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The pros and cons of smartwatches

Let's define a "smartwatch": For argument's sake, I'm defining the term as anything that functions like a watch, but needs to be recharged. It's a broad definition, I grant you, but it works for the most part. Apple Watch is a smartwatch; a Timex or a Rolex is not.

Now let's define what Smartwatches aren't: watches. They're more like little computers, running an OS and using Apps but living on my arm instead of my pocket. They're also not timeless. My Omega Seamaster was passed on to my son, just like my father passed it on to me. My Breitlings have passed to my sons as well. My Apple Watch, however, will be recycled once the battery can no longer hold a charge.

Despite this, I'm still a fan of smartwatches — but I also understand why they haven't cracked the true mainstream.

Apple Watch Models

Apple Watch Models (Image credit: iMore)

I always felt the wrist was the perfect choice for a screen. After all, a watch delivers one or two bits of information, usually time and date. What a waste of space. It's like undeveloped beach front property. And as we well know, screens are important. Every screen a consumer interacts with can define a category: TVs, phones, PCs.

But here's where I missed the ball: Those watches have to look great for users to even consider strapping it to their wrist. Some smartwatches are fashionable, such as Apple Watch or the Samsung Gear 2 (not 3). But most of them are big, clunky, skeuomorphic things that could make even a geek cry. Apple made Watch cool and hip and fashionable, which helps as an initial driver.

It also wisely focused on health and fitness, as have other platforms. But it turns out that's not a driver for many consumers — those same consumers, after all, bought Fitbits and ended up tossing them in the drawer. Notifications are another great driver, and where I find that the Apple Watch really shines. But that's it: I can pitch someone on an Apple Watch, but I can only offer two major use cases, maybe three. I'll toss in checking the weather... but not "breaking news" from CNN.

They're all good usage models, but none of them screams must-have the way the iPhone did before them; as such, I don't think any of them will push the category beyond a limited point.

That doesn't mean that smartwatches are a failure: Devices like Apple Watch have their place on the wrist, and they've sold in quite impressive quantities over the last few years. But until Apple — or other companies — figure out the true mainstream use for the smartwatch, it shall remain a product for a specific niche. It may make that niche very happy, but to the general user, that happiness may be trickier to replicate.

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.

12 Comments
  • I was criticized quite a bit when I suggested, just after the Apple Watch was released, that it really isn't a watch. I think it's a little mini computer that ALSO displays the time. My observations were in response to the "I won't buy one unless it's round like a REAL watch," comments or, "It's ugly compared to my (fill in the blank with some expensive watch I've never heard of)." I don't really care that my $600 watch won't be passed down to someone else, just as I'm not concerned that my new washer and dryer won't be passed down to anyone. Let's face it, I'm sure LOTS of people have proudly presented their $5000 or $10000 watch to a child who looked at it, pretended to smile and then threw it in a drawer. I bought the Apple Watch for what it does, and it does it just fine for me. Oddly, what I like best about the Apple Watch is how easy it is to control the music, wirelessly at my Zumba classes. I say "oddly" because I don't pay any attention to the fitness tracking aspects. And, before you jump on me, which I'm sure will happen, I had a Pebble before and controlling the tracks AND volume was quite difficult. So, go ahead, hate me...
  • That's the exact reason it's not round; it's a mini computer. Normal watches are round because when the hands spin round, they form a circular rotation, and since a normal watch doesn't display anything else it makes sense to make it round. The Apple Watch on the other hand (no pun intended) displays information that a computer displays; text, UIs, photos etc. Computer screens aren't round because it wouldn't work, and in the same manner it doesn't really work for a smartwatch. I personally think the Apple Watch is a great looking device, if normal watches weren't round to begin with everyone would be loving how the Apple Watch looks. I bought the Apple Watch from day 1 when it first came out, and I haven't regretted it since. Still works like a dream and is incredibly helpful to me 🙂⌚️
  • Yup, and it's the reason that iPhones and computer monitors and laptops aren't round. Oh, and I don't care if my laptop gets passed on to someone else, either.
  • Smart watches are definitely not a failure but they are far from the finished product. It reminds me of the early days of android phones clunky and cumbersome. So far from what I have seen smart watches do not appeal to me as of yet. However, maybe in a couple years they will reach maturity and will be able to be both capable, durable and beautiful
  • The Apple Watch was a bit clunky when it first came out, suffering from being too slow, but on the latest watchOS version, it works pretty well. You should try one out in the Apple Store
  • I would truly love a new one. My current AW (the first one out) was given as a birthday gift by my partner so it's kind of hard to go for a new one now... :-( #firstWorldProblem
  • Fossil has nice smartwatches and they look nice but wonder how compatible they are with iPhones . Always like fossils movados diesel watches those are nice the Apple watches..... meh. Sent from the iMore App
  • I've been using various wearables with clients living with cognitive disabilities with some measurable success. We keep a narrow focus on personal time management and organization. A computer strapped to a wrist is superior to a smart phone because it cant be ignored or missed when properly set up. We work on simple scripts, "make me a reminder...", "make an appointment..." and keep it at that and that simple. As assistive technology wearable technology is a hit. Sent from the iMore App
  • I think there are two evolutionary steps that are needed for the smart watch to really take off. The first is that they need a thinner option. Some people like 'big' watches (I don't personally think the Apple Watch is big, but it certainly isn't small) but many people really like slim watches. This is especially true (in my experience) of people with small wrists. Give people a slim option or an 'endurance' option with more battery and let them choose the look / capability mix that fits them best. The second is that the watches need to be able to do more without a tethered phone. My Series 0 Watch really struggles to function when outside of the same room as my iPhone, even though my house isn't huge and I have pervasive wifi. Part of the problem is that I have AC wifi but when the phone is on one band and the watch on another the wifi link doesn't seem to work well. If a new watch had superior connectivity through either wifi or mobile / cellular connectivity it would gain a more clear use-case. Currently when I am using my Watch I could probably take my phone out of a pocket instead, and given that the Watch is still a bit slow to carry out tasks getting the phone out would actually be quicker. This needs to change before the smart watch in general becomes more compelling. The best use case for my Watch is actually in the car. Whilst I have Bluetooth connectivity in my car, it doesn't give the best control options and choosing a track from my library of over 1000 albums is very difficult. The Watch gives me a very effective way of choosing music whilst driving (regular 'Hey Siri' doesn't work well in the car). When CarPlay become more ubiquitous this will be less relevant, but until then it's a very useful capability.
  • Whether or not a smartwatch is useful to you is subjective. My partner (who is not a gadget fan) accidentally left her watch at home today and has texted to say that she feels lost without it. She sends texts and uses reminders all the time and frequently doesn’t have her phone on her (no pockets), but has it nearby, so it is great to still get notifications on the watch. She is also addicted to filling her activity rings, which is a good thing. I always have my phone in my pocket, so I don’t absolutely need the notifications, but do like the fact that I don’t have to dig my phone out (especially as it’s a 6S Plus). I don’t really care about the activity rings but use the watch obsessively when exercising (so much so that I am writing a workout app with an offline moving map for when I am hiking or mountain biking!). Smartwatches aren’t for everyone but they are useful for a lot of people in different ways, and they are only going to get more useful as they get more powerful.
  • Ha, exactly....!
  • I love my smart watch. I have only been wearing a smart watch well over a yr. I feel out of the loop without it in what my daily schedules are. It's a compliment to my phone and I utilize it to the fullest. Was Samsung. Still own it but Apple is more Sent from the iMore App