Will the Smartwatch Be Left Behind in 2016?

Kristy Sparow/Getty Images

Kristy Sparow/Getty Images

Learning about all the new devices announced at CES in January is a great way for tech enthusiasts to start the year. The most ambitious tech companies gather each January to show off their innovations and talk about the product categories that they’re most excited about for the year ahead. But as Nick Statt reports for The Verge, one product that’s figured heavily into CES in years past, while getting left behind at this year’s CES, is the smartwatch.

Statt notes that only a small array of companies launched new smartwatches at CES this year, and the only one that, in Statt’s assessment, is still working to actively rethink the category doesn’t even want to call its wearable a smartwatch. Fitbit released the Blaze wearable, which it’s calling a “fitness watch.” The device can send you notifications from your phone and track your activity, though it can’t run third-party apps.

The fact that Fitbit doesn’t call the Blaze a smartwatch is strategic, and says something about the company’s estimation of the market for smartwatches that, like the Apple Watch, are designed for a wide range of users and different use cases. Fitbit chief executive James Park told The Verge, “The common knock against general-purpose smartwatches today is that they’re very overwhelming, they do too much, and they cut into your battery life.” Fitbit thinks that’s been successful because its wearables, which focus on fitness functionality, integrate only the most essential functions.

Other companies making smartwatches are taking a similar, pared-down approach. Fossil, for instance, designed the Q54 to look a regular watch but integrate basic activity tracking and notification mirroring. Withings introduced the Activité Pop without a display or the ability to run apps. And Samsung used CES to show off new finishes for its Gear S2 Classic, illustrating its awareness that customers are concerned about the aesthetics of a device they’ll wear on a daily basis.

But in Statt’s assessment, this line of thinking doesn’t bode well for the future of the smartwatch as a computing platform. The smartphone didn’t live up to its potential as a truly useful device until the advent of the iOS App Store in 2008 — but 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. But it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg logic problem: without apps, people don’t want smartwatches. But without a critical mass of smartwatch users, developers are going to have trouble creating life-changing apps that will fundamentally alter the way we use technology.

If software can’t save the smartwatch from ending up as a dying trend, then perhaps its hardware can. As The Cheat Sheet reported last year, one of the biggest problems with smartwatches is their less-than-stellar battery life. It seems reasonable to say that without better battery technology, smartwatches may not be able to mature into a widely useful product category, since it’s better batteries that could enable longer-lasting, more capable devices, as well as those that fit into less-obtrusive form factors that people will actually want to wear everyday.

Integrating GPS into smartwatches — as Apple is rumored to plan to do with the second-generation version of the Apple Watch — and building devices with color touchscreens that can last through more than a day’s worth of use could make the devices useful enough to take off. And some theorize that both GPS and battery life will be important for the smartwatch to distance itself from the smartphone, which some analysts think will be critical.

As the editorial staff of The Verge recently reported, the story of the Apple Watch’s introduction in 2015 didn’t play out the way most of the tech world expected. Apple’s long-awaited entrance into the wearable technology market was supposed to usher the smartwatch from niche markets to the mainstream, proving the device’s utility for a wide range of consumers and illustrating its potential as the next big platform for user interaction. But that didn’t happen.

Looking back at the year gone by, The Verge notes that a “killer app” for the smartwatch failed to materialize. Even owners of the Apple Watch and other smartwatches struggle to pinpoint areas where the devices are truly useful. Many analysts have concluded that the general lack of enthusiasm over the Apple Watch “may be more an indictment of wearables in general than a signal of Apple’s failure; industry analysts say Apple may be leading the overall smartwatch category. That suggests the majority of people just don’t want smartwatches, even from the maker of the iPhone.”

Interestingly enough many people felt that Samsung’s Gear S2 was the best-designed smartwatch of the year with its rotating bezel. Even the device’s Tizen operating system feels faster and more intuitive than the Apple Watch’s watchOS or Android Wear — even though it limits the device’s potential for a compelling and diverse app ecosystem.

The picture is different when it comes to another category of wearables, the fitness tracker. Fitbit, an eight-year-old company that makes a wide variety of inexpensive fitness trackers, went public in June and has seen increasing sales each quarter since its IPO. Which raises the question of whether “the one wearable we actually want, the fitness tracker, has been here all along.”

More from Gear & Style Cheat Sheet: