The smartwatch, as a second screen device, hasn’t quite taken off. Between June and September last year, 2.7 million units were shipped, 51% down on the same period in 2015, and there is a sense that most people who find smartwatches appealing will have already bought one. It’s a product that doesn’t really seem to know what it is - is the Apple Watch a useful personal assistant or, as put by Steve Wozniak himself, a ‘luxury fitness brand’?
Understandably, the idea of reading a news article on your wrist or talking into it like character from a sci-fi movie isn’t interesting to large portions of the market. All new technologies take time to feel natural, but equally some never properly take hold. There’s a danger that, like Google Glass, a smartwatch with all the functionality of the Apple Watch is one of those products that’s exciting in theory but flops on contact with the market.
When Pebble was sold to Fitbit and all but dismantled in 2016, some viewed it as a death knell for the smartwatch. The products offer largely the same features as the smartphone, and customers are clearly finding it difficult to justify having a secondary piece of very similar tech on their wrist. The technology is still one that’s very much in its infancy, and it’s here that the smartwatch needs to reconsider its purpose. Watches are, first and foremost, a fashion item, and a less-is-more approach could see the products appeal to the traditionalists as well as the tech fanatics.
The initial success of Pebble, and the lasting appeal of Fitbit, stems in my view from simplicity. Users want a device that looks slick, will track fitness data and show notifications. Scrawling text messages is gimmicky and it will take far more time than the smartwatch can afford for it to seem more convenient than simply taking out a phone. When smartwatches become independent from smartphones and start being able to take calls or emails themselves then perhaps they will seem less arbitrary - as long as they require tethering, for many a smartphone will suffice.
There are additional functionalities that could be useful, though. Electronic payment and intelligent GPS visualization, for example, are functions that are arguably better placed on the wrist than in the pocket. And perhaps to declare the smartwatch dead is to perhaps deny it time to grow. Many have pointed to the relatively slow burn of the smartphone before its explosion at the hands of Apple. It’s not uncommon for new technologies to take some time finding their feet, and the hype around smartwatches set them up to disappoint before they even fully materialized.
2017 will see Android Wear 2.0 rolled out in a host of hybrid smartwatches and many smartwatch manufacturers are adding functionality to their new products. Interestingly, all of Wearable’s picks for the smartwatches to watch in 2017 are relatively traditional in form. They have round faces, often with standard digital or analogue time displays in the foreground and just a suggestion of further functionality. The way developers and designers are approaching Android Wear 2.0, though, would suggest that increased functionality is the most likely road many will go down. In a marketplace that could benefit from easily usable, genuinely useful smartwatches with limited but selective functionality, a new influx of gimmicks seems unnecessary.
2017 is a big year in the development of the smartwatch. Some predict it’ll take off when Android 2.0 comes into play, and others fear overcomplicating the devices will switch consumers off. Hybrid smartwatches are a middle ground that could appeal to the mass market. Perhaps the notion of the wrist-worn computer should be left to the tech enthusiasts.