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What's holding smartwatches back, and what can manufacturers do about it?

For this week's Friday Debate we talk about what it will take for smartwatches to go mainstream. What features would make you buy one? Or do you think they will always remain niche?
By
February 13, 2015

For years now, companies have been claiming that wearables will be the “next big thing”. It’s 2015 and wearable devices are still niche at best. With Apple, HTC and likely many other players entering into the game this year, it’s clear that OEMs want wearables to be successful. The problem is that consumer reception is still fairly lukewarm.

For this week’s Friday Debate we talk about what it will take for smartwatches to go mainstream. What features would make you buy one? Or do you think they will always remain niche? Additionally, why do you feel the first generation of wearables (Android Wear, Gear, etc) haven’t taken off in a bigger way?

This week there wasn’t a lot of community responses, though you can check out the official forum thread to read all the responses we received. We will showcase one response this week, however, from the well known community member MasterMuffin.

Mastermuffin

I believe that smartwatches will always remain niche, or at least for a very long time. Personally, absolutely nothing realistic could make me buy a smartwatch as I don’t find anything in them that could justify spending any money whatsoever. Heck, I’m not sure if I’d use one should I get one for free! I do not represent the majority of people though, so why isn’t this new product category gathering more attention?

Part of the reason why smartwatches haven’t caught on is, of course, the one we always like to talk about: Apple. They did a smart thing by announcing their watch so early, because I’m certain it ate the sales of the others by quite a bit. There are plenty of articles that mention Apple Watch when talking about smartwatches and how we should wait and see before making any buying decisions. There’s nothing other manufacturers can do about this. Still, I wonder if even Apple can pull this off. Will their fans really buy anything with an Apple logo?

Another thing that manufacturers simply can’t do is make the hardware good. The technology needed to make a “truly” smart smartwatch just isn’t there yet, at least if you want a reasonably sized watch, and magic is unreliable. And I’m not talking about better batteries as battery life might not be an actual problem, because everyone that I’ve talked with who has a smartwatch has said that you can just charge it at night and all is fine and dandy. What I’m talking about is technology that allows for independent smartwatches with functions like those in sci-fi movies. The current smartwatches feel like feature phones on your wrist!

One feature that could help the sales is compatibility with phones with different operating systems. Samsung’s Tizen-powered watches only work with a handful of Samsung’s own devices, Android Wear only works with Android and the Apple Watch will only work with iOS. Sadly, cross-compatibility is not going to happen in a million years.

My amazing, never-before heard tips for Samsung, HTC, LG etc. are the following: design, advertise, advertise and advertise. You need to make regular folks want to use something they’ve never needed before (and something that’s 110% useless in this writer’s opinion), so the easiest solution is either to make smartwatches fashion items or just to imprint them deep into everyone’s subconsciousness. Better start working on your mind controlling techniques!

What Team AA has to say

Robert Triggs

I believe that usefulness is still the big issue for smartwatches. The benefits are few and difficult to sell to consumers, while the costs are relatively high for, what is essentially, a smartphone accessory.

Currently, Android Wear’s design, which steers watches more towards a notification hub, isn’t providing the substantial boost in functionality that would make a smartwatch truly useful. I’m going to speculate that this may have something to do with why some smartwatch developers, such as HTC and LG, are said to be working on their own smartwatch platforms.

If smartwatches are to become a successful mainstream technology, companies are going to have move beyond fitness gimmicks and smartphone extensions into making watches viable products on their own. SIM-enabled watches will help with this a little, but they’re also going to need better technology in areas such as memory and connectivity. For example, I’d be more inclined to grab a smartwatch and ditch my phone if I could wirelessly listen to music from it or use it as a storage space to carry documents and media around with that I could then beam to other devices.

If I concentrate really hard, I can maybe see smartwatches taking on the role of the social platform, for calls, messaging, email, calendar appointments, etc, while the smartphones take a backseat to provide video and gaming content, if only smartwatches were more flexible in terms of features. But I haven’t seen a company indicate that their product is capable of much more than tracking your steps and duplicating information already available on your phone.

So I’ll continue to pass, for now.

Matthew Benson

Several weeks ago I wrote an opinion piece on why I prefer Samsung’s Tizen over Android Wear smartwatches. Among the various reasons: Gear products, the Gear S especially, have more native functionality and features than Android Wear. This includes everything from a telephone to a contact list to an email application to a calculator, etc.

When I saw the report of Android Wear device sales, the low number shocked me. Considering the platform is compatible with any Android device running Kitkat or higher, that’s a ton of potential users. It’s far different than say, the Gear line, which requires not only a Samsung device, but a compatible Samsung device no less.

Android Wear has the ability to be very successful, but isn’t. Heck, even our readers seem to prefer phone or tablet posts over wearables. Is it the fact that the hardware selection is so limited? Perhaps. Is it because the hardware itself is rather expensive for such a fledgling platform? Certainly a possibility. In reality I think it’s actually a combination of the two, as well as perhaps something more.

While this could be totally wrong, I expect the Apple Watch to sell over a million units the launch weekend. Heck I wouldn’t be surprised if 5 million are sold within the first few months. Does the Apple Watch look fantastic? Not really, though I am quite fond of the Digital Crown and the navigational prowess it claims to possess. No, I believe that the Apple Watch will sell simply because (1) it’s made by Apple, and (2) Apple users are willing to spend more money than those who prefer Android: see any comparison of App Store vs. Play Store sales, or say… Apple’s Q4 2014 earnings report.

I am not trying to characterize Android users as “cheap”, nor am I even implying frugality is bad. One could easily shake their head at Apple customers, who continue to buy products that lack the same hardware capabilities and features as Android. Still, while Android devices have been on a race to the bottom/commodity path, Apple’s prices have remained expensive and exorbitant. Heck just look at the backlash Google received with respect to its Nexus 6 pricing; as if the first three Nexus phones weren’t also expensive. Look at the big winners in 2014: Chinese companies with very low profit margins.

I feel a large part of the problem with Android Wear is that the (relatively) high cost of entry is just too much for consumers. Perhaps they literally don’t have that money to spend, or that Google has failed to substantiate why they should. This goes back to the marketing problem I touched upon with last week’s question. Either the hardware itself needs to get cheaper (and considering Android Wear specs, the existing hardware is seemingly priced way too high just because its new and there isn’t much competition) or else Google needs to do some real promoting and pushing of the platform. Google needs to sell customers on the the idea of a wearable before the hardware will take off.

Andrew Grush

I will start by echoing both Mastermufin and Matthew Benson, in saying that I think that the arrival of the Apple Watch will be a boon for the smartwatch industry. While I’m not so sure that the watch will be as big of a hit as Apple hopes, I think it will get the wearable conversation going. Right now, there are probably a fair number of “regular folks” that know very little about the smartwatch market and what these devices do. Public exposure is important for smartwatches, and something they currently lack. While advertising exists, it’s pretty limited at this stage and I think that’s a big part of why smartwatch sales are still slow going.

Most of the comments from other writers and Mastermuffin were pretty negative, calling out smartwatches (and Android Wear in particular) as useless and very limited. I agree that for some consumers this may be the case, though personally I love my Moto 360 and use it regularly. Does it do anything my phone couldn’t? Technically, no. In reality, I can check emails and other notifications in situations where I otherwise wouldn’t — while jogging, biking, in church, in a meeting, during dinner, etc. It allows me to stay constantly connected without my phone. Glancing quickly at a watch is arguably less rude in circumstances like a movie, meeting or church than pulling out a phone would be.

As for whether or not smartwatches can ever be truly mainstream? I’m not so sure. For now, they will remain niche, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Long-term, I think that smartwatches mainstream potential depends on how much OEMs invest on either design (making watches a fashion accessory) or functionality (making watches more stand-alone and not just for augmenting the smartphone experience).

Now it’s your turn

You’ve heard from both Mastermuffin and Team AA, now it’s your turn. How do you about the current crop of smartwatches? Do you feel that smartwatches will ever go beyond their current niche? We welcome you to leave your responses in the comments below, or you can get even more detailed in the forums.