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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 Bass | 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