Over The Past Five Years, SmartWatches Have Gone From A Futuristic Novelty To A Flashy Product On The Roster Of Nearly Every…
major phone maker as well as other tech and fashion companies. But what do the next five years look like for smartwatches?
Plenty of people own and wear smartwatches. A January 2020 Pew Research study found that one in five adult Americans use a smartwatch or fitness tracker. Revenue for smartwatches globally grew 20% from 2019 to 2020, and the market is expected to increase 14.5% between 2019 and 2024. Despite the high price tags of its watches, Apple is leading the pack, grabbing half of all smartwatch revenue. That was before the company launched the impressive but expensive Apple Watch Series 6 ($399 — $799), and the more affordable $279 Apple Watch SE on Tuesday (Although $279 isn’t exactly pocket change…).
But smartwatches as an essential? They’re not at the level of a necessity — yet. Compare the 1 in 5 Americans who wear something smart on their wrists with the 96 percent of Americans who own cellphones or the 81 percent who own smartphones. Smartwatches are still a nice-to-have accessory, not a must-have piece of tech. Companies like Apple who are focusing on health are just now figuring out how to message them effectively to consumers. But will it be enough?
“It is a category that’s difficult for manufacturers to sell because it’s one of those product types that until you use it, you don’t recognize the utility,” Michael Fisher, who runs the technology reviews YouTube channel Mr.Mobile, said. “I think the product category is worth something. Essential? Probably not, but certainly valuable. And it comes down to how clearly these companies can spell out those messages with regard to how many they’re going to ship.”
Here’s what it will take for smartwatches to make the jump to the wrists of more people around the world.
An actually competitive, differentiated market. Looking at you, Google.
Currently, there are three types of companies making smartwatches: device makers like Apple, Garmin, and Samsung, watchmakers like Fossil, and smartwatch-only companies like Mobvoi. While analysts and reviewers credit companies like Samsung and Huawei with interesting products, Apple just doesn’t have much viable competition. Apple Watches are expensive — its new “affordable” watch is nearly $300 — and require users to also have iPhones. That excludes a huge percentage of the market, and keeps the category back as a whole.
The lack of competition is largely thanks to Google’s bungling of its Wear OS, since most non-Apple smartwatches need to run on some form of an Android platform.
“If you want a ‘smartwatch,’ and you don’t want an Apple Watch, yes you’re most likely going to be buying a Wear OS device, and the thing Wear OS needs to do more consistently is just do what it says it’s going to do,” Fisher said.
Wear OS users have reported problems with Bluetooth connectivity, Google Assistant actually functioning, and un-updated, languishing core apps. Those consistency and performance problems plaguing Wear OS are affecting the smartwatch market as a whole. What’s more, Wear OS watches aren’t cheap themselves. The starting price for Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 is $399, and the Wear OS-based Withings’ Scanwatch (which has health and tracking features, but only previews phone notifications and doesn’t send messages or take calls), is €279.95 (about $330).
If Wear OS were more viable, actually smart smartwatches at different price points could be a reality. Cheaper watches are necessary for a product to become truly ubiquitous. Alas, that’s not the case.
“Google has kind of allowed Wear OS to falter,” Anshel Sag, an analyst specializing in wearables at Moor Insights & Strategy, said. “A big component in the lack of competitiveness is a lack of consistency across the ecosystem. It’s fragmented because Google hasn’t unified the ecosystem, because not many companies fully trust the platform itself.”
If Wear OS played in the same league as Apple, customers would have much more choice in terms of price and what sorts of features a smartwatch emphasized. Google announced updates coming to Wear OS this past August. But will it be enough? Until Google gets it together, the future of a robust smartwatch market is out of reach.
Variety in the looks department
Why has the dream of a sexy, classic-looking watch with intuitive smart features not come to fruition? Again, it’s a problem with Wear OS. Take the $995 Montblanc Summit 2: a beautiful, brand-name watch — with underwhelming technical performance, according to Fisher.
Perhaps, if Android-based watches were more impressive, people who didn’t want to replace traditional-looking watches — whether a Rolex or a beloved and affordable Timex or Swatch — could become smartwatch users. As it stands now, a lack of visual and pricing variety is holding smartwatches back.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that these are fashion devices,” Fisher said. “The Apple Watch is a fantastic product, but you can only get it in one essential style. If you want an Apple Watch, you have to wear what looks like a mini iPhone on your wrist.”
Internet access included, not as an add-on
One of the most enticing aspects of a smartwatch is being able to use “smart” features like getting messages or listening to music when you don’t have your phone with you (say, on a run). However, this is something users have to pay extra for on their phone bill – an extra $100 per year on top of the purchase price, in the case of the Apple Watch. Positioning a smartphone as an added monthly expense holds it back from both being perceived as something essential, and something users will actually pay for.
“Paying for a watch on a monthly basis for a data connection — when 90% of the time it’s just served by your phone — seems really extraneous to a lot of folks,” Fisher said. “I think it would be really cool to see a smartwatch company come up with, or a carrier come up with, a bundle where you pay this flat rate up front and now you don’t have to worry about it every month.”
Voice assistants that work
In advertisements, the image of going about your day while you whisper to your smart assistant to do your bidding — make a call, lock the house, schedule an appointment — seems oh-so-convenient. If only it were actually so.
Fisher described a frustrating experience trying to use Google Assistant on a Wear OS-based watch. While Google Assistant itself is one of the better smart assistants out there, the watch’s interface just didn’t work: It said it was listening, but then nothing would happen.
“By the time you’re done with all this crap, you could have just pulled out your phone to get the weather forecast that way,” Fisher said.
Apple Watch is better at connecting its users to Siri. Unfortunately, Siri’s ability to be actually helpful is lacking to say the least (Siri is a notoriously bad smart assistant).
Managing life with just your voice is a big draw for a smartwatch. But the pieces just haven’t come together yet.
“They have to become more intelligent and have better smart assistant capabilities and deeper integration with smartphones,” Sag said. “The Apple Watch is great, but Siri sucks, so it makes it less valuable. Google Assistant is great, but Wear OS sucks, so that makes it less valuable. So whoever manages to bring the assistant capabilities with competent healthcare and fitness will be the ultimate winner.”
People tracking, but make it not creepy
At its recent event, Apple introduced a new Apple Watch feature called Family Setup. This lets parents assign watches to kids and the elderly, without them needing iPhones of their own. It’s a bellwether of one component of the smartwatch industry that could push more widespread adoption. It’s called people tracking, where adults can use watches to keep track of their kids or aging family members.
“There’s a part of the market that’s growing today that’s a people tracker,” Sag said. “It’s a huge part of the market now, in China and other countries.”
One obvious problem: privacy. The FTC has already punished some kid smartwatch companies for not complying with digital child safety regulations, and one watch was even recalled over privacy concerns in the EU.
Despite these concerns, Sag sees “kid watches” as big business for smartwatch companies. It’s one way parents can keep track of kids while children get a handy way to send messages or listen to music, sans expensive smartphone.
“It’s a matter of time until someone creates a very secure, private kid watch,” Sag said.
Even more healthcare
The initial pitch of the Apple Watch and other smartwatches was to have easier access to notifications and other sorts of phone mirroring. But today, the proof of the Apple Watch is in the pudding: smartwatches are catching on as health devices. Apple continues to lean into healthcare features, at a time when remote health monitoring is becoming increasingly important. It’s also an easier and more enticing value proposition to wrap your head around than simply a smaller mirror of your phone.
The original positioning of “get a little mini phone screen on your wrist,” as Fisher put it, hasn’t been as effective a sell as healthcare.
“People weren’t motivated enough, or the advantage wasn’t communicated well enough to make people buy it,” Fisher said, talking of the original positioning of smartwatches. “Apple started that way, and then leaned into apps, and then immediately kind of pivoted to health. And that seems to have helped people part with their money. A lot.”
Apple is undertaking several studies that will enable medical institutions to either prove or disprove the value of the watch. That could be a huge draw — especially in predictive medicine, for example if they end up helping predict the onset of diseases like COVID-19. Other companies are adding health features, and Google is trying to get into the game with its acquisition of Fitbit, which makes its own smartwatch. All this points to the future of smartwatches: Health is the gateway to ubiquity.
“The healthcare purpose is taking over, and the healthcare aspects of these smartwatches are what’s driving the innovation, differentiation, and what’s driving the utility of it, other than the notifications, and calls,” Sag said. “As smartwatches become more healthcare focused, I think it’s only a matter of time until they become a necessity.”
This news was originally published at mashable.com