms, but the smartwatch category ranks higher than smart glass. That’s why many app developers believe that the smartwatch category is still waiting for a truly dominant player like Apple to enter the market. An appealing offering from Apple could further boost interest in a smart watch.
For a dose of perspective, check out the same Google Trends graph after we add “iPhone” into the mix. The iPhone, in search as in the physical world, dominates the competition. Our old search terms are barely visible compared to the soaring purple line that represents iPhone searches. Wearables have a long way to go.
Another comparison might be fairer to the early days of wearables. This graph shows first the rise and fall of the Palm Pre (blue) and then the emergence of Google Glass (red). Both had a similar level of interest in their early days, according to Google Trends.