You see a new smartphone announced and order it online, and it arrives at your door days later. What could be simpler? Sadly it doesn't always work this well for wearable tech. Manufacturing and production issues can mean consumer products are delayed for months or even years. And wearables including smartwatches and fitness trackers seem particularly prone. But why?
We've already dived into the specific difficulties of building hearables and why smart rings are so tricky to get right. But it's not just the tiniest form factors that can whip up trouble.
Into the unknown
For starters, wearables are much harder to make than smartphones. Because they're a relatively new product category, there's no established blueprint yet on how to make one. This means each company tries their own way, often with less than perfect results.
"One of the biggest problems is you're not using just a known set of components," says Ben Wood, mobile/wireless industry analyst at market research firm CCS Insight. "Instead, you're having to create some of the elements from scratch. And that always leads to unexpected problems."
Ask Doppel. The mood-changing wearable was supposed to arrive last October, but has been beset with delays. There was an issue with the firm's bespoke motors. The casing supplier couldn't start manufacturing until they'd seen the final electronics from the electronics supplier, which set things back two months. Negotiations dragged on. The charging cables came back 5m long instead of 50cm. The new charging bases proved trickier than anticipated to manufacture. Another month was added to the shipping date, but at least the end was in sight. Except it wasn't quite.
Just before Christmas, it turned out the circuit boards weren't up to scratch, so a new batch had to be brought in and fresh testing begun. That meant production wouldn't be complete before Chinese New Year, when the factories shut up shop for three weeks. The firm now hopes to ship in March, five months late.
Remember: this doesn't include the two years the company's founders spend working on prototypes of the device, or the trials and tribulations of launching on Kickstarter – all these problems happened just in the manufacturing stage. And if Doppel ships five months late, that will be impressive by crowdfunding standards.
"In hindsight, our original Kickstarter timeline was ridiculously optimistic," says Georgina Orso, head of marketing at Doppel. "You can never plan what's going to happen. We didn't expect to have to change electronics supplier two weeks before going to manufacture. If we were doing it again, we would build a buffer into the timeline. My advice would be: expect the unexpected."
Taking on the big boys
A lot of companies launching on Kickstarter are woefully unprepared for just how hard it is to produce a wearable. "The honest truth is, in most cases, it's way harder than anyone expected," says Wood. "It's easy to come up with a product idea, and get talking to suppliers in Shenzhen about making it for you. But the grim reality of delivering a product is so much more complex, onerous and expensive than anyone who embarks on it could ever have believed."
It's not just manufacturing delays either. It could be something as simple as the branding or packaging that holds things up. They might seem like small factors, but they're enormously important to establishing a foothold in the wearables market.
Then there's the threat from bigger, more established players. The Bragi Dash hearable might have cleaned up on Kickstarter, but it couldn't stop Samsung stealing its thunder somewhat with the launch of the Gear IconX. Samsung's launch wasn't faultless – its hearable was delayed by a few days (though Samsung claimed this was to make sure it "better aligned" with the Galaxy Note 7 and Gear 360, which also launched that day). And when it did land it only offered so-so performance. But it showed that a big player could bring to market a very similar product to a competitor's in a much shorter timescale and sell it for much cheaper.
In short, this is the stuff of HBO's satire Silicon Valley.
A question of priorities
The tech giants do have problems of their own when it comes to launching wearables on time. Their large order sizes might curry more favour with suppliers and help secure them a spot on the production line, but their size can be a hindrance as much as a help.
"Big companies have more bureaucracy, stricter processes and more management levels who need to approve everything," says Francisco Almeida, senior research analyst, European mobile devices at market research firm IDC. "These can all lead to delays."
For Preston Moxcey, general manager at Misfit, it's all a question of priorities. He thinks that companies that specialise in only making wearables are uniquely positioned to weather the storms that come with producing a wearable device. "If you make televisions as well as wearables, your priorities – not to mention your expertise and core competencies – might be a little different than a company that's focussed purely on wearables," he says. "It's about staying focussed on the product you're trying to create."
He says that with early wearables, a lot of bigger companies tried to port the smartphone experience to the wrist. When that didn't work, they had to go back to the drawing board, which inevitably meant delays.
How soon is now?
Wearable tech is also susceptible to the usual delays. "You could have connectivity issues," Almeida says, "or maybe a new product launches that completely disrupts what you thought would be your key differentiating factor. Or there's a huge platform announcement like Android Wear 2.0 and it's not worth releasing your device until that's rolled out."
Wood takes up the theme too. "You might find your amazing concept doesn't really work, or it's too expensive to produce, or you forget you have to go through a whole load of certification to get your CE mark, and that screws you up," he says. It seems you really can't underestimate how hard it is to bring a wearable to market. "You soon realise it's a never-ending treadmill," Wood says. "It might start as a sprint, but it soon becomes an Ironman."
Maybe we expect too much too soon. Given all these variables, it's a wonder any wearables get released at all, let alone on time. And given the huge technological leaps and bounds we've seen, it's easy to forget it's still early days when it comes to what wearables can do.
When we asked Almeida if some companies announce their wearables too early in a bid to whip up enthusiasm, he replied: "It depends what you mean by too early. The whole market can be considered too early if you take into account the full potential of wearable technology. It's still a long way from being an established market, which is why we see disruptive breakthroughs every year. At this point, it's all trial and error."
How we test