Should you be worried about the software-update lifespan of wearables?
If it runs on software, no matter how careful the developers were, it’s got bugs.
A coworker of mine once asked me why developers had to even worry about fixing bugs. “Why don’t you just write the stuff ‘bug-free’ in the first place?” It was a genuine question, without even a hint of sarcasm. He followed up with “I mean, the banks never have to worry about fixing bugs in ATMs, right? Why can’t we do the same here?”
That’s when one of the developers on my team snorted his Rockstar energy drink out of his nose.
I don’t know which was more painful, the coworker who was searching frantically for a paper towel to mop up the caffeinated liquid still dripping down his face, or the naiveté of that seemingly innocent question about ATMs.
Everything that runs on code has bugs in it. Period. The visibility and impact of those bugs will vary depending on a lot of factors, but everything’s got bugs: ATMs, cars, phones, spacecraft – everything.
Google has been pushing OEMs to commit to a monthly update schedule to help squash OS-level bugs for a while now. The industry has been moving toward updating built-in applications through the Play Store (or proprietary update mechanisms like LG and others use). Motorola recently disappointed almost everyone by failing to update entry-level phones that the company promised would receive “timely updates”. If we can’t keep the apps and operating systems on our phones up-to-date and as bug-free as possible, how on earth should we expect our wearables to stay updated?
Lifespan of Wearables
Some would argue that our smartphones are disposable, others – the optimists among us – try to eek every last joule of energy from 5-year-old tech, trying to keep them functional in an ever-changing sea of devices and technologies. When it comes to wearables, I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will argue against the notion that they are disposable – which is somewhat of a shame.
My son wears his grandfather’s wrist watch. I own a pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather. Both of these devices are well-built. They’re substantial. They still work – and with proper care will likely work for decades to come. What’s more, they have history. They help us connect with our past. They have stories that have been passed down through the generations attached to them. They make history “real” because, right there in our hands, we can hold a tangible part of that history.
Then I look at my Moto 360 (1st gen.). The back is already cracked. Depending on the watch face I use I barely make it through an entire day without the need to recharge. When I do recharge it has to be done through a Qi-charger connected to a wall-wart. Will I be able to pass this on to my grandson some years in the future? Is it so dependant upon software support – which will likely be discontinued years before that day ever comes – that the watch itself will be a conversation piece to be set upon a mantle, but not something functional and practical like the watches of yesteryear?
Software Development Lifecycle
It’s that last concern, the one of software-updates, that really concerns me. Speaking as a software developer, it’s impractical to update the code that runs on devices in perpetuity. At my day job we support a dozen web projects. The upkeep – fixing bugs, adding features, making sure those features work with software updates, etc. – is consuming more and more of our time. To create new products we’re at the tipping point where we either have to bring on new people to help, or scale back our support of current project such that man-hours are shifted from supporting old projects to developing new ones.
The same challenge is even more real for those who are driven by marketing departments. Next year’s model needs to be developed and finalized in time for the optimal sales window. Last year’s model isn’t making any more money for the company – it had its time in the limelight and now every hour spent supporting it is an hour lost developing the new model. At some point, the decision to abandon the old tech is made. With the rapid deployment and innovation cycles we’re seeing today, abandonment is happening sooner than at any time in the past.
Once past that tipping point, bugs won’t be fixed in a timely fashion. Features won’t keep up with those coming on the new models. Ultimately, devices that work just fine on hardware from a year or two ago won’t work at all with “current” hardware. Due to the lack of timely updates, wearables will have become absolutely disposable – with updates delivered by buying the new version rather than through updated bits.
While that’s going to negatively impact to our pocketbooks, the greater cost will be the loss of a tangible connection like that which our grandparents were able to pass down to us through their wearables . One which we simply won’t have with our grandchildren.