Why Smartwatches Are Just Not Smart Enough

Pablo Cuadra/Getty Images

Pablo Cuadra/Getty Images

Even if you’re a big fan of technology and eager to adopt new devices, chances are pretty good that you don’t yet have a compelling reason to buy a smartwatch. And if you do own a smartwatch, it’s also pretty likely that while you might have fun wearing it, you wouldn’t miss it for very long if it went missing.

Walt Mossberg reports for The Verge that the smartwatch isn’t yet smart enough to be essential, even to users who couldn’t get through a day without a smartphone, a tablet, and/or a laptop. Mossberg posits that smartwatches “need to find lots more independent functions, ones that are consistent with always being on you and knowing who you are, without the nearby presence of a smartphone.”

Mossberg reports that in his own experience, he uses his Apple Watch mainly for “two and a half things besides telling the time and date.” The first is general fitness tracking — of the variety that helps users to be less sedentary, stand up more, and do light exercise. The second task is notifications, which make it easy to glance at a text, a reminder, or an approaching calendar event without having to dig an iPhone out of a bag or a coat pocket.

And the “half-task” is using Apple Pay and other “code-based authentication and payment features,” like electronic plane and train boarding passes, which Mossberg terms a “half-task” since the readers used by merchants are “configured for phones and the wrist contortions required to use the watch instead aren’t worth attempting.”

The problem is that none of those tasks are new, or are different from the ones that everyone predicted you’d be able to use the Apple Watch for when it first launched last spring. While Apple has released a new version of the operating system that powers the Apple Watch — mainly to support the development of robust and compelling new apps — and the number of apps available for the wearable has increased from 4,000 to more than 13,000, that hasn’t led to popular new uses for the wearable.

Fitness-tracking, notifications, and payments are widely recognized as the top tasks for most users, so much so that Tim Cook publicly refers to those use cases when he explains the utility of the Apple Watch, as does Samsung when it markets its smartwatches, like the Gear S2. The idea is that a smartwatch enables users to complete tasks more quickly than they’d be able to on a smartphone, but Mossberg and other smartwatch users have found that the smartwatch versions of their favorite apps are largely slower and clumsier than the smartphone versions. For that reason, it’s easier, in many cases, to just pull out the smartphone and use the full-featured version of the app.

As Mossberg notes, the smartwatch is a category that sprung to life with the launch of the Apple Watch, which is reported to have accounted for more than half of the smartwatches sold in 2015 (even though it was only available for three-quarters of the year). Smartwatches powered by Google’s Android Wear platform reportedly accounted for less than a 10% share of sales. But the smartwatch market is just gearing up, and device makers have a long way to go in convincing the general consumer that smartwatches are a useful addition to the arsenal of devices that they use everyday.

Mossberg writes that he doesn’t think that the smartwatch needs a single killer app, though it does need to gain capabilities that are more compelling than what they’re able to do right now — something “that’s useful, quick, secure and cool.” Mossberg posits that one way to make the smartwatch indispensable is to “make it a sort of digital token that represents you to the environment around you.”

Because your smartwatch is more likely to be with you than your phone is, knows who you are, and can be secured to be used only by you, it could interface with the connected devices in your home or your car, perhaps to unlock your door, notify your thermostat that you’re home, or start your car.

Mossberg thinks that such functions need to be built into smartwatches, and integrate with the nascent iOS and Android platforms for home automation and connected cars. Samsung, which owns Internet of Things company SmartThings, is also working on such functionality for its Tizen software platform.

As The Cheat Sheet reported recently, there are few apps available for the smartwatches currently on the market that would seem to make it worth spending a few hundred dollars on a smartwatch. The problem highlights the central difficulty of the situation facing the smartwatch: without apps, people don’t want smartwatches. But without a critical mass of users, developers will have trouble creating apps that will gain enough traction to change the way we use technology.

A killer app, either for the Apple Watch or for any other smartwatch on the market, has yet to materialize. But without one, there isn’t much reason for the average consumer to purchase a smartwatch. Smartwatches are going to have to get smarter, either thanks to improvements to their operating systems or more innovative efforts from app developers, in order for the devices to avoid getting left behind.

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