Smart watches are stupid

It will take more than hot air to power the next big thing.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 27 Apr 2017

For the record, I’ve always thought smart watches were rather stupid. What’s the point, I mused when I tried one on for the first time, of strapping a tiny smart phone to your wrist when there’s a full-sized one in your pocket?

Several years on, and the much-hyped Next Big Thing seems to be running out of steam somewhat (or should that be hot air?). Global smart watch sales were 21.1 million in 2016, according to Strategy Analytics, only 1% up from 2015. To put that in perspective, global smart phone sales crept up in the same period - to 1.5 billion.

You’d think that would be that, then. Hype over. Time to move onto the next Next Big Thing, smart hedges or wifi-enabled toothbrushes. Except that would be to ignore the fervour of the true believers.

‘It’s just a blip,’ one smart-watch-clad friend told me. ‘Once the price goes down and people get used to them, they’ll be everywhere, you wait and see.’

Despite the evident lack of progress so far, there are still many very knowledgeable people who think the world-domination of the smart watch is still just a few years away. Research firm IDC, for instance, predicts sales to triple by 2020 as lower prices, better design and mobile connectivity move smart watches beyond just brand loyalists and tech heads.

I’ll believe it when I see it. There are so many good reasons why the smart watch isn’t going to be the next smart phone. To become a part of the fabric of our lives, a technology needs to be widely, deeply, uniquely useful, and that usefulness has to far outweigh the cash and the faff required to own and run it.

To put it in perspective, throughout the last 500 years there have only been three inventions that we’ve been convinced to carry around with us all the time – glasses, the watch and smart phones. That’s it.

For the smart watch to join that list, it either has to replace the smart phone or replace the watch, in the latter case by doing something of real value that the other two cannot. Neither is likely.

As a smart device, the phone beats the watch hands down. Getting email, sending messages, checking the news, finding a date, using a map, making a call, watching cat videos on YouTube – all of these are far worse experiences when you’re on a tiny screen.

Voice activation is something of an equalising factor, but most people don’t want to have a conversation with their watch (or their phone for that matter) in public. Some things are just best kept to ourselves – when was the last time you heard someone ‘ask Siri’ to recommend a haemorrhoid cream in front of a busload of people? No, didn’t think so.

The only thing smart watches do better is health and fitness tracking, but remember here the market leader Fitbit doesn’t have a screen at all (meaning it’s not actually a smart watch). 

A smart watch or a smarter watch?

Could the smart watch replace the regular watch instead? Yes and no. People wear watches as accessories more than to tell the time. (We know, because everyone who owns a watch also owns a smart phone that they check 200 times a day, and which also tells the time.)

If the smart watch is competing as an accessory or status symbol with traditional watches, it will probably fail. By its nature, a hi-tech product becomes less desirable over time, as it becomes obsolete; a good Swiss watch, on the other hand, is timeless.

Where it might succeed is if traditional watches become ‘smarter’, integrating some technology into their design in an unobtrusive kind of way, or if smart watches start looking more traditional. In which case, is it really the Next Big Thing at all, or just an Old Big Thing with bells on?

A true believer would dismiss this as a cynical lack of vision, an inability to imagine a different future. In between refreshing sips of Kool Aid, they would point to the countless essential technologies that were ridiculed when they first came out (the plough? It’ll never take off).

What they will not look at are the equally innumerable, just largely forgotten, ideas that never came to anything. Last time I checked, we weren’t all riding around in Segways, listening to our minidisc players, knocking back nutrition pills in lieu of dinner. Even ebooks have failed to turn the page, sticking at around 25% market share, rather than replacing their paper rivals.

They will point to the millions of ‘early adopters’ like themselves, as proof that the conversion of the masses is near at hand, not realising that there’s a very thin line between an early adopter and an only adopter. Smart watches may be impressive gadgets, but just because we can do something impressive with technology, doesn’t mean most people will want to buy it.

Of course, I could be wrong. In the future, a screen on the wrist may be as common as a screen in the pocket is today. Only time will tell...

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