A Question of Timing: When will Smartwatches be Essential?

Talking watches, trips to Mars, and flying cars. While we’re not quite yet in the era of technology the Jetson’s offered, the world in 2016 is making solid inroads when it comes a renewed space program, the next ‘big leap’ in cars, and in the  smartwatch sphere.

This is illustrated with the latest launch of the Apple Watch 2. Recent years have seen the Cupertino tech company embattled as it seeks to make a decisive shift from the ‘post-post-Steve Jobs’ era.

When the Apple Watch first launched it was met with a bit of bemusement, as a new product line did not come with the same earth shattering angle as products prior. It also set the tone in the minds of many about the company’s overall direction.

Though many gave new Apple CEO Tim Cook a ‘grace period’ once he took the helm of the company, many felt the Apple Watch wasn’t just underwhelming but indicative of a new bland era at Apple.

These criticisms are not uniformly fair, as not only have Apple’s competitors caught on to their winning approach and caught up in market share. No less though, for better or worse Apple remains the flag bearer in the tech world for what is the ‘latest and greatest’.

So, beyond specs and functions and features alone, what does the Apple Watch 2 say about the place of smart watches in the tech world today?

Apple Watch 2

Apple is usually found at the forefront of proclaiming innovation in tech. At times this has been a compelling case to make. Whether a fan or detractor the original iPhone (2007) and iPad (2010) did do well in bringing mass popularity to forms of tech previously in a niche sphere – as even if phone/music and tablets were available prior – Apple brought with their products a widespread adoption.

In other cases this claim to innovation has not been as compelling. This is especially so in recent years. The past decade has regularly seen an Apple CEO (whether Steve Jobs or Tim Cook) regularly bound onto a stage each year and proclaim their next device that’ll ‘change everything’.

Yet, the strength of growing competition in Samsung, Motorola – and now Google as a fellow resident of Silicon Valley and standalone phone producer – means the narrative has been challenged.

Design Dramas

Unlike a phone, tablet, or desktop computer a watch brings with it a number of unique challenges from a design perspective. A phone you can have in your pocket, a tablet in your bag, and a desktop computer can be left at home and thrown into the garbage bin when upgrade time comes. A watch is totally different.

Garbage Bin

‘Aidios Pentium II. It’s been fun but I need something that can play Age of Empires III’

A watch is expected to be visible, durable, and regularly worn. This last factor means considerations of style are not just optional but essential. While a tablet or phone can be clunky, as a wearable a watch is expected to be complimentary to their overall style. Either always neutral with all clothing worn (e.g a classic white or black design), or adaptable (a consumer keen on 90’s fluoro gear shall likely desire a watch that reflects their colourful taste).

Making the Case Compelling

If you race a bike you need clipless shoes. If you race a car you need performance fuel. ‘If you have a smartwatch you need…?’ Here has been the chief challenge of smartwatches from the market’s point of view. This all the more true as it faces challenge across multiple fronts.

Want a smartwatch to track your fitness when running? There’s a smartphone app for that. Want a smartwatch to give you GPS instructions? There’s a smartphone app for that. Want a smartwatch to tell the time? Well, along with a phone doing the job there’s a ton of analogue watches around that have clocked up a number of years as timeless timepieces. They also won’t suffer from a daily dead battery like a smartwatch can.

So, while if Apple and its competitors announce anew on the scene something like a floating hoverboard or flying car it can be fairly expected the ‘oooh’ factor shall follow. Making this case for a smartwatch is far harder to do, not the least of which because while the user experience of recent smartwatches are surely better – Casio was dishing out watches with features like fitness tracking as far back as 1991.

Watching and Waiting

Were someone set to write the history of Apple and brands like it 10 years from now, a chapter ‘2007-2017: mass success with the smartphone, tablet, and smartwatch’ would undoubtedly read well. The trouble would come in writing it. The same can be said for producing a compelling case for smartwatch adoption at this stage.

By no means is the case baseless or without any foundation, rather just to many the current offerings of smartwatches don’t prompt a response of ‘oooh’ as much as ‘…eh’. The sheer pace and scale of tech’s advance at present means that feeling is not guaranteed to remain forever, but so too is the presumption it will eventually go away risky.

While the past decade has seen tech companies by and large go from success to success within the design sphere, too-soon launches or prominent setbacks have seen devices like smart glasses go from being a ‘coming soon’ to a ‘going now’. A smartwatch design team seeking the same popularity on launch as a iPhone or iPad surely need look beyond a ‘killer app’ alone, and instead to a ‘killer device’.

From Optional to Essential

Just as the first iPhone did well to remove the need for someone to carry a music player and a mobile phone, so has the smartwatch boom brought about the potential to do away with a fitness device, a hands-free kit for talking on your phone, as well as make the quick use of tech for things like SMS, GPS navigation far more intuitive and seamless.

Similarly, while the original iPhone and iPad were surely well-received products, it was with later versions a real shift in thinking occurred. While the first iPad and iPhone were game changers, their successors with (variously) better cameras, bigger storage capacity, and a variety of other additions and improvements helped shift the smartphone and tablet from standalone accessory to something that could be fully integrated into daily life and business (especially via cloud tech).

What DOES an essential smartwatch look like?

While a number of smartwatch apps can at present do entry level tasks across a variety of spheres, far fewer can undertake actions that specialist-only tech can do. This is a factor not just in one sphere, but across the board.

While the case for smartwatch ownership does need be one that is general and widespread – for the widespread perception of tablets prior to the iPad was specialist gadgets only business required – a device that can engage in specialist tasks and begin to replace existing tech represents a strong path forward.

The exact scope such a path would explore is contingent upon in-house designers, their ideas and aspirations for the next generation of smartwatches. At a glance though, with numerous cities around the world already holding a niche in the startup sphere – whether it is London for fintech, Barcelona with telecommunications, or Tel Aviv with defence tech – there are already numerous audiences receptive to niche products that could replace existing tech.

It could be a piece of medical tech that goes well beyond the current capacity of a smartphone watch to provide a simple measurement of heart rate. It could be a biometric fingerprint scanner that serves to assist financiers in authorising trades when out of office.

It could even be an emergency use app that can be quickly activated from the home screen, dials police, provides location, and begins recording (commensurate with local laws and regulations), that is a new ‘must have’ in the personal security and crime deterrence sphere.

Each app of this kind would not only be a game changer in its field, but the capacity to not only use it without a smartphone – but find it is best used because it doesn’t require a smartphone – would assist in building the narrative that a smartphone is not optional, but essential in everyday wear.

The Future

So, where does this leave Apple Watch 2 and devices like it? Just as was done with the iPhone and the iPad, when Apple & Co can launch a device that fills a void and does something new; such tech can by and large speak for itself in the marketing department. Does the Apple Watch 2 do this though? By most measures no.

What’s more, while it is a new device, the timid launch and awkward operation inherent in their first model suggests uncertainty about the product and its chief qualities is not just confined to a particular model, but the overall device.

The pace and scale of change means writing off this device all over would surely be a mistake – for an software update and new feature included therein could provide a new momentum to the case made for mass smartwatch ownership – just as it stands right now; many already have a phone, a fitness tracker, and a plain old regular watch.

Alarm Clock

‘Great, my smartwatch broke.  Its either bring this or the grandfather clock.’

Ed Kennedy is a journalist and web designer proudly from Melbourne, Australia. Say hi to Ed via enquiries@edkennedy.co and on Twitter@Edkennedy01

Ed Kennedy is a journalist and web designer proudly from Melbourne, Australia. Say hi to Ed via enquiries@edkennedy.co or on Twitter @Edkennedy01

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