The recent train wreck that was the LG Watch Urbane 2nd Edition LTE release ( shown above ) seems a fitting close to the smartwatch story of 2015. It was a watch that had the newest version of Android Wear sporting LTE functionality so you could use it without the need for a phone nearby. I was pretty enthusiastic about its launch. Sadly it hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In case you missed it the watch was on sale for an embarrassing 6 days before LG pulled the watch from sale and offered full refunds to everyone returning them. The reason quoted was that the screen suffered from a serious hardware issue that meant it’s picture would degrade over time. So it was recalled and LG confirmed there is no support for the device going forwards so really you’d be crazy not to return it. If you were a wealthy enthusiast you could keep it as a little footnote in tech history but otherwise you’d be returning this in a flash.
This whole incident reflects on nicely summarises the smartwatch industry in 2015.
“It was full of promise that ultimately disappointed.”
2015 did see the start of smartwatches gaining some traction but they never really took off outside of tech enthusiasts. I can only think of one person I know that has a smartwatch that isn’t a tech head but the person who bought it for her is ( and no it wasn’t me either! ).
Here are the things I feel that have stopped widespread adoption.
There is no “killer app” for any wearable at this point in time. A “killer app” is a term used in tech circles that refers to an app that is so useful on that platform that it makes the user feel it’s essential and gives a unique purpose to that device. An example of this might be your maps app on your phone. You can find out where you are exactly and navigate to anywhere with turn by turn directions very easily. Think how much harder it was before we had this on our phones. If you stop for a minute and think there are lots of “killer apps” that made buying a smartphone a must. The camera app, email, Facebook, < insert your choice of instant messaging client >, Spotify and so on.
What is the killer app for the smartwatch?
There still isn’t one.
Everything so far is replicating what you can do on your phone and in some cases it’s an inferior experience. Many have speculated it’s coming but so far no developer or any of the huge tech giants have come out with a compelling reason that gives them that “must have” factor. Mobile payments may be it one day but we’re barely starting and frankly it’s turning into a mess with various companies trying to bring out their own version.
This is not the only problem with the software. Across both major platforms, Wear and WatchOS, software is still glitchy. Also both seem confusing and take quite a bit to learn your way around. Ask anyone who owns one of these watches are they’ll have plenty of things that frustrate them.
Let’s face it a lot of the first smartwatches were ugly utilitarian looking things. Then we got round faces which look a bit nicer but actually maybe less functional. The hardware in the first wave of Android Wear devices was a bit slow ( I certainly wouldn’t recommend going with anything from the first wave of Wear devices now ).
Even the Apple Watch isn’t universally liked and certainly looks quite “computer on the wrist” in its shape. It is at least iconic in its look but I’m sure it’s looks will evolve a lot. The circles inside a square is weird to me and makes me wonder if they really wanted a circular model but couldn’t nail the manufacturing in time for the first generation release. I’m not the only one thinking this as well.
Still at the end of this year we are starting to see some very stylish watches in the Wear space. Fossil and Tag Heuer are both bringing out devices which look like their mechanical ancestors and really look smart. The trouble is they still run Android Wear once you get past the looks.
Word of mouth
Here is what could be really killing smartwatch growth. For anything to bloom outside of the tech enthusiasts I think three things need to be in place for the average user.
- Compelling use case
- Positive word of mouth
The first two still probably still aren’t right for most people but without number three being in place the average consumer isn’t even going to look into these devices.
The message from almost everyone on every platform whether it’s Wear, Pebble or WatchOS is the same:
“You really don’t need a smartwatch right now.”
They will all agree they are cool and can be useful and fun but do you need one? No. Often the conversation will drift towards the problems right now with the devices and limitations with them. Compare that to when the first wave of people got the iPhone and how vocal they were and wanting to talk about it and show you what it could do. Remember the conversations with friends about what cool new apps or games you were using? Granted this has died down now but a lot of friends still share games that they love with me. I just don’t see that dialogue happening with wearables.
The “word of mouth” for smartwatches just isn’t there.
2016 – A New Hope?
I want to take things out on a positive note. Even though technically some platforms are actually on their second generation overall I think we are still in the “first gen” wave of smartwatches. For that reason I think we need to be a little forgiving and acknowledge that it may take more time for tech companies to work out what we really want from wearables and how they should work. I was looking forwards to seeing how watches with their own connections to data and calls might change the dynamic with our phones with the LG LTE watch. I’m sure next year we might see more of that being tried.
I’m also sure we’ll see a lot more established watch brands bringing out their own smartwatches as well. What’s most exciting of course is all the stuff we can’t anticipate watch makers will do.
Perhaps just like with the iPhone it will take Apple to create a stunning new wearable to really get the market going?
CES 2016 is just around the corner so it’s going to be great to see what’s coming next and whether it will be enough to push smartwatches mainstream.