It's hard not to anticipate what technology companies are building, or supposedly building, in the burgeoning wearables space. Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) already has Glass, Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) has its Galaxy Gear smart watch and is rumored to launch a Glass competitor, and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is (constantly) rumored to be releasing an iWatch.
With all the current wearables available from the top tech companies, and more on the way, can investors hope to make a pile of cash off these new devices this year?
Probably not. At least not this year anyway.
If you're a tech investor, you're likely looking at which companies are poised to benefit most from wearables, which is logical and likely a wise move. But even though we're just at the beginning of 2014, there's still a lot of ground that needs to be covered before investors see a payoff from wearable tech.
Overcoming the creepy factor
Let's start with two high-profile wearable gadgets currently on the market: Google Glass and the Samsung Galaxy Gear. Google launched Glass last year and has released the device on a limited basis. Google recently opened up Glass to more users by allowing those with unlimited Google Play Music accounts to apply for the device. But, overall, testing of the glasses has been limited.
Google likely wants to keep a stronghold on supply in order to keep demand high, but also because the device is unlike anything the public has ever tested before. There's a huge learning curve for Google, users, lawmakers, and the general public. For this reason, Google investors likely won't stand to benefit from the revolutionary product just yet.
Even if Google launched a consumer version later this year that cost around $300 to $400, there's still a lot of social etiquette that will have to be overcome before Glass becomes a prolific device. Which means it could take until next year before Google sees its bottom line grow because of device and app sales. Though 2014 may be the year Google Glass launches for the common man, I think the device is still too futuristic for Google's bottom line to benefit this year. The future maybe now, but profits will come later.
Samsung's smart watch fumble
While Samsung deserves credit for trying its hand at a smart watch before Apple, the Galaxy Gear has been, well, sort of a failure.
The Gear proves that the first one out of the gate isn't always the winner. Samsung will need to build a much better product the second time around if they want to see real monetary gains from the device. Samsung says its shipped about 800,000 Galaxy Gears, but hasn't disclosed actual sales numbers from those shipments.
For this reason, investors shouldn't bank on Samsung winning the smart watch market or making big profits from the next iteration of the device, especially this year.
A promising option
If there's a tech company that knows how not to rush to market and get user demand right, it's Apple. At this point, it's hard to believe Apple won't release a smart watch for the masses. CEO Tim Cook has said, "I think the wrist is interesting. The wrist is natural." Though that's obviously not an admission Apple is manufacturing a smart watch, reports are increasing that an iWatch device is in the works.
Here's why I don't think investors will benefit this year from an iWatch, though: Apple sells devices for mass consumption, but smart watches are still a niche product. Macs, the iPod, iPad, and iPhone are all products for everyone. They may be priced at the high end, but they're created for everyone to use. This is part of Apple's product philosophy and it means that Apple won't release such a device until it's figured how to make the device appealing to the mass market.
I think there are two ways to do this: Make it so simple and inexpensive that it makes sense for the millions of iPhone users to pick one up or make it such an incredible stand-alone smart device that users see its usefulness right away.
Either way, I think Apple would release such a device toward the end of the year so it can benefit from holiday sales. If that's true, then Apple investors wouldn't start to see a real benefit form the device until early 2015. In addition to that, wearable smart watches are an unproven segment, so user adoption may be slow and could subsequently keep initial sales low.
Some may think I'm being a bit skeptical of the wearable trend, but it's more that I'm just skeptical that it will skyrocket company revenue, and stock prices, this year. Wearables are definitely a big part of our technological future, but it's going to take a while for the general public to adapt to these devices, which will keep sales relatively low compared other smart devices.
According to IHS, wearable tech shipments will hit 130 million by 2018. I hope investors see those estimates realized, but if you're looking for explosive growth in the industry right now, you may want to wait until next year.