Cutting Room: UK is slow on the uptake of new tech

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The hot topic this year is the emergence of wearable technology, but the UK market appears reluctant to embrace it thus far. Samantha Tomaszczyk looks at the reasons why

The case for jumping on the wearable technology bandwagon seems crystal clear. A quick glance at this year’s industry predictions shows that distributors, manufacturers and dealers all have their eye on the prize – a slice of the wearable technology pie.

Brightstar CEO Marcelo Claure, for example, told us: “If 2013 was the year when wearable connected products move from early adopters to mass market.” Samsung UK and Ireland vice president of IT and mobile Simon Stanford, Mobile Fun MD Mohammed Hussain and Focus Mobile sales director Keane Beaken also spoke of the mass market appeal of products such as smartwatches and wearable fitness trackers, namely Jawbone’s “UP”.

Analyst forecasts also point to wearables as the next big thing. According to Berg Insight, for example, shipments of wearable technology devices will reach 64 million in 2017, by growing 50.6 per cent annually. The firm said sales of smartglasses, smartwatches and wearable fitness trackers (including the UP and Nike’s “Fuelband”) reached 8.3 million units worldwide in 2012, up from 3.1 million devices in the previous year.

And finally, this month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – an annual display of products set to take-off in the next 12 months – was dominated by wearable tech. Personal highlights included the “Pebble Steel” – the latest smartwatch from Pebble, the Sony SmartBand (a fitness tracker set to arrive here in April) and the LG Lifeband Touch, also a fitness tracker.

And yet, when we got in touch with UK mobile operators to find out about their plans in the wearable space for 2014, the responses we received showed they are still watching and waiting rather than jumping in. They are yet to be convinced, it seems.

Vodafone, for example, told us it’s waiting to see if “use cases on the market currently develop into something viable in the longer-term”, while O2 said “wearable technology is an area that’s still relatively recent and one we’re watching very closely”. EE’s CEO Olaf Swantee seems most excited, posting a blog about his picks of CES last week, which included the Pebble Steel. But it’s interesting to note that while O2 sells the Jawbone UP online, neither Vodafone or EE do.

This is a shame as, unlike tablets (UK sales of which are set to drop from 17 million last year to 14 million) and smartphones (the UK market for which is set to saturate by 2017 according to IDC), wearables represent a key growth area.

So what are operators waiting for? We came a little closer to solving this mystery last week when technology consulting company Accenture released a report showing British consumers are less keen on wearable technology when compared to global interest.

Accenture’s survey of 6,000 consumers in the UK, US, Australia, Canada, India and South Africa found that just 29 per cent of UK consumers are interested in buying a smartwatch compared to the global average of 46 per cent. Similarly, just over a quarter (26 per cent) of us Brits are interested in buying a pair of smart-glasses, compared to the global average of 42 per cent.

So perhaps the demand for these exciting products isn’t really here yet. Or perhaps operators are waiting for the manufacturers to get it right before committing to bumping up stock and range. Or maybe – as has happened with technological advances in the past (analysts agree that the UK was slow to adopt both 4G and cloud computing) – we’ll just be slow off the mark again in adopting the latest tech.

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