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.

Michael Gartenberg

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.