Smartwatches are big business now. They have been for awhile and those who follow tech news a little closer will already be well-versed on smartwatches in general. However, in spite of being ‘big news’ they are still a long, long, long way away from becoming mainstream and without sounding egotistical, I am one of the reasons. Well not me alone, but people like me, as in spite of being heavily involved in the smartphone world and well aware of the developments in smartwatches and wearables, I have little motivation to actually pick one up. In fact, even for free, there is little motivation to wear one. So if there are people like me who understand the technology, the progress, the benefits and who are still not convinced to wear, let alone buy, a smartwatch – then how can they penetrate the wider mainstream market?
For the sake of clarity, we are focusing here on smartwatches, as fitness trackers and other wearables do have unique selling points and while it is clear that some people love wearing a smartwatch, love the quick access to notifications, the ability to depend less on their smartphone. For those consumers they fill a niche. But for the wider market, smartwatches do not have a selling point yet. While they are ‘smart’, they are not quite smart enough to not be dependent on smartphones. Yes, some are becoming more standalone, but even those, have very little to offer a smartphone owner. While smartphones are commonplace, the use of a standalone smartwatch has minimal value. It has some value, but minimal and some is not enough to sell to the mainstream markets. No one is going to walk into a Best Buy or a Currys with the intention of buying a smartphone and buying a smartwatch instead. They may find themselves buying both, but the watch does not supersede the phone – even if it has the capabilities to act alone. So standalone is not a sell-able feature to the mass market on its own.
The next major issue smartwatches have to get past is their general design and quality of build. While smartwatches are becoming more attractive, the emphasis here is on more, not attractive. Traditionally speaking, watches are about attraction and to the traditional watch wearer (myself included), they are a form of jewelry. They are worn to complement a look or a style or to emphasize a taste of sorts. If you are more retro, then you will be more inclined towards something like the Casio F-91W for instance. So while the traditional market is full of watch designs and looks which are suited to individual tastes, the smartwatch market has one look – geek. Some may view them as geek chic, but that is a debate for another day and the overriding point is that they are universally techie in their general appearance. Some have looked to adopt more of a fashionable stance with their design, although, these are also the options which tend to come at the expense of functionality. Essentially highlighting the current predicament for manufacturers – how to create something which packs in a big enough display to read from and health-related sensors, while also being attractive. An issue which is proving much harder than many probably expected.
Speaking of which, the features is also an issue when appealing to the wider market. Besides getting into the whole thing of whether you should buy an iOS, Tizen or Android-powered smartwatch, convincing a mass market that a software-driven smartwatch is worth buying is a hard task. Speaking as a traditional watch wearer, watches are to tell the time with. That is it. While smartphones now do this, people do not always have their smartphone in their hand, but they do tend to always have a watch on their wrist. Hence, the watch adds value, in spite of more devices offering access to the core functionality of a watch, the time. While the same argument could be made for smartwatches – that they offer access to notifications, basic information, and health-related data during the times when a smartphone is not in-hand, selling those features to a general market is far harder than selling ‘time’. While most people do always want/need to know the time, they do not always have to have up-to-the-minute access to their notifications or their heart-rate. And for the consumers that do want such immediately responsive access, they are the niche markets, not the mainstream ones. While smartwatches offer the time like traditional watches and offer more functionality than traditional watches, they are still far less attractive, less varied in their design and to many people, simply overkill. That all said, the mainstream market could evolve and these could become important features to the masses, but the one thing that smartwatches cannot get around is battery life. And to be clear, we are not talking about extending battery life beyond a day or two. or wireless of fast charging, we are talking about real battery life.
When it comes to traditional watches, the times have changed dramatically over the last few decades. Gone are the days where you needed to buy a watch battery to power your Casio digital watch for the next nine months. Instead, the market has moved much more toward other options like kinetic watches. Ones which effectively never require manual charging or even battery replacements. Kinetic watches make use of the movement of the person to ensure the watch remains charged at all times. While this could be something that would benefit smartphones in general, the difference between a smartphone and a watch is that your smartphone is not always moving. However, your wrist tends to be. So just normal daily activities is more than enough to produce enough kinetic energy to fuel a watch for the rest of the day. A process which now means that traditional watch wearers never need to worry about battery life again. In fact, you can leave a kinetic watch in a drawer for months and although it will stop, it will take a matter of seconds to set the time, shake the watch and have it ready to go again. Pop it back on your wrist and before the day is out, your watch is back to its optimum level – as if it had never stopped in the first place. Try shaking your smartwatch and see how far that gets you…
While the battery level needed to sufficiently power a smartphone is so great (and getting greater), you are unlikely to be able to produce enough energy through kinetic means. In contrast, smartwatches do not need so much power. They are typically low-powered electronic devices and on average come with a tenth of the battery capacity of your average 2016 smartphone. So there is some argument to smartwatches being able to adopt kinetic powering. However, making that a reality is a long way away. Firstly, in terms of the actual technology but secondly, quite likely due to this being an aspect which is not favorable to smartwatch makers. While any smartwatch maker would like to be the one who claims ‘no charging needed’, making such a smartwatch would mean they are reducing their own selling power for future generations. Taking away an ability to improve on battery life and usage, which as the smartphone world as proved, is a massive selling point. If smartwatch makers start releasing watches which can make use of the likes of kinetic power, then suddenly these watches become far longer lasting in terms of their product cycles. While this would arguably be good for the consumer, it is not so good for smartwatch makers and the general industry. Especially at this early juncture in the evolution of smartwatches.
Of course, the tech would still see product cycles and ones based on the usual suspects like the RAM, the storage, the processor, the display size/resolution and so on. But in reality, these are not high priority specs for smartwatches. When buying a smartwatch, you may think that they are, but the cold truth is that battery life on a smartwatch is the single biggest concern. At least with the current product cycle time-frames. And if smartwatches with never ending batteries started being sold and the biggest evolutionary selling point dissolved, this could result in less frequent product cycles altogether. A smartwatch company taking an extra year to bring a product to market or in Samsung’s case, an extra six months. While that also might sound like a good idea and certainly on your wallet, this in an industry that is still so young that it needs a high level of momentum, quick cycles and turnarounds to really push the technology forward. Lesser cycles could negatively impact on the level of evolution that comes through, which in turn would further result in even less frequent cycles. Which is not good for anyone.
Now, this is not to say that smartwatch manufacturers are purposely trying to avoid more traditional watch-like features like kinetic power, although they could be, but the point is more that it is not in the industry’s best interest to focus on them or really push forward with the investment they would need. It is much better for them to focus on extending the battery life by a couple of hours or even a day and fueling the next quick turnaround of product, which also happens to sport a new design and a fractionally better processor. It keeps the market alive and in the news and that buzz going. The downside, however, is that it appeals to a far less number of consumers and certainly not to the likes of me who have come to see a watch battery as a thing of the past. While a smartwatch may let me see a new email on my arm, charging the watch or even thinking about its battery is certainly a step backwards overall.