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The smartwatch industry continues its futile search for meaning

kid confused by smartwatch

As its breakout year failed to materialise the leading smartwatch players are desperately trying to justify the category.

It was clear from the inception of the smartwatch that the product would ultimately fall into one of two categories: a dumb, Bluetooth-linked smartphone peripheral or a smart, standalone device, depending on the absence or presence of a modem.

The former category was the first to arrive and offered some value, primarily as a fitness tracker and notification device. However as the demise of Pebble has shown there is a limited market for such a limited feature set, especially when companies like Apple expect you to spend hundreds of pounds for the privilege.

The latter category is still at a nascent phase and is struggling under several inherent problems. The need for a modem and consequent mobile subscription makes them expensive, especially considering the limitations presented by such minimal screen real estate. The use of smartwatches as communication devices is awkward both for text and voice – who wants to be holding their wrist up to the side of their head half the time? – and nobody is going to abandon the smartphone entirely in favour of a smartwatch.

Nonetheless, with the smartphone category having already matured to the extent that innovation and sales growth have peaked, there remains considerable industry pressure to make the category work. As a consequence we are seeing giants such as Google, Apple and Samsung continue to roll the dice.

In an interview with The Verge Jeff Chang, Android Wear Product Manager at Google, said his company is going to take the initiative – much as it has with smartphones and Chrome devices – and partner with an unnamed OEM to launch a couple of flagship smartwatches that will run the second major version of its wearables platform, Android Wear 2.0.

Inevitably Change stressed his optimism for the category, but failed to detail why. There is talk of Android Pay integration for contactless payments and support for Google’s Assistant, to provide a voice alternative to the unsatisfactory voice UI but still no compelling reason why we should either pay more than a few quid on one or abandon our smartphones.

Apple, which of course insists the Apple Watch is the best thing since sliced bread, seems to think supporting apps that require physical movement might help. TechCrunch reports that you can now play Pokémon Go on your Apple watch and even combine it with the fitness tracker functionality. Now you can not only humble-brag about how much exercise you’ve done on social media, you can also gloat about how many virtual beasties you acquired while doing it.

The same publication, however, reports that US consumers are pretty unimpressed with the whole concept of the smartwatch and, quite reasonably, are waiting to see if there’s any point to them before splashing the cash. This is consistent with many previous reports, including our own.

The whole ‘smart’ industry is at an impasse. Smartphones have arguably been the single most significant growth driver in the global economy for the past decade and now that growth has dried up. It’s therefore understandable that the search for the next big smart thing should be so desperate, but with every year that we fail to state the case for smartwatches it grows more likely we will have to search elsewhere.


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