Mobility

Smartwatches: Wear did it all go wrong?

Too much tech is turning off consumers: time for a rethink?

Is time running out for smartwatches? Despite numerous attempts - Sony, Samsung and a host of start-ups have been building these products for several years - the devices have failed to rise above the level of novelty and have been roundly ignored by most consumers.

One of the biggest problems remains the technology - the battery life of most smartwatches would leave a mayfly asking for its money back.

Getting past the limitations of the tiny screen and feeble capabilities is another headache - one smartwatch I tried wanted to display full emails on its diminutive display, which was a bad idea to start with compounded by its apparent inability to render HTML. Instead of showing the images from the email it just displayed pages after page of raw HTML.

But technology might also be a problem for another reason: too many technology-led companies see wearable devices as the successor to smartphones and ignore aesthetics and style according to some a report by Beecham Research, which argues that emphasising the gadgetry alone is not enough.

"The wearable technology market is at an exciting tipping point, but moving on an almost pure technology-centric trajectory; and wearable devices are not just about technology," said Saverio Romeo, principal analyst at Beecham Research.

The report argues that this excessive excitement about technology and lack of thinking about image, branding and consumer needs is what has really stopped the clock on the smartwatch. The analysts calculate the wearable technology market is going to be worth some $3bn by 2018 - but that if tech companies got it right, they could be looking at $9bn instead.

The analysts note that while Samsung and others offering smartwatches have taken the technology-centric approach, others are breaking away, such as the Withings Activité, which "merges Parisian design with Swiss watch-making to create a different experience", or the collaboration between Fitbit and Tory Birch, which demonstrates how the fitness market is moving beyond the functionality of traditional products.

Despite all these potential pitfalls, you should never underestimate the ability of tech companies to create a market, just as they did with smartphones and tablets, neither of which anyone wanted until they existed. Google seems to have made a better stab of it with Android Wear, at least in terms of the concept, which can be boiled down to keep it simple, stupid.

And it's impossible to discuss wearables without considering Apple.

The rumour that Apple might be working on a smartwatch was enough to cause a stampede as nearly every other consumer electronics company rushed to get a product into the market first, thus inadvertently doing Apple's market research along the way.

The wearable tech market is in about the same state as the MP3 player market was before the iPod arrived. Plenty of different music players were available in all sorts of shapes and sizes, most of which, like today's smartwatches were damned by terrible battery life and limited capacity. It was Apple that managed to put all the existing pieces together in the right order to make the whole package work, and it will surely try the same trick again.

All the indications are Apple will come in at the high end, with that sense of style that could provide the breakthrough: you don't hire the head of sales at Tag Heuer and the former CEO of Yves Saint Laurent if you are planning a cheap wristwatch.

That matches Apple's usual strategy - dominate the high end of the market and then over a few iterations gradually open out into the mid-market over time. As my colleague Larry Dignan over on ZDNet points out, if Apple can't fix it the whole category is doomed.

There have been exactly no leaks of any iWatch components (in contrast there are a few pictures of reasonably credible iPhone 6 parts around already). That to me suggests the iWatch is still some distance from production - the latest guestimates put the launch sometime in October or November - or at least that security around it is tighten than that around the iPhone.

But another challenge that smartwatches face is time; or rather history. Both smartphones and tablets were new devices - nobody really knew how they should look or function. With watches there is a century or more of accumulated knowledge and cultural baggage about how wristwatches look, and behave. And most smartwatches so far just don't fit the bill. Bridging that gap will be key - and the clock is ticking.

Further reading

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor of TechRepublic, and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, business and culture for more than a decade. Before joining TechRepublic he was the editor of silicon.com.

35 comments
333239
333239

It's still early days but I can't wait for a truly usable, practical smart watch. I think they should work stand-alone so you don't need to carry a bulky phablet everywhere (especially when doing sports)  but you can use the larger screen when you want to.

Rafael Kireyev
Rafael Kireyev

Perhaps, we need a different view of a wearable. Currently, most of us imagine wearable devices as separate accessories. But, it is more likely that the wearable will be integrated with our clothes or indeed will become its basis. I think the real breakthrough will occur if we will have a fundamentally new approach. This in turn will accelerate the development of new materials and components.

vanyeuseo
vanyeuseo

The pun is a little ... meh, but well, i think your arguements are solid. The market for wearable devices is not there yet, it has to be made. But remember, how Apple made the market for smartphone...

ghế sofa

dylanholmes222
dylanholmes222

Unifying an OS is a big issue which is now solved. Google's Wearable platform will light a fire under consumer sales. I think the Moto 360 will also start a well deserved kick off in consumer purchasing of smart watches simply because of aesthetics. Whenever Apple releases their smart watch i believe we will also see a large jump in sales and usage. The LG G watch and gear live will also do well, they were just barely released there are no metrics yet.


The hardware IS there. The battery life IS there. but the appealing products just are not yet. Moto 360 will be the first truly appealing smart watch.

joel.blazquez
joel.blazquez

And when did it go right?!?! Phone manufacturers are designing larger and larger. Users seem to want that as sales for these larger phones are booming. And then at the same time they create a smaller device with less funcionality... ?!?!? If users appear to be wanting more screen and power, you are giving them... a smartwatch?!?!

kronckew
kronckew

my pebble smartwatch battery lasts for 4-5 days, displays a large typeface custom watchface (1 of 6 stored that i can instantly switch to)that illuminates if i snap my wrist, can display pulse rate, weather, gps position, time, day, date, email notifications (readable), alarms (vibrates), timers, and has a zillion apps (most of which i do not need). it is waterproof, shock resistant (has a g-force sensor) and more. plastic case. fairly cheap. metal case/strap option too.  pairs to apple or android phones. black & white hires screen. mine accepts std. 22mm watch bands. it can even control music from your phone, control the phone's camera etc.you can even get snap-on covers in different colors.


i love it.

fixmypcmike
fixmypcmike

I think the reason hardly anyone is buying into this technology is partly because of the glass. Look at your regular watch: how did those scratches get there? Do you struggle to see the time or date? No one, except the real accident-prone, can tell you how you got that scratch or inside fog. And, how many times have you left your watch in a public restroom, friend's house or at work? Maybe I'm the only one but that's just my crazy theory on why these watches aren't catching on.

weston2k
weston2k

Not sure I agree with the battery life problem. I have Sony Smartwatch 2 and Samsung Gear 2 Neo. Both last for at least 4-6 days with medium use. And they charge quickly. It's much better than any phone I've had in the last few years.

weston2k
weston2k

@pookiecrickett2 yes, it's a pun. The general market is called Wearables. 



pookiecrickett2
pookiecrickett2

Has anyone noticed the brain freeze in the headline...."Wear" ?


Ummmmmm....it's "where" !


Ok...ok...so I'm picky.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

The problem isn't technology; it is screen size pure and simple. Consumers only need one device, either a tablet or a smartphone and the choice between them is essentially screen size versus ease of access (carrying the damned thing around). Smart watches are too small for anything useful except as an adjunct (Android Wear is brilliant).


Ask folks who have both tablets and smartphones which one they use and which one is laying in the charger in the bedroom. (the other problem is that most of the articles about tech issues are written by producers who need a large screen for editing and a full-sized keyboard ;-)

Komplex
Komplex

Apple is successful because they know the limits of technology and people. 
Google/HTC/Samsung despite following Apple for the last few years, have learned absolutely nothing. 


If Apple can make a smart-watch, this is what's going to happen. 

Apple announces smart-watch. 

DroidBoys/Tech Pundits will complain it can't do everything. 

Tech Pundits will complain it's not like previous smart-watches. 

DroidBoys/Tech Pundits will laugh at the slow specs. 

DroidBoys/Tech Pundits will complain that it doesn't have all the features the Google smart watches have. 
DroidBoys/Tech Pundits will complain about the price. 

DroidBoys will call it shiny/toy. 


Actual consumers/iFanBoys will buy the first generation. 
The first generation will do a half-a-dozen things really, really well. 

The first generation will have two or three flaws. 

There will be epic battles between the Boys. 
The second generation will be released, fixing the two or three critical flaws. 
Apple dominates the market. 

Allen.
Allen.

There's a market for them, just not the right products yet.


For me to be interested, here's what I would like to see. Make it part of a Personal Area Network. Include charging options from my clothing. Rather than a smart watch, I would prefer it to just be a display and control for computing capacity (and power) worn elsewhere on my body, like my belt. 


As far as the tiny display, use something like Google Glass to expand on it when needed. Just glance at the watch to trigger a particular display.


Of course the first smartwatches are just testing the market, and really are nothing more than beta-test products in that respect. Which is why there is no big rush to buy and adopt them - they are overpriced, soon to be replaced with something much better, and won't be supported by the manufacturer within a year or less. 

bahnjee
bahnjee

Charging every night?  No big deal.  Add NFC charging and I just drop it on a pad over night.


Biometrics?  Frankly, I couldn't care less about my up-to-the-minute blood pressure or EKG or any of that.  Most normal people don't either.  I don't know a soul who wants to keep up with all the questionably-useful data for longer than a few weeks.  There will be a need for "Life Alert" type devices, but that is a niche market that will develop alongside smart watches, not as a driving force behind them.


Screen size?  No big screen needed if I'm only reading snippets of text.  Snippets like my bank saying "Your credit card was just used at....."   Or a weather/amber/silver alert.  Or simply a quick glance to see who that text is from so I can decide if I need to pull out my phone and respond.  Often, the texts I receive are simply notifications that don't require any interaction with my phone.


Because something as small as a watch cannot supply large amounts of data in a manageable way, it's only useful for small snippets of information or as an adjunct to a larger device..  The smartwatch will not replace the smartphone (unless its capable of communicating directly with my optical nerve), but it could provide some useful services as an accessory:


*  Audio Player (Books and Music):  Play/Pause/SkipForward/SkipBackward/Volume/etc.

*  Text msg alerts.

*  Time

*  Date

*  Weather

*  Voice Recorder

*  Siri

*  Reminders

*  Gyroscopic Mouse for my PC??

*  GPS for walkabouts

*  Voice activated calculator


Look at your own phone apps and consider all the things it does that would be more convenient/quicker if you had an interface on your wrist.

kendebley
kendebley

The trouble with smart watches is they are not smart, nothing classy about wearing one. I would rather have a phone in my pocket that has buttons I can manage and a screen I can read. Give me a proper watch any day.

NameRedacted
NameRedacted

The only "smartwatch" that I would consider is the Withings Activite, because 1) it looks like a watch, 2) it is easy to tell what time it is, 3) it doesn't have to be recharged since its battery lasts a year, and 4) it doesn't make the wearer look like a doofus.  Yes it has limited functionality and yes it's expensive (USD 390) and yes it isn't out yet, but all those aside, it probably has the best chance of getting me to purchase one.


Curious to see what Apple will do, since they hired a guy from TAG Heuer, but if they're going to play at TAG's price points (USD 2,000 - 10,000), bonne chance.

jimbritttn
jimbritttn

the only way a 'smart watch' will be a success if it is made from a flexible material at least 2" wide that fits around your wrist like a bracelet.  It would have to be very thin and have solar cells as part of the assembly to help maintain battery life.


Making it transparent when not being used would be cool as well.


Price MUST be under $100

BillGates_z
BillGates_z

What people don't feel like shelling out another $200 - $300 for yet another soon to be outdated, must be charged up POS. AMAZING! (gambling! I'm shocked...shocked!)

sparent
sparent

I find the comments about screen size interesting. It does not seem that long ago that people complained their smart phone's screen was too small to do anything productive.

mandclu
mandclu

There is also a social implication to consider. A colleague works at a shop where a few of his co-workers bought Pebble watches. He confided that when a good acquaintance checks his phone during a conversation, you tend to accept that, but when someone checks his watch during a conversation sends a very different message. 

pethers
pethers

The issue for me is that my phone does everything I need it to do, including tell the time. However, I do have a watch as well, which never needs charging. It has solar panels on the display so the battery never goes flat and has a vast choice of various other functions, most of which I never use. However the watch looks good, and most importantly to me, has a titanium strap so it is very light. I haven't seen a single smart watch that has a choice of stainless steel or titanium strap? They're all cheap plastic/rubber type straps which I don't like. They don't do enough to make me want one as well as my phone. I don't like the idea of daily charging my watch.

Things I want from a smart watch:

- make it from good quality materials - nice finish and metal strap please

- make it a replacement for my smartphone, not just a accessory for my phone

- make it with a larger widescreen that goes up my arm and a curved back so it hugs my arm

- perhaps have two batteries, one that keeps the time and basic functions working at all times for up to say a week, and then the normal daily charging requirement for the smartphone functions

- Solar panels in the display to help keep the charge up for longer

- Fitness type monitoring functions is a good idea, but they need to work well - perhaps this can be achieved by using Bluetooth accessories that strap on other parts of the body


Theirs just not enough innovative thinking in this space - everyone is trying to make a smart watch look like a normal watch and this just isn't working. Think bigger and better!!!

da philster
da philster

The display is simply too small to be of much use. A smartphone will do all and much more that a smart watch will do and much better so. 

Just one more gadget that will probably end up in a drawer with a dead battery.

hawc
hawc

To me, the bigest problem with wearable technology is the screen. Right now I am outside, in the sun, trying to write this comment on a Nexus 4, it is almost impossible.

A solution might be to add a second screen. This additional screen would be on the back of the phone and its sole purpose would be ease of visibility in bright sunlight.

Now I can use it as a monitor for my camera, can see the time and date at a glance and read my emails in comfort. The Barnes and Noble nook seems to have a screen I can read, so the technology is here.

alfred
alfred

Technology advance must be forced on the populace to make money for the companies. A smart watch is of little use except to show off. I want a watch that reliably tells me the time and date and lasts for many years. Anything extra is superfluous. I prefer digital but all the makers now offer either analogue or smart watches so I am worried about a replacement when my current watch expires.

GrizzledGeezer
GrizzledGeezer

Having a computer on wrist is certainly convenient -- but having to pull it from your pocket is hardly a terrible inconvenience. The larger display, ease of use as a telephone, etc, easily outweigh that "inconvenience".

Kenneth Pennuto
Kenneth Pennuto

The problem isn't too much tech, it it's tech that is outdated by the next iteration. Programmed obsolescence is killing the industry. Period

inet32
inet32

"Smart watches" have no compelling story.   I already have a phone with a much bigger display and easier UI that I can use to read email, check social media, look at maps, stocks, news, weather, etc.


A "smart watch" is just one more device to lose, have to secure, and charge, oh, and pay for, without any added advantage.


The one potential benefit a smart watch could offer is bio-monitoring.   I work out (run, walk, hike, x-c ski, etc) and it would be helpful to glance at the watch while I'm doing these things to check HR, blood-pressure, etc.   But the technology is not there.   Smart watches use a primitive, unreliable method for measuring heartrate that involves blood flow in skin capillaries.  This doesn't work reliably, especially if you're moving or cold.   Only a chest strap or real electrodes on your chest to pick up the heart's electrical signal can do it.  Nor is there any reliable ambulatory blood pressure technology for a smart watch.

inet32
inet32

@sparent ... and look what happened to screen sizes after that: they got huge.  The newest generation of phones like the Samsung S5 barely fit into a generous pocket. That's a worry with smartwatches -  they'll take up our whole arm.  No thanks!

bsalloum
bsalloum

@Kenneth Pennuto I think for a lot of people, the problem really is too much tech. Many people are saying "enough already" and are starting to put up boundaries, just wanting to live their lives instead of measuring everything and obsessing about what it might mean. I'm a software developer, and quite frankly I've been there for a while and so have most of my non-tech friends. They don't think it's cool or even helpful, they think it's becoming too much all the time and intrusive.

tony
tony

@inet32  There are some technologies for blood pressure etc for a smart watch, but they are still in the process of being miniaturised. Don't know about you, but I find it hard to check anything on a watch whilst x-c skiing - I have tried it with the face on the inside, but then my sleeve or glove has a habit of triggering the buttons and changing the function.

TRgscratch
TRgscratch

@bsalloum @Kenneth Pennuto   As long as "the market" demands the greatest newest thing every month from every vendor, there will be a glut of new technological toys.

Kenneth Pennuto
Kenneth Pennuto

I believe it is less on what the market demands and more what the industry is pushing. You can't tell me that planned obsolescence is not at the core of what drives the market. True innovations comes leaps and bounds faster now, but it would not be as lucrative to the vendors if they have to sustain legacy, well even if legacy is now equal to just a few years versus over 5 as had been the case less than a decade ago. It's about how they can push as much product in as short of time possible. Consider that if everyone bought an iPhone and it did everything the consumer wanted. That would be great for the consumer, but what about the vendor, they spent a fortune to put that product out there and they like recurring revenue. If all consumers were happy with what they have, no one would buy another one. Some of that might be that the consumer says well I wish it would. Also do this....and that. So the vendor should respond in kind....that is fair (In my world). The other side of that coin is the vendor then believes that Everyone needs that new thing, but since we can't add it to the existing platform, well then they can simply force the world to move to the new. It becomes an inevitability that the former regardless of its actual age will be left behind for the sake of profit. Yep I know these companies are in it for profit. But it sucks IMHO that we can't make use of an expensive investment down the road. Like an old car, devalues but is still worth something to an enthusiast. The vendors KNOW, and use it to drive the market. Period.