Whenever we cover this subject, a common line of questioning ensues – are smart watches worth it this year? The notion being, that the technology remains in its infancy, and time and time again there has been a huge amount of evidence which suggests that its rarely a good move to purchase tech which is still ‘being worked out’ by the manufacturers themselves, let alone the general public.
One of the more common opinions being perpetrated is that these bits of kit are designed at geeks. The sort of people who will snap up any and every new gadget, whilst being utterly shameless in wearing the technology in public. At BurnTech, we’re a technology website, so naturally we get uber excited whenever we get to try something brand new. Reviewing the next iteration of the heart rate monitor or trying out the latest smartphone will always be cool, but you can’t beat the buzz of trying something which is revolutionarily different. There can be no denying that gadgets like the smart watch and other wearable tech are still ticking that box.
However eventually, the cold light of day has to be used to examine any new technology. In this environment, it largely boils down to a few core questions. Does the new technology fulfil a market need? How does this new technology really benefit me? Is this something which the general public are likely to take to?
Diving down the core ‘need of the smart watch is fundamental in analysing whether purchasing a Smart Watch ‘is worth it’ or not this year. For me, the best place to start is with the sheer amount of contact time that we all have with our mobile phones. Since the advent of smartphones, consumer usage of the mobile phone has veritably exploded. Research indicates that the average person will ‘touch’ (as in activate their phone) over 100 times per day. The vast majority of this behaviour is centred around checking the device; checking for new texts, checking for new emails, checking just to find you’d experienced another ‘phantom ring’ when you could have sworn the device buzzed in your pocket. The current iteration of smart watches, ranging from the Samsung Gear to the Pebble Steel all connect up with a smartphone in order to bring this kind of data to your wrist.
The current models of watches are allowing you to coordinate and even make/receive calls, check texts and emails, whilst accessing a range of apps on your wrist. The big benefit at the moment is probably the fact that you will not need to check your smartphone as often as you currently do. For many female readers, who often keep their phone in their bag as opposed to men who generally have their phone in their pocket, this can be an especially big up side.
However, is it a big enough upside to make it worth it, let alone whether it overcomes the great challenge for these devices; gaining general uptake? By putting technology into a watch, we’re stepping into the fashion and jewellery space. Whilst the general need for a watch has lessened with the uptake of smartphones, watches are still selling in their droves, largely as a fashion statement. For years, brands like Tag Heuer and Rolex have traded as much as statements then timepieces. Such owners are unlikely to swop their valuable and beautiful timepieces for a plastic and slightly gaudy looking ‘smart watch’. Indeed, you have no need to own a watch at this end of the market to carry such an attitude, after all, almost any jewellery watch will look better than any of the smartwatches that are currently on the market. This naturally blocks uptake amongst swathes of the public. After all, nobody could deny that the Pebble looks both geeky and exceptionally unfashionable.
This then circles all the way back around to the inherent lack of functionality and the core benefits offered by the current generation of these devices. The app ecosystems are generally so poor that they offer almost nothing in return for using them, and the device is often helplessly reliant on its interaction with your smartphone. Whilst this functionality is definitely improving, and so too is the look and feel of the devices, albeit at a slower rate of improvement. However, it remains hard to foresee a breakthrough moment when uptake suddenly explodes.
Then there’s been a case of manufacturers rushing to get their products to market, often before they’re properly ready. In their rush to beat other leading tech companies, including Google and Apple to market, Samsung released their Galaxy Smartwatch hopelessly early. The technology was so poorly supported by the weak software, and the watch so reliant on a Samsung smartphone to provide its brains, that most had buried it long before the incremental improvements could come along.
There’s little doubt though that the manufacturers see the potential of this sector. Ten new offerings showed up at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, and more are expected around the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this March. However, the market is starting to feel like its waiting for Apple to ride in and make it cool. We have of course, been here before with the tablet, which was another device which had been written off previously to Apple’s intervention. However, for a smartwatch to be truly worth it, it needs to start doing things that our smartphone doesn’t. At the very least, it needs to do things much better than our smartphones currently do, otherwise why carry around more electronic devices, all of which ping at you every time you receive a text or email. We’re in danger of excessive digital overload, and that’s presuming we’re not already there.
So can somebody, most likely Apple, nail the design problem in 2014? Currently, the vast majority of women wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one and most men are not far behind. For mass uptake, this has to change, and it has to change fast. If technology companies want to operate in the space, then they need to realise that design can’t carry on coming second to function.
Then, can somebody nail the app problem and make this gadget truly relevant for the majority not just the minority? Can somebody introduce a vibrant app ecosystem which is specific to the unique user functions behind a watch and not just replicate tablet and phone apps? The introduction of a game changing app could transform user demand for this type of kit.
There’s no doubt that plenty of people who have taken on these gadgets in their earlier days have become believes, and that bodes well. However, as already discussed, most of these people can polity be termed ‘geeks’. If they become valuable in their own right then smartwatches become worth it. If they don’t, then I’m afraid they’re looking like being
a tech fad.