Is there any hope for open platforms in wearable tech?

We were promised free-wheeling, hippie, access-to-all gardens, not walled ones
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Ask us two or three years ago and wearable tech was going to be different. It would be open, modular, personal, fashionable and for everyone, not just bros with too much spare cash.

The more sales figures we have, however, the closer the reality of wearable tech seems to be mirroring smartphones. Apple – and Fitbit – sell the most. Google works with partners but not just anyone. Modular hasn't caught on yet. Open platforms start niche and, for the most part, stay niche.

Let's take a closer look at that last one.

After some bold intentions in 2015, there have been plenty of attempts across AI and voice, smartwatches, fitness, VR and the smart home. But in 2016 we have also seen a lot of moves to well, corner a market and keep it.

In the latest blow for open platforms, the Viv AI assistant (designed to let anyone improve it, Wikipedia-style) is now rumoured to be on the verge of being acquired by Samsung. Exciting for Gear S3 buyers and the ex-Siri execs who are building Viv, but we're sure if/when it happens Samsung will want to lock things down somehow.

Let's look at the evidence across the rest of the year. One slight disappointment has been the Horological Smartwatch Open Platform launched in early 2015. Sure, we've had one new Frederique Constant model and a new colour for the Alpina watch this year but no new Swiss watchmaker brands have signed on since Mondaine was the first brand to license the quartz module tech.

For the real action in smart analogue accessories, look at what Wareable Tech Awards winner Fossil Group is doing with its tight strategy of rolling out very similar tech and software across the brands it owns.

Gimme data, gimme games

Is there any hope for open platforms in wearable tech?

Another trend we've seen in 2016 is companies moving from making 'general use' smartwatches to a real focus on fitness which very much includes the data. That can mean controlling both hardware and software and it's not just Apple which you'd expect to go all walled garden.

Back in May, Michael Sawh pointed out that Pebble was changing its tune on fitness, moving from partnerships with Misfit and Jawbone on apps and watch faces to focusing on its own comprehensive Pebble Health platform and dedicated devices like Pebble Core.

Read this: Does modularity work for wearables?

VR is yet another case in point. Earlier this month, Hugh Langley argued that Valve and Oculus are forging two different paths: Valve's OpenVR dev kit making sure games can work beyond the SteamVR platform and Oculus' attempts to lock down exclusives.

Elsewhere, Razer's latest HDK 2 VR headset is exciting in the specs it offers for $399. But the OSVR platform it started with Sensics crucially still isn't showing off apps and games to rival the PlayStation VR. With that in mind, it will probably be confined to industry folk, the hackers of the title. That is a shame because the idea of an open platform that accessory makers can build for is really appealing.

Closed platforms haven't won just yet, though. The open or semi-open platforms to watch next year and beyond are: Valve and OpenVR's ambitions; Microsoft's new affordable VR headsets; Blocks and its system of open hardware modules; 'works with everything' Amazon Alexa; and SmartThings in the smart home.

Finally, a strong signal for where wearable tech is heading will be how many companies Google allows to build for Android Wear 2.0 and Daydream in VR. We won't be recommending Daydream as an open platform until it's more than Pixel and View or nothing. Maybe 2017 will see more progress in open platforms than 2016 did.

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Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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