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Smartwatches are Dead, Long Live the Smartwatch

21 Sep 2016
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Ok, it’s a cheap ripoff of “The King is Dead, Long Live the King”, but I find it highly appropriate. No, smartwatches as a whole are not dead, but the current trend of launching a “one size fits all” smartwatch just may be.

At the end of 2014, the market was eagerly anticipating the launch of the Apple Watch – a device that many thought would destroy the traditional watch market. Going against market sentiment (and many colleagues – and Ian in particular), I forecasted during my 2015 IoT Predictions that for smartwatches, “early adopters would be the only adopters”. Suffice to say that this prediction didn’t go down too well with many people and vendors, but I couldn’t comprehend how a gadget with a limited screen size, poor battery life, an immature application developer ecosystem and limited functionality would change the world.

Fast forward two years and unfortunately we see that my prediction was correct. According to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Smart Devices Tracker, wearable shipments reached 22.5m devices over the past year, growing over 26% on a year-on-year basis. The problem is that the basic wearable sub-segment (e.g. fitness bands) grew at nearly 49% year-on-year, while the smart wearable sub-segment (e.g. smartwatches) DECLINED by over 27%. Realistically, I don’t believe that these “one size fits all” smartwatches will go away, but I do believe in their current form they will never reach their much-touted potential.

The decline in smartwatch shipments shouldn’t surprise anyone. We have put a device on your wrist with the power of a smartphone, but given it functionality (notifications) that equate to SMS. We seem to have forgotten that the success of Android and iOS smartphones isn’t just the devices, but the millions of applications that run on them. It was only a matter of time before consumers realised they were paying premium prices for a gadget that delivered minimum value.

To make matters worse, the wearables industry has been plagued by a spate of recalls, including Intel’s Basis Peak, McDonald’s (not-so) kid-friendly fitness tracker, and the Fitbit Force for issues ranging from mild skin irritations to actual blisters or burns caused by the devices. Granted, these injuries are not widespread, but they do damage the overall market. However, on the bright side, no fitness band or smartwatch has exploded or caught fire yet, as far as I am aware.

Thankfully, not all smartwatches are doing poorly. The sport-specific smartwatches from Garmin, Polar and Suunto do well with fitness enthusiasts and are rapidly improving their accuracy and functionality. I’m also a big fan of some of the new devices launched by Omate, which include devices targeted at both children and the elderly that include location tracking, phone capabilities and an “SoS” button.

What’s the difference between these devices and the smartwatches launched from the large electronics vendors? It’s simple, these devices are going after a sub-segment of the market. Rather than adopting a “one size fits all approach”, they offer devices that target specific users or use cases.

We are also seeing progress in smartwatch design. The early devices were black and bulky – they looked like they were designed by male engineers, for male engineers. New smartwatches from the likes of Tag Heuer, Moto and Huawei have moved away from the tech gadget look to create devices that appeal to a wider audience.

And while I mock the lack of functionality and applications for today’s smartwatches, we have seen some interesting use cases evolve in the enterprise. The most impressive one to me comes from Bosch’s manufacturing plant in South Carolina, which leverages smartwatches to notify plant-floor workers of notifications from their predictive maintenance solution. When a machine is about to break down or needs immediate repair, messages are sent to the worker’s smartwatch. Why not just use a smartphone, you ask (well, I asked)? First of all, it’s noisy in the plant so workers can’t always hear the phone’s notification sounds. Secondly, plant workers commonly wear coats on the plant floor and keep their smartphones in the coat. As a result, they can’t feel the phone’s “vibrate” functionality. Bosch realised that there is little value sending an urgent message to a worker’s phone if they can’t hear or feel the notification. As a result, they created a “common sense” solution that delivers tremendous value.

I am still a firm believer that if smartwatches are to take off, it will be driven by the enterprise. This could include leveraging basic wearables to ensure health & safety by tracking worker locations at a mining, construction or manufacturing site, to monitor a patient with a chronic illness (e.g. high blood pressure, diabetes) for remote patient diagnostics, or to communicate with emergency response personnel working in an environment where smartphone use is not an option. The solutions are endless, but it is up to us to create them.

What needs to change, you ask? Unfortunately, a lot, but I think the following three items would be a good start:

1.     Collaboration: A smartwatch hardware is only one component in the overall smartwatch solution. Device manufacturers need to collaborate across the IoT ecosystem with analytics companies, security vendors, etc. – and with end users or target industries – to create or enhance their offering and to identify new business models and use cases.

2.     User-centric Solution Design: We as an industry are great at connecting “things”, but we take a supply-side, build it and they will come, approach. What’s needed is a demand-side approach where we first look at the user or business process and design the device and solution around those requirements. The benefit this delivers is at launch you won’t be talking about a new tech gadget, but about what consumer or business challenge you solve.

3.     Apps, apps and more apps: For the consumer market in particular, we don’t need a killer app. We need tens or hundreds of thousands of applications, some of which are bound to add the utility, or value, that is missing today.

I truly believe that wearables can transform our lives for the better, but not until we as an industry evolve our approach. In the meantime, (“one size fits all”) smartwatches are dead, long live the (specific-purpose) smartwatch.