Secondary screens isn't it

Have we figured out what we want in a smartwatch yet?

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Next month will be the one-year anniversary of Google’s smartwatch platform introduction. And the month after that will see the Apple Watch ship to its first buyers. While smartwatches have been around for far longer, it’s only been the last year or two where they’ve become viable enough for mainstream consumers to even consider purchasing.

I’m not sure we’re any closer to knowing what we want from these wearable devices though, or rather if we’re at a point where smartwatches are compelling enough to generate hundreds of millions of sales. That’s partly why I wasn’t surprised to see reports of only 720,000 Android Wear devices shipped in 2014. There are other reasons of course: the first devices only started shipping in the middle of the year and the platform is brand new. But I think the central stumbling block to sales is convincing people that a smartwatch is worth buying.

Table stakes and notifications aren’t enough

At the moment, all of these devices offer what I’d call “table stakes” or the minimum you’d expect. That means they all have clock, alarm and stopwatch functions, for example. Of course, I’d hope a watch could actually tell the time, so this is pretty basic and obvious. Not all of them show the time constantly though, in order to save battery life.

Google I/O Motorola 360 smart watch

The second functional level is pretty much there as well: Notifications. This is where the smartwatch receives texts, emails, incoming call info and other app data from the connected phone. Android Wear is pretty good at that, the [company]Apple[/company] Watch will support these nuggets of information as well. And third-party smartwatches can do this too: Earlier this week, Pebble added full Android Wear notification support for its watches.

Health tracking helps a little

Telling time and having actionable notifications that you already have on the phone in your pocket isn’t enough though. Enter health tracking functions, which are handled through the sensors in these devices for the wrist. Nearly all have an accelerometer and/or gyroscope to track steps, movement and exercise. That’s a start.

Sony SmartWatch 3

Add in heart-rate monitors and you get more depth into the captured health data. Some, such as the Android Wear smartwatch I bought, include a dedicated GPS. Now we’re getting somewhere, because the Sony Smartwatch 3 breaks away from the connected phone for some functions and works as a standalone device.

Standalone devices vs. accessories

And that brings me to the crux of the problem when it comes to cracking the code for massive smartwatch sales: Most of the devices currently or soon available aren’t standalone devices. You need a [company]Google[/company] Android phone for nearly all of the functions an Android Wear watch provides. The same holds true for the Apple Watch; you’ll need an iPhone to use the watch.

Apple Unveils iPhone 6

So the question becomes: How do you convince consumers to spend $200, $300 or more for device that is an accessory to the phone? I think that’s the biggest obstacle here before the smartwatch market can ever tout sales of 100 million or more devices.

Context is a plus, but is it enough?

Google has a bit of an edge here with Android Wear because it takes advantage of its own Google Now service. This provides contextual notifications that are optimized for consumption at a glance; precisely the type of useful information that works well on a watch and something I hoped for months before Google announced Android Wear.

Got a meeting coming? Your watch reminds you in advance. Is there traffic now that could impact travel time to your job? The watch will let you know. Essentially, Google Now on the wrist tells you things you need to know that you didn’t need you know. Although Apple’s Siri can’t do this yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets an upgrade for the Apple Watch and this becomes a “killer feature” of the device.

Joanna Stern Google Now

Even so, this contextual conversation with timely, personal reminders still relies on the smartphone you already have, in which case you can get the same information and reminders from that phone. I’m hoping the Wi-Fi radio in my Sony Smartwatch 3 cuts that cord a little in the future. For now, we have to remember that smartwatches of today are still secondary to the phones we already have.

Are apps the answer?

Mobile apps helped propel smartphone adoption but I’m not yet sold that it will do the same for smartwatches. Sure, it’s handy to use an app optimized for the wrist when the phone is in your pocket. Does it add a tremendous amount of value? I’m not convinced; at least not yet.

There’s a convenience factor but it’s pretty limited. For the moment, these apps are simply a way to interact differently — and usually less so — with their full-featured smartphone cousins. App makers are also constrained on smartwatches with limited hardware and screen space; at a time when phones are getting bigger and there’s more room to work with, developers have to pick, choose and cram functions into a smartwatch app, often just mirroring similar information from the phone.

Pushing data from one screen to another isn’t worth $200 or more for most consumers. So it’s early days for this market and until we can find some other features or functions we want in a smartwatch — and device makers have the technology to implement them — this market is still one for high-priced accessories where the value proposition isn’t yet compelling for most people.

26 Responses to “Have we figured out what we want in a smartwatch yet?”

  1. Franco Camacho

    I can actually use my Samsung Gear S without my phone all day. I can receive phone calls and messages. I can also play simple games, watch videos, listen to music (with Bluetooth headphones) and use HERE maps to get me home. I admit the HERE maps needs a lot of improvement, but is sure a step to the right direction. It also has a bunch of other stuff I probably forgot to mention, but is sure worth it giving it a try.

  2. This is a very good point and I’m happy to read specialists who dare to open the debate. Some products are now developed as follow-up accessories from core devices when they could deliver more or be used totally differently. The point is to go back from scratch to understand whet untapped breakthrough a new device could answer, instead of simply improving existing devices performance (and we are sometimes only talking about sales performance).

  3. simon howarth

    My requirements are for a stand alone device enabling you to leave the handset at home. If when a watch is paired it assumes the id of the paired handset and takes over from it when the phone is switched off and would then receive texts, whatsapp and calls I would be happy! I wouldn’t have to carry a brick of a phone around with me to stay in touch. I don’t want email, I don’t want health apps, just the convenience of still being contactable. If I am going to need maps I would take the handset. Get rid of all the junk to make space for a bigger battery and give us a decent stand alone device. it doesn’t have to do everything, there are plenty of health/running gadgets already, Just a basic phone that works!
    With my present phone in my pocket I cant lift my leg up to the bumper of the car to change my boots when walking the dog, humping a bloated phone about is an inconvenience! It seems the present “smartwatch” designers are not too smart when it comes to knowing what is actually wanted! Who wants to have to hump a 6″X3″ phone about on an evening out, and who needs email or health apps at those times?
    When someone makes a functional stand alone device it will sell in quantity!

  4. I got one of the first Fitbit Surge’s on the market, and I’m glad I did. It allowed me to toss the HR monitor with a strap I used before, I can see steps, stairs climbed, calories burned, distance on walks/runs/bike rides etc. I have notifications turned off, although I sometimes use to look at a last text message. But in general, I want LESS annoyance from my devices, not more. I use it to collect data that serves my objectives, not as another advertising/attention channel for endless distraction.

  5. One overlooked essential feature in Watches (for me), would be making them personal digital keys to authenticate and unlock your other devices, provide access, unlock your car and start it. Being one’s personal authentication device, can change many industries from payment to IDentification. The obvious features discussed in this article, is not what Apple designed the Watch for!

  6. Yes. Currently smart watches are quite non essential. As more and more things get “smart” it will make more sense as smart watches will be the most convenient way to interact with everything from locks, car ignitions, cash registers, tv’s etc. I think the whole concept of smart watches is mainly 1) as data collection devices and 2) as the main control device to securely engage with smart devices and 3) to keep people constantly distracted by sending an incessant stream of silly notifications.

  7. Byron Bennett

    We want the smartwatch and smartphone to switch roles where the smartphone connects to the smartwatch brain like the watch is doing today. It’s just a bigger screen for reading, gaming, and web browsing. The watch is standalone and phone calls and has the power of the phone, just not the screen. The phone is not a completely dumb terminal, but handles the functions you need a big screen for.

  8. j mullens

    New Timex- Highlighting these features —

    + Stand-alone wireless network connectivity without being tethered to a phone

    • Email-based messaging capabilities

    • Always-on, touchscreen Qualcomm® Mirosol® display, sunlight-readable, high-resolution touch display

    • Built-in MP3 component with 4 GB of memory to play music via a Bluetooth headset

  9. j mullens

    Timex Fitness-Focused Smartwatch Now Available for Purchase TIMEX® IRONMAN® ONE GPS+ Offers Stand-Alone Connectivity without a Phone; Developed in Close Collaboration with Qualcomm and AT&T
    MIDDLEBURY, Conn., Feb. 20, 2015 /PRNewswire/ — Timex, the iconic leader in outdoor and sports performance timepieces, has officially launched the TIMEX® IRONMAN® ONE GPS+, offering consumers stand-alone wireless network connectivity without being tethered to a phone.
    Timex is simplifying the wearable technology experience for all users, as TIMEX® IRONMAN® ONE GPS+ gives consumers the freedom to remain connected during any activity while leaving their phones and music devices behind.
    Providing new solutions for fitness activities and for any other instance when carrying a phone is not ideal, TIMEX® IRONMAN® ONE GPS+ includes a series of game-changing features, including:
    • Stand-alone wireless network connectivity without being tethered to a phone
    • Email-based messaging capabilities
    • Tracking capabilities that communicate the user’s location to friends and family anytime, anywhere
    • Custom-built “Find Me Mode” safety solution, which allows users to send an alert with exact location in case of an emergency
    • Ability to track speed, distance and pace in real-time and instantaneously share performance metrics through your favorite social media and online fitness platforms
    • Water resistance up to 50 meters, an essential feature for water exposure, training in the rain or swimming
    • Built-in MP3 component with 4 GB of memory to play music via a Bluetooth headset
    • Always-on, touchscreen Qualcomm® Mirosol® display, sunlight-readable, high-resolution touch display
    • One year of free data connectivity by AT&T included for U.S. and Canadian subscribers (second year will cost $40.00 for data connectivity)

  10. Anyone else think a (an almost) basic feature of the AppleWatch should be FaceTime? Some video-calling version option is on (almost) every phone now. Would u think it’d be easy enough to impliment? They may be using camera space for extra battery instead of offering video calling? Prob be avail on AppleWatch2… Or whatever they’re gonna call it. The 2nd iteration is always better (original iPhone to iPhone 3G, iPad to ipad2, etc). Still a (albeit desperate) reason I’m gonna need to use to keep me from running out and picking up one of these bad boys!!

  11. David Hroncheck

    Over the past five years, I’ve tried with no success to fit a connected smartwatch into my life. I always saw potential, but the concepts were never polished or complete. Potentially, Apple Watch provides the best value proposition and could have success where others fall short. My reasoning:

    Ecosystem; not just apps but Handoff, Continuity and third party hardware. If it isn’t done on the watch, apps and Bluetooth LE peripherals from sensors to iBeacon will enhance UX. With Android, you need the right combo of handset, watch and apps for BLE sensors. ID Authentication; not just Apple Pay but as an extension of TouchID, a significant point of differentiation, imo. Notifications will be on par with competitors, better with Handoff. Google Now is mostly effective for data I don’t want to share. Sandboxed Siri is fine with me, she does a lot, reliably. Contextually-automated workflows are possible with several 3rd party apps in iOS. Support; competitors have limited match for AppleCare and services that come with Apple Stores.

    Besides the above, for me, I’ve been seeking a replacement for my Polar sport watch. All proprietary, monochromatic watch face, no apps, expensive closed ecosystem, one data destination. $500 before peripherals, low resale value. Apple Watch with HeathKit and apps will do all my Polar can, even if I have to carry my phone, but I always do that anyway. Pebble has come the closest for displaying run stats well from select iPhone apps, but it’ll never integrate as well, or look as good (Retina), as an Apple Watch. Battery life is a concern, but with nothing official, a day of minimal use and three hours running is what I need.

    No more 3rd party UI/API compromises and signing EULA’s which trade data for enhanced UX. Critics say Apple locks you in, I say they provide a Universe with unmatched modularity and support that I’m happy to pay for.

  12. It’s an accessory and not a stand a lone. Once you use a smartwatch you know why. Anything that takes more than a few seconds to do on your watch is much more annoying that pulling out your phone. It’s an under 2″ display and it kind of requires both your arms behing held up. For quick interactions it’s great. But to do anything longer it’s just dumb.

    • Exactly. Look, I already have a Personal Area Network with an Internet gateway: my phone. I don’t want another one (otherwise they’ll wind up competing — inconsistently — for my attention). That was the problem with my Google Glass: it wanted to be my interface to FB and Google+, but I’d already configured my phone to do that.

      We need to stop thinking of “wearables” as distinct, autonomous devices, and focus on the Personal Area Network, and what capabilities we want it to deliver, and what are the best devices to connect to the PAN to fulfill those needs. Holistic systems thinking, please!

  13. The Pebble fits the bill nicely right now. Battery life is at least 3 days (I haven’t let it run down), the price is right (sub-$100), and the most important apps — notification, health monitoring, calendar, quick response — are efficient and intuitive. It pretty much replaced my Google Glass.

  14. You should really check Gear S… You never speak about this one, and I don’t understand why… It’s simply the best smart watch on the market… It’s doing exactly what sony smartwatch is doing plus much more (3G, calls transfert, etc etc) you can trully forget your phone at home…

  15. I think battery power and price are the main two issues companies need to solve. Batteries need to last at least a week and the price needs to be below a hundred for basic watch, notifications and health tracking. But in light of Lenovo’s Superfish debacle Motorola and its beautiful 360 is a ruined brand. This might be wearable’s biggest issue, you don’t get use customers as your product!