Smartwatches are dead, long live smartwatches

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There's been a rash of articles out as of late proclaiming the death of smartwatches as a technology without a future. Delays in the Android Wear operating system, pushing back of hardware releases by major manufacturers, and protests by Tim Cook as to the volume of Apple Watch sales all lend to the "where there's smoke there's fire" argument when it comes to the demise of smartwatches. Yet, there are signs the news of their death may be premature.

The recent news from Google they will be releasing two Nexus branded smartwatches combined with the scheduled release of Android Wear 2.0 makes one think perhaps the manufacturers are not backing away from the platform but rather biding their time to see what moves are made by the major players to cement their interest in producing new models of devices. When this argument is made the pundits often devolve their positions into two main points: wearables are only good for fitness and there is no real reason for smartwatches to be compelling.

I for one wear a smartwatch daily. Yes, there are issues.  Yes, I wish it had better battery life. Yes it's much larger than a standard watch. But when I look at the purposes it serves for me, I can't help but wonder if people are really missing the point of the wearable.  Let's lay down some guidelines to evaluate wearables:

  1. Wearables are not phone replacements.  Due to limited screen size, storage, and battery life a wearable is not a realistic replacement to a smartphone. Some companies have been trying through the addition of LTE technologies to position the wearable as a replacement for the phone, but I'd pose it's unrealistic with current tech. A few years from now maybe, but even then I don't see any clear solution to the screen size issue which is a linchpin to the device usability. With that in mind I'll stipulate that a smartwatch is an accessory and enhancement to a smartphone, not a replacement to said device.
  2. Wearables should be able to do everything your smartphone can do. Again, another false equivalency positioned around the technology. Smartwatches are very good at things such as notifications, reminders, and prompts for action. Their ability to capture and process information is much more questionable. Here's a practical example. As an American Football fan I follow our local team on Twitter. During games, when I frequently have conflicts preventing me from watching right then, the team tweets out updates and score changes.  Without a smartwatch I'd be pulling my phone out every time an update came in...a rude action when in polite company. However, with my smartwatch, I'm able to glance at my wrist, see the update, and immediately continue what I'm doing or the conversation I'm having. Would I expect my smartwatch to provide all the play by play and in depth analysis I can get from my phone? Not in the least. By leveraging what the smartwatch is best at I can be more efficient in my consumption of the information and remain more engaged in the activities around me.
  3. A smartwatch works best by voice. We've seen the ads of people "talking" to their smartwatch, giving commands and getting information, all with a slightly smug / happy face as part of the process.  Let's be realistic.  Even in today's technology wonderland, holding your watch up to your mouth and talking to it still looks funny. For those old enough to remember the Dick Tracy comics it is the epitome of "the future" but in daily use it becomes rather impractical. A better perspective is the ability of the smartwatch to pass commands to your smartphone without having to interact with the phone directly. This not only makes the interactions more convenient, sometimes even safer, but also improves the battery life on your phone (and we all know how critical that is.) An example of this is my predilection for podcast listening while working. If I'm at task in the outdoors, such as my annual battle with the leaf deluge in my yard, being able to adjust the volume and podcast choice on apps such as Pocket Casts from my smartwatch makes the process far more convenient than having to take out my phone each time to make an adjustment.

Are smartwatches the logical next evolution to smartphones?  No more so than the mouse was to the keyboard. It's an extension, an improvement, but not a replacement. You may be thinking to get the most from a smartwatch you need the latest and greatest (as is so often the perception with tech) but that is far from the case.  My smartwatch is the original Android Wear device...the LG G Watch. It's not receiving the Android Wear 2.0 update, it's like an old Volvo (boxy but good), and it does the jobs I ask of it. Smartwatches have a much longer cycle of use, requiring far less frequent updates from a hardware perspective to reap the benefits of the feature set.

So to the smartwatch manufacturers of the world I say, stop trying to make them into Swiss Army knives and focus on solid tech, good displays, and excellent battery life.  Let the application developers produce the breadth of functional variety for people to tune their devices to their needs and those of us who find benefit from a digital assistant on their wrist will be the loyal fans we are want to be.

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This article was originally posted on LinkedIn