4 reasons why wearable tech may be a poor fit

Wearable computers were supposed to be the next big thing. Apple (AAPL) has been rumored for some time to be developing an iWatch; Google (GOOG) is working on its Glass eyewear display and camera; and Samsung has already brought its smartwatch to market. Then there are all the fitness devices for people to monitor their workouts and sleep patterns.

And yet, things don't seem to be taking off the way so many experts expected. Sales for Samsung have been tepid at best, with people selling off the smartwatches at a brisk pace, Apple hasn't yet released a product and Google Glass is only available to a number of users. Maybe there's a good reason, as many consumers quickly abandon wearables and sell them off.

A report earlier this year from consulting firm Endeavour Partners showed that wearable devices are becoming more popular. According to an Internet-based survey of "thousands" of Americans, one in ten over the age of 18 own a fitness activity tracker. That would seem a good sign, except for the "dirty secret" that a third of owners stop using them within six months. By 18 months, less than half still use the devices.

Why the abandonment rate? So far, companies haven't been able to make devices that score high enough in all the necessary critical areas of design and form factor. In addition, there are some clear problems that no one has yet solved.

Lack of utility

People buy things to scratch an emotional itch. But it's not enough to purchase your way into being cool or popular. There has to be an underlying reason to keep using a device. One reason MP3 players became a feature of the popular landscape (at least before smartphones and tablets made them less necessary) is because people wanted to listen to music wherever they went. But do an imitation of Dick Tracy with a wrist-mounted device? Maybe not so much.

Experience isn't compelling

Even if some of the functions are right, the form factor may not be welcoming. There is a reason that many people have given up watches in favor of checking the time on a smartphone. They have access to the information they want when they want it without clamping something to their wrists. Smartwatches are significantly larger than regular watches because they need more screen display to show the different forms of information they deal in. They are generally clumsy.

Social stigma

Not only does the form of a device need to conform to the expectations and comfort of the consumer, but it must fit in with society. Think of the classic image of the engineer wearing a pocket protector filled with pens. Although some people did wear them, it never became a positive fashion statement. With smart devices, social stigma can go beyond image to function. Google Glass users found that the eyewear can antagonize individuals and businesses, given the prospect of being recorded without their knowledge.

Emphasis on the vendor, not the consumer

Another big problem is that many of these devices -- particularly the ones intended to sync with a smartphone or tablet -- are being conceived for the wrong reasons. Rather than reacting to customer desire, they are either intended as an advance counter to an expected Apple product (which maybe is too smart to actually ship one) or because they seem to be a great add-on. If someone bought your smartphone, maybe you can get them to buy the accompanying watch.

That's putting the sales cart before the consumer buying horse. Any product that serves the seller far more than the user is doomed to eventual failure.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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