If there's to be an explosion of wearable devices and smartwatches in 2014, as analysts forecast, the bigger question becomes when more apps will emerge that work with such devices.
So far, a shortage of apps has been a major shortfall of many wearable devices. Some smartwatches might have only 15 to 20 apps, and they often need to work over Bluetooth to connect to a nearby smartphone. Compare that number to the 1 million-plus apps in Apple's App Store or Google Play for smartphones, and you begin to see the challenge.
Analysts expects not only an explosion of wearable devices in the next three years, but an explosion of mobile apps of all kinds. Research firm Gartner last year predicted that wearable devices will drive half of all app interactions by 2017, a startling prediction, but one that Gartner believes was reinforced by the flurry of wearable devices shown at International CES earlier this month.
"The level of use of wearable apps is pretty nominal today," said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner in an interview Wednesday. "But the new cadre of smartwatches shown at CES and things pinned to clothes [or other devices], shows it is safe to say that there will soon be a way to interact, through a mobile app, that's in lieu of almost any other way of interacting, including the mobile Web or the desktop Web."
Blau said that "virtually all vendors are choosing mobile apps to interact with the way we will use a wearable device." Gartner reached its prediction that 50% of all app interactions will come from wearable devices by 2017 partly because of the way wearables work.
For example, many wearables won't have a user interface, such as a heart rate monitor that is strapped to a runner's chest. Offloading that interface to the user's smartphone also means that the wearable depends on the mobile app for user input and output, configuration, content creation and consumption and, possibly, wireless or GPS connectivity.
Blau said the wearable connection to a mobile smartphone or tablet is a way for a manufacturer to keep the device small and efficient, which reduces the device cost and favors the use of apps that are easy to maintain and update.
A good example of a recent wearable is a heart rate monitor from Adidas called the MiCoach, a $56 monitor worn with a chest strap that communicates with a smartphone via a free MiCoach mobile app. The app allows a user to activate a GPS connection so that a run, bike ride or cross-country ski trek can be stored for later review, showing heart rate, pace, distance and calories consumed during different phases of the exercise. The app can be set to allow voice prompts (with a male or female coach's voice) from the phone that tell the athlete to "speed up" to get a maximum workout. The voice prompts can also be paired with suitable music already on the phone.
Nokia has loaded the MiCoach app natively on its Lumia 520 phones which run Windows Phone 8. That phone is sold as a no-contract Go Phone by AT&T, and the app is downloadable for free in the App Store, Google Play or Windows Phone Store.
Some of the data from fitness wearables will be stored briefly on the wearable device or on the smartphone the wearable is paired with, but many apps will require a Wi-Fi or cellular connection to take the onboard data and upload it to the cloud where it can be processed and analyzed before it is reported back to the user, Blau said.
"Apps are an obvious and convenient platform to enable great products and services to be developed," Blau said in a statement.
Smartphone apps follow growth
Part of the reason wearable apps are expected to grow so quickly is due to the expected growth in wearables like smartwatches. Gartner late in 2013 predicted that there will be up to 7 million smartwatches sold in 2014, up from less than 1 million in 2013.
"Our forecast on app usage is based on the basic trends of how many wearables will be out there and basic metrics around app interaction," Blau explained. " A good portion of what people are going to do will be based on some type of data that originated from a point in the past from a wearable device," he said.
Blau said there will be side benefits to having that data that aren't apparent in advance. One inventor Blau knows said he was developing technology to monitor his own sleep patterns, which six months later helped reveal a heart ailment.
Blau said wearables won't rely entirely on mobile apps and might develop as hybrids of mobile apps paired with mobile Web interactions. But he said developers will probably build apps for wearables sold mainly in the App Store and Google Play because that's where the opportunity to generate revenue has been.
"Developers will follow the money," he said.
Gartner predicts app downloads will reach $77 billion by 2017. Today, about 92% of app downloads are free, but users will often accept advertising or data connectivity in exchange for use of the app. Businesses benefit from free mobils apps as a means of better engaging with their customers.