(Adam Dachis, Flickr)
At this point, it's safe to say that smartwatches aren't catching on.
Despite years of development, new software updates, new hardware, and partnerships with fashion brands, smartwatches haven't hit the mainstream after roughly three years of wide availability. In fact, they've barely even conquered the tech community.
So, why is that?
The New York Times' Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and critic, summed it up succinctly in a recent Times' interview about personal tech. When asked whether smartwatches are ever going to replace normal watches, she replied (emphasis ours):
I am sure they will be at some point, but who knows when that will be? The problem is they just look too much like gadgets — or like wannabe traditional watches. Someone has to come up with a third paradigm. Then whoever does that will be in clover.
What Friedman is saying is that smartwatches haven't caught on yet because we haven't actually invented the right product.
No one knows what they're for
There are concrete issues with smartwatches that cause buyers to quickly tire of their watches, or hold people back from buying them in the first place. Prices for some of the top watches on the market — Apple Watch and Google's new LG watches — start at $249 and can reach up to $1,249 for Apple's ceramic Edition model. And once customers shell out for the watch, battery issues tend to plague those who wear it every day, since most smartwatches last for less than 24 hours before needing to be charged up again.
Plus, the interface remains a problem on watchOS and Android Wear alike. Trying to use the watch as a tiny touchscreen phone remains challenging, not-quite-intuitive, and error-prone.
Those issues are likely contributing to the smartwatch industry's flat growth. Last December, eMarketer, a research firm, slashed its estimates of people using wearable technology. Just 39.5 million American adults used a wearable at least monthly in 2015, it estimated — versus its previous forecast for the year of 63.7 million.
Overall, eMarketer estimated that the market grew 24.7%, versus its prediction of 60%, and a boom isn't right around the corner, either: In 2016, 15.8% of Americans use smartwatches — by 2020, eMarketer predicts that number will only have grown to 21.1%.
"Without a clear use case for smart watches—which have more features than fitness trackers, but significant overlap with smartphone functionality—the more sophisticated, expensive devices have not caught on as quickly as expected," eMarketer analyst Cathy Boyle told Business Insider last year.
The problem is that companies making smartwatches can't quite figure out what they should be: should they replace fitness trackers, cell phones, or simply behave like normal wristwatches with a few tech features built in? This confuses people, and it makes them not want to buy.
A third paradigm
This confusion among the smartwatch market is clearly exemplified by the smartwatches on sale right now. On one hand, you have the Apple Watch, which is practically a bat signal that you're a nerd with money to burn. Those who have it apparently love it, but there are plenty of people who bought one and have stopped using it, not to mention an entire subset of people would wouldn't be caught dead with one on their wrist.
A prime example: Last Christmas, when my dad was considering buying my older sister an Apple Watch, she begged me to steer him in another direction. While touched that he wanted to buy her such a nice gift, she told me (in effect) that she thought she'd never be asked out while wearing an Apple Watch.
In contrast to the Apple Watch, LG last month released the LG Watch Style, a smartwatch disguised as a regular wristwatch. It's sleek, minimalist, and it doesn't scream "I have a 512 MB RAM on my wrist." It is the essence of the "wannabe traditional watch" Friedman describes.
While I was initially impressed with the LG Watch Style specifically for its fashion sense, I confess that I lost interest in it after a few days and it went back in its box.
The reality is, most tech companies don't know enough about fashion to create something people will actually want to wear, and most fashion brands don't know enough about technology to build a device worth owning. The result is smartwatches that are both confused and confusing, which only add to the surfeit of devices we already carry around.
So what's the solution? Maybe it's the "third paradigm" that Friedman suggests: a wearable that is neither watch nor gadget, and somehow combines both usefulness and style. It would have to be something that appeals to the tech-obsessed, the fashionable, and everyone in between, and contains only the features you need and none of the things you don't. Whoever figures that out will be, as Friedman says, "in clover."
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