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.

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By Steve Ranger

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic. An award-winning journalist, Steve writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture, and regularly appears on TV and radio discussing tech issues. Previously he was th...