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Why we aren't all wearing smart watches

Time Trials

Smartwatches have not been strapped to wrists as snappily as expected. Alexandra Suich takes their pulse

Smartwatches have not been strapped to wrists as snappily as expected. Alexandra Suich takes their pulse

Alexandra Suich | June/July 2016

What will be the next stunning success to follow the smartphone? Do not glance at your wrist for the answer. Many gadget gurus expected smartwatches to become a technology craze, as personal devices grow ever more personal and lightweight. The promise of the smartwatch is that it knows its owner – anticipating her needs, monitoring her health and making it easier to navigate the world than through a smartphone.

Smartwatches, however, have not gone mainstream to the extent predicted. Only 49m smartwatches will be sold globally this year, according to the research firm IDC, significantly below most analysts’ initial forecasts. They are still mainly the playthings of early-adopters and fitness buffs. Not even Apple, which has the reputation for turning everything it touches into gold, has changed that.

Smartwatches have as many limitations as there are hours in the day, but two are especially troublesome. Their battery life is too short. The Apple watch needs to be charged every day. Remembering to take off a watch, charge it and put it back on each day is a complexity few people want to add to their morning rush. Wearable wristbands (which track exercise and sleep but do not have apps or as many functions as smartwatches) can last several days, but even they require frequent charging. The hassle factor helps explain why around a third of people who buy a smartwatch or wristband stop using it within the first year, according to surveys by Endeavour Partners, a consulting firm.

Nor are smartwatches as smart as they ought to be. They are too dependent on smartphones to function. Watches from Apple and Samsung can transcribe and send dictated text messages with impressive accuracy, but they need to be near a phone in order to do this and most other tasks. If, for example, you ask your Apple watch what a smartwatch is, it understands what you are saying but points you to your iPhone for the answer. The watch should be liberating, but in practice it ends up feeling like a burden: yet another device to tote around.

Even in San Francisco, the world’s technology capital, smartwatches are far from the norm. Many people prefer to go without a watch at all, since phones tell time. Others, surrounded by technology all day, want to feel the weight of stainless steel and admire an elegant analogue watch face. So when I decided to don two smartwatches at the same time – one on each wrist – as I worked on this story, I did not exactly fit in. But I did get a strong sense of the obstacles which the smartwatch will have to overcome to appeal to a broader group of buyers.

Getting alerts through a watch can be handy, but watches do not know how to prioritise information, and bother you every time an email, call or text comes through. My Apple watch has the temperament of a chihuahua, overreacting to the smallest things and needing my attention constantly. It rings when I am in a workout class whenever I forget to silence it, even if my phone is in a locker in another room; and it triumphantly announces the receipt of text messages and emails even while I’m on the phone.

Smartwatches provide a unique benefit when it comes to tracking exercise and coaxing users to stand and walk: phones do not have the sensors to record heart rates or measure distances walked accurately. These fitness features will only appeal to people who care about their health, and not those who most need a monitoring system, like the elderly and overweight. However, wristbands also offer activity tracking, along with a rough estimate of how well their wearers sleep, and they are much cheaper. Fitbit’s most advanced wristband is around $100 (the firm also makes a smartwatch), while the basic version of the Apple watch is more than $300. And because the Apple watch needs to be charged at night, it does not track sleep like Fitbit’s wristbands can.

Resolving its dependency issues so that it can do more without a phone will help increase the appeal of the smartwatch. But it is unclear whether people really want to wear an expensive piece of technology on their wrist. Wristwatches became common a hundred years ago because they were practical and efficient: glancing at one’s wrist took less time than pulling out a pocket watch. But checking a smartwatch is about as time consuming as looking at a phone, and less subtle than furtively glancing at an old-fashioned watch. Finding out the time on a smartwatch requires a flick of the wrist for the face to light up, which can be awkward in meetings.

Patek Philippe’s avowal that people never own a watch but simply guard it for their heirs highlights one of the smartwatch’s greatest challenges. It is hard to convince people to buy a smartwatch when there is no permanence to the investment: the next version will be unquestionably better. Apple, for example, will probably announce a new version of its watch this autumn. A kind interpretation of consumer behaviour is that people are waiting for the technology to improve before they buy their own. My guess is that it will take a long time for consumers to show up.

WRIST ACTION

Apple Watch Elegantly designed but far from perfect. Users navigate through a touch-screen and a digital crown. Impressive understanding of voice commands, but its short battery life is a nuisance. Does not work with older iPhones (only iPhones 5 and 6). $299-15,000

Samsung Gear S2 Attractive, with a round face, although as a unisex product it can look large on a woman’s wrist. The “bezel” is rotated with your finger, like an old-fashioned iPod, and is easy to use. It has a longer battery life than an Apple watch, but runs fewer apps. Only compatible with Android devices for now. $249-299

Fitbit Blaze This watch tracks heart rate, sleep and exercise. It does not run apps, so has more limited functionality than other smartwatches but can alert users to calls and texts. This has the longest battery life. There are seven other wristbands made by Fitbit, which are less expensive and offer many of the Blaze’s features. $199

6 Readers' comments

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jmjstandin - September 12th 2016

This article doesn't even mention Android smartwatches, the ones that work apparently. I've had one for a year or so and it's nothing like the watches this article describes. The charge can last generally two days, sometimes longer, and it recharges within 30 minutes anyway. It still does useful things, including telling the time, when my phone is switched off. The time is ALWAYS visible (no wrist-flicking needed). It's easy to just get the notifications you care about. It's immensely useful and saves lots of time with respect to consulting my phone. Today, for example, it was telling me when the next bus or tram would arrive at my stops so I could decide if I needed to run, entering my coordinates in my diary when I chose (a couple of screen taps), doing quick arithmetic calculations by voice input, rejecting unwanted callers, showing the location of my next meeting, allowing me to peer into inaccessible corners (see Look Behind app) etc etc

hzigli - September 7th 2016

You neglected to mention the Microsoft Band (https://www.microsoft.com/Microsoft-Band/en-us). Version 2 is more elegant than the original, but the clasp is chunkier because they changed the charging port. Also, you can leave the watch display on all day, and have the display on the inside OR outside of the wrist. And it supports Windows Phone, iOS and Android. In general, I agree with your observations. The charging issue is annoying (I charge mine every night). I am irritated by too many alerts (I am sure there is more I could do to fine-tune it). And I would love the option for my band to be a standalone device. My main reason for using it is to track my fitness goals. However, it lets me read messages (and respond). And I can also pay for my Starbucks with it without getting out a phone or payment card. MORE OF THAT, PLEASE. I would love to see payment options with a PIN code. That would be worth the hassle. :)

markdjohnson77 - August 2nd 2016

I'm not sure if it qualifies as a smart watch but I am a fan of my Garmin Vivoactive. My girlfriend has a fitbit with heartrate that has a horrible battery life. My watch came with a chest belt heart rate for running, is waterproof and my batter life is over a week. It will alert me to calls, emails and texts, I have the ability to scroll through a text or email but rarely do. I can also set my android phone to lock when I'm not near it. Big fan.

throtol - June 3rd 2016

I have been using smartwatches for over a decade. My first smartwatch was the original Microsoft one that relied on radio frequencies to provide news, weather and other basic information. The watch was clunky, had to be recharged at least once a day and frequently would lose its charge. It was a novelty at the time and required a paid subscription service to use. However, it was independent of a smartphone which is ironic considering that most smartwatches today are dependent upon one. Within about 3 years the service was ended. A few years later I purchased a Jawbone Up. It was dependent on a smartphone and had to charge nightly. The design was less than stellar and I ended up replacing it three times in one year due to battery issues and a flaw in the way the band would bend that would disconnect the energy flow. Next, I simplified my life and went with a Xiaomi Mi band. It cost me less than $20 US and was worth it. The band in non-intrusive and is hardly noticeable over time. It is even comfortable enough for sleep. It keeps a charge for one month. The downside is that is literally a plastic band with a intelligence that is heavily dependent on a smartphone. Without a smart phone application, it is useless. Today I own a Microsoft Band 1. It is a great balance between a fitness band and a smartwatch. It requires a charge every 36 hours or so. It provides me with news, email, messages, telephone calls, etc. However, it does not prioritize how often I receive messages and can simply be annoying. In order for a smartwatch to be of true value it must not be dependent on a smartphone, hold a charge for several days and balance what content is valuable and what is not. From my experience, I hope to get the balance right in time.

aabear - June 3rd 2016

I am a sports geek and I buy everything I need and then a lot more for the sports I practise. I have owned smartwatches since the times of the motoactv (4 years ago) and I am on my third smartwatch, the apple watch. They work great for sports; for everything else, the writer is absolutely right, they look to me like a half baked product, still not there. The writer makes a big fuss about charging it. It is not an issue for me, I put my phone and watch to charge every night next to my night stand, it is second nature by now. What I don't like is that it does not work in isolation. If my phone runs out of battery is completely useless. If I am going out jogging, I need to carry my phone (and I know that there are some smartwatches where this is not the case). If I want to see my heart rate, I almost need to stop and stand still. If I want to limit for some period of time the notifications to those I really need (eg. when in a meeting), I need to navigate through 3 or 4 menus to get there. And I could go on and on. The other big issue is that smartwatches (after owning 3 of them) seem to have a renewal cycle similar to that of a phone (buy a new model every 2-3 years as the old ones become obsolete). However, the cost is too high for what a smartwatch provides. I can convince myself I need a new phone (although I don't) as I will be using it extensively during the next 2 or 3 years. It is a reasonable cost per year. With a smartwatch, considering the use and that most of the functionality is already provided by the phone, it becomes more difficult. Prices need to go down or the renewal cycle needs to be longer (less functionality added every year).

Peter Dean - June 3rd 2016

I have an Apple watch. The battery lasts for 2 days and one night. And it charges very quickly, less than an hour. The charger, however, is a separate dongle and must not be forgotten when traveling. The GPS is a great help when walking as the watch just vibrates to tell you which way to go. And I love receiving and sending messages without taking my phone out of my pocket. BBC News gives me images as well as text on my wrist. And, of course, it does help with fitness. I also have another watch, which was a present, but the Apple Watch beats it by a mile. There is sure to be progress but I will probably wait for another year or so before deciding to change.