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Smartwatches don’t impress and here’s why

New smartwatches are emphasizing design and fashion. Thus we get Montblanc’s Summit Collection, which starts out around $900, with a marketing campaign that features Atlanta Falcon Mohamed Sanu.
New smartwatches are emphasizing design and fashion. Thus we get Montblanc’s Summit Collection, which starts out around $900, with a marketing campaign that features Atlanta Falcon Mohamed Sanu. Getty Images for Montblanc

Trying to figure out the next breakout gadget isn’t easy. Consider Google Glass, the digitized eyewear once conceived as a consumer product, and now finding its way to new life as a targeted business tool for everything from factory shop floors to intricate medical procedures.

Sometimes device manufacturers have to explore to identify their market. And for consumers, there has to be a proposition that solves problems. Just what does the new device do for me? Early adopters buy everything in sight from sheer love of the technology – I’m this way about ebook readers – but most people need to justify the purchase with real-world benefits.

Which brings me to the smartwatch. You would think a device that is always on your wrist would be a natural for off-loading some of the digital smarts we use daily on our PCs and other devices. But 2016 wasn’t exactly a watershed for the sale of wearable devices, and despite big players like Apple and Samsung actively pursuing the market, the value smartwatches can unlock remains murky at best. Because it doesn’t look like other wearable products such as fitness tracking bands are going to go away. In fact, International Data Corporation points out that in 2016, fitness bands like FitBit almost caught smartwatches in terms of units shipped.

What’s the problem with smartwatches? Consider the value question from the standpoint of usability. Google Glass didn’t break out as a commercial product because to use it, you had to wear the glasses, and there was an uncomfortable privacy issue that made them socially challenging. If you wear a wristwatch (many of us do not in this era of smartphones), you have the watch on anyway, but you have to charge it on a daily basis. I’m willing to do that with a smartphone considering the many uses available for it, but I balk at charging a watch daily.

We need better battery technology to make this an easier sell. Another issue is the pairing with your smartphone. We may be seeing some daylight on this because Android Wear 2.0 can now run more native apps without needing the smartphone in your pocket. Some but not all Android watches will be getting the update, which keeps the heat on Apple’s watchOS, the operating software for the Apple Watch. Apple Watch Series 2 is now bringing GPS to the wrist. Expect to see watches from both camps increasingly going for independence from the phone.

Stripped down watch apps for popular services like Spotify can leave the basic functionality on your wrist without needing all the bells and whistle of the full smartphone app. And I love the idea of having Google Maps on my wrist instead of on the screen in my pocket. As a user of Google Fit, I might also use the watch app to count my steps and keep up with various fitness statistics, if I didn’t already have all that implemented on my smartphone.

And that’s the key, I think. Smartwatches have tried to sell themselves in terms of convenience, but the difference between smartphone and smartwatch is murky market terrain. I’m not surprised, then, to see smartwatches coming out with a new emphasis on design and fashion. Thus we get the Montblanc Summit, following up on Tag Heuer’s Connected Modular 45.

These are pricey watches (the Montblanc, the cheaper of the two, starts out around $900), but we’re seeing a merger of high tech with fashion companies as manufacturers look to broaden their base. IDC thinks smartwatches now begin to bifurcate, no longer attempting to be all in one products like smartphones but niche products serving not just the early adopter tech market but segments from kids’ watches to athletes and high-end luxury buyers looking to impress.

Somewhere in there smartwatches may impress me enough to buy one, but I’m still looking for something I can do in no other way. And I’m still not seeing it. Time will tell if I’m in one of those niches the smartwatch makers are now exploring as highly targeted watches begin to emerge.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at pag1877@gmail.com.

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