Ahead of Apple Watch 2, why smartwatches are still waiting for their breakout moment
With the Apple Watch 2 rumored to be arriving alongside the iPhone 7 in less than a month, we've yet to see smartwatch sales soar to the heights that seemed possible when the original Apple timepiece was launched in March 2015. Can the new model get us interested in the smartwatch again? Or has its time already passed?
Apple isn't the only player with a stake in the game of course: Google, everyone who makes an Android Wear watch, Samsung and several smaller firms all have a keen eye on the smartwatch market as well, but Apple is currently selling the most of these devices, and tends to attract the most attention too.
We should also make it clear that smartwatches are selling – just not in fantastic numbers. IDC estimates 3.5 million of the wearables were sold in the second quarter of 2016, and while that's down on the year before, it's enough to keep hardware makers interested.
Let's not forget either that Pebble has consistently set Kickstarter records whenever it's launched a new smartwatch, so there's obviously something special here that appeals to a certain group of people.
That said, what we haven't yet seen is smartwatches stretching far beyond the early adopters, technology geeks and Apple faithful into the consumer mainstream, and causing the kind of market-changing shift that devices like the iPod, iPhone, iPad and Kindle managed. Will the smartwatch's time eventually come?
What's a smartwatch for, anyway?
Like the smartphone back in the day, the smartwatch arrived to add some high-tech extras to a piece of gear that already existed. However, it was pretty clear even in the early days that mobile phones were going to be devices that everyone had to own – and that's not something you can really say about the wristwatch.
Let's not knock the watch though, which was originally a mechanical marvel all of its own, giving wearers a way of telling the time in an instant, even if a clock or sundial was out of view. Even today, in the post-smartphone age, people choose to have a watch strapped to their wrist to tell the time rather than dig their phone out. They're useful, but not essential.
Smartwatches don't really feel like an evolution of that idea, and if anything they've become more of an extension of the smartphone than the next-generation wristwatch. Whether you have an Apple Watch, an Android Wear device or a Pebble, you're essentially extending some of the capabilities of your phone to a second screen.
It can still tell the time (for about a day until it needs charging up again), but if you're a watch wearer, there aren't too many reasons to upgrade; and if you don't already wear a watch then the case for joining the club isn't made much more compelling.
Yes, smartwatches do a lot now. It's just a matter of how useful all these features are.
In the early days of smartwatches they were trumpeted as ways to get phone functions – calls, messages, searches, calendar events – without having to pull your phone out of a pocket or bag. We were promised we could spend more time in the moment and less time checking our smartphones.
Based on the time we've spent with smartwatches of various descriptions, that's not actually what happens (though your mileage may vary) – it's actually all too easy to spend less time in the moment, because notifications and alerts are even easier to check. Just a flick of the wrist is all it takes.
These incoming notifications can be customized and switched off, of course, but then what you're left with is a normal wristwatch again, so why buy a smart one? Rather than making us less distracted by technology, they tend to do the opposite.
And so even for people already accustomed to wearing a watch – presumably those most likely to get something like a Pebble Round or Gear S2 – these new devices feel like another distraction rather than a must-have upgrade.
And so the smartwatch waits for its killer app: the app or feature that makes the smartwatch a must-buy for the majority, that makes non-watch wearers put down a few more hundred dollars to own one. The worry for those with a vested interest will be that it might never arrive.
What smartwatches do well
Despite the manufacturers' best intentions to avoid it, smartwatches still feel like cut-down smartphones. Where these devices really shine is in areas where they can do more than the gadgets in our pockets can, particularly in health and fitness monitoring.
Smartwatches are designed to be worn everywhere and are always in contact with our skin, making them perfect for some step counting or heart rate tracking. Even Pebble has a streamlined fitness tracker of its own now, acknowledging that maybe not everyone wants a miniature computer strapped to their wrist, just the tracking features.
The line between fitness tracker and smartwatch is a blurred one – is every wearable that tells the time a smartwatch? – but no matter what terms you use, a device you're always wearing can be a powerful health and fitness aid (it's interesting then that Fitbit has launched a full smartwatch in addition to its existing trackers.)
Essentially, how does the smartwatch compare with the smartphone? It's smaller, it's less powerful, and its display is more accessible. That means it excels in showing at-a-glance information: the time (obviously), steps taken, distance to go, the weather for the next hour, the next appointment.
Smartwatches can already do all of this already, and perhaps one way forward for these devices is to focus on these features and less on incoming emails and displaying photos and playing music – in short, everything that should really be left to a phone.
Let's not forget NFC technology either: the ability to pay or unlock a car door or get into a hotel room with a swipe of the wrist. Here again, a watch is obviously more convenient than a phone, and it's these strengths that smartwatches should be sticking to. However, right now they seem to be going in the other direction.
The future of the smartwatch
Both Apple Watch and Android Wear are getting big updates in the very near future, but the trend seems to be to pile on more and more features rather than refine what's already there. Is anyone really going to use the on-screen Android Wear 2.0 keyboard rather than tap out a message on their phone?
Android Wear devices and the Apple Watch are all set to become more independent and less reliant on the phones they're connected to, which may seem like a logical step forward but actually compounds some of the problems we mentioned above.
Smartwatches are poor replacements for smartphones, but it appears they want to keep on trying to make calls, send messages and show maps.
We can only speak for ourselves but we'd like to see standard, mechanical wristwatches continue to get some basic smarts (like step tracking and car unlocking) for dedicated watch wearers. There are no distracting alerts and no battery life problems.
Pebble deserves credit for trying to think about ways in which smartwatches can be different to smartphones
For everyone who doesn't want to wear a watch, the same smart features could be built into a more discreet health tracker, without the chunky watch face. Indeed, Apple is rumored to be working on just such a device. With that kind of device added to the mix, those who've always liked to wear a watch can still do so with some added benefits, those who don't want to can opt for something less obvious, and no one has to worry about charging another device every night or getting a deluge of WhatsApp messages arriving on their wrist.
While there are obviously some clever minds working in Cupertino, Mountain View and Samsung's Korean headquarters, it's not a huge surprise that no one has quite figured out what a smartwatch should be yet. Maybe we don't need them after all: maybe we'll go back to the wristwatches and fitness trackers we had before smartwatches arrived, just with more features on both.
Ultimately, though, if the smartwatch is to become more of a success story then it needs to stick to its strengths and preferably find out some more tricks it's good at – tricks that aren't already much better suited to the more powerful multitouch computer that's already sitting in your pocket.