Are SmartWatches Truly Gamechangers?

I’ve been using smartwatches off-and-on for the last year or so. I started with Pebbles, then moved to an Apple Watch. But what have been my experiences? Are these things really gamechangers?

The Next Big Thing?

Some have touted smartwatches as “the next big thing”, the next multi-billion dollar industry, the device that pushes the smartphone down a run in the technology food chain. The arguments vary, but the usual conclusion is that everyone will want, and even need, a smartwatch, and that in time it might even replace our smartphone.

Part of the “replace the smartphone” argument appears to be based on the assumption that smartphones are going to get physically bigger, and become more of a tablet and less of a phone. Is this really the case? I’m not convinced. My guess is that smartphones will reach some peak in terms of size, and then will stabilize and may even start to shrink again.

But the smartwatch as phone has some problems. First, it simply doesn’t have enough battery to last more than an hour or so (maybe even just a few minutes) when running an LTE radio. The screen is too small to be useful beyond some very, very basic input. And you have to use it as a speakerphone. Sure, you could use a headset, but I can do that with my smartphone. The watch doesn’t make that better.

What Do They Do Then?

For me, I’ve found that smartwatches are a way to avoid digging my phone out every time “something important happens”. The Pebble showed promise, but the Apple Watch has been more useful. I’ve worn it consistently for over a month now, and I like it better. Why better? Because I can tune what alerts I get on the Apple Watch. With the Pebble, it was “if it’s on the home screen, it’s on the watch”. But I have alerts that I want on the phone (to scan when I have a moment) that I don’t want on the watch. The Apple Watch gives me that.

Beyond alerts and reminding me to move around from time to time, and obviously being a watch to tell the time, the Apple Watch hasn’t been a game changer for me. My current reaction is “hmm”, not “oh, wow, where has this been all these years!?”. The smartphone was a big leap forward for me (my first was a Blackberry). The iPhone took it to another level, adding a level of utility that the Blackberry didn’t perform as well. But the Apple Watch hasn’t really been a huge deal for me. I’ve made a habit of wearing it now, but if I forgot to put it on, I might not notice. I can’t say that I can recommend any smartwatch without reservations.

Basically, smartwatches have been a handy assistant to a phone, providing notification, the time and as a fitness tracker. But I could live without the notifications if it came down to it. I’m surrounded by clocks and having to use my phone as pocket watch isn’t a big deal. I get can a fitness tracker for far cheaper than any smartphone. It’s handy having a single device, but I don’t see it as a gamechanger.

Sales of these things would seem to bear that out. Prior to the Apple Watch, there were, maybe, 2 million smartwatches in use globally (when compared to about 1 billion smartphones and 2-3 billion mobile phones in total). Estimates place Apple Watch sales somewhere around 8-10 million units. Unit sales of these devices don’t appear to be on a massive upward trajectory. For context, consider that about 1.2 billion watches are sold each year.

The Challenges for Smartwatches

The smartwatch has some challenges for it to truly be “the next big thing”, some of which probably can’t be overcome. Consider, first, that there is a generation that has essentially stopped wearing wristwatches entirely. Basically, the trend was away from the wristwatch and back to the pocket watch, for everyday use. The “average person” has been using pocket watches starting in the mid-1700’s, so about 250 years.

The wristwatch as we know it was a 20th century invention, becoming common on men’s wrists starting with the Great War. A wristwatch was a standard-issue item for men in the British army starting in 1917, and really didn’t gain ground until the 1930’s. Wristwatches have only been “common” for less than a century. Pocket watch use declined, but never went away entirely. The rise of the smartphone has, essentially, brought it back. Smartwatches need to convince a generation that has abandoned the wristwatch to reconsider.

But for those who do wear watches, they want something with a long lifespan. A smartwatch is, by design, a short-lived device when compare to a regular watch. I have cheap Timex watches that I bought over a decade ago that I still use. I also have some nicer watches that I’ve owned for 20 years or more. People own watches that came from their grandparents and great-grandparents. A watch, for many, isn’t a disposable item, but something that they expect to last decades. Try using a personal computer built in the 1980’s, and you’ll understand the challenges of keeping obsolete technology relevant.

If smartwatches don’t evolve a game-changing function or set of functions, or see some kind of fundamental change in underlying technology, I don’t see them being more than a fashion accessory for a select few. Unless they go down in price drastically (like become 1/10th or even 1/100th the price, more like a cheap Timex than priced like a Rolex), or are somehow upgradeable, smartwatches may see a plateau and then possibly a decline in sales.

In My Future?

Will I get the next Apple Watch? Possibly, but I’ll see. I waited several months before giving the current version a try, if only to see if it dealt some of the issues I had with my Pebble. I hadn’t originally planned on getting an Apple Watch. It’s been nice, but not something I’d miss if I didn’t have it with me. It’s weird going out the door without my phone. I don’t have that same feeling with a watch (smart or otherwise).

Let’s see how these thing evolve in the future. For me, I may find that I go watch-less again, or go back to a basic “tells the time and not much else” watch. Smartwatches are interesting, but I just don’t see them as a game changer, at least for me.