With the coming destruction of Pebble and the announcement by Motorola that it doesn’t “see enough pull in the market to put [a new smartwatch] out at this time,” you would be excused for thinking the smartwatch world is contracting. This is correct, but this is not the end of for wearables.
Apple sold 1.1 million Apple Watches in 2016, 73% less than it sold in 2015. The numbers are still out for 2017 but we will probably see similar numbers – a nice bump at the beginning of the year for holiday season and a steady decline until the next new model appears. The same can be said of Android Wear devices – early excitement that falls to a low boil by the end of the year.
There are a few factors at work and they aren’t good for folks who wanted to sell millions of smartwatches a year. First, smartwatches are implicitly polarizing. Unlike a phone, a watch is more an accessory and then an electronics device. It is immediately visible and is usually prominently displayed. It is, in short, a piece of jewelry, albeit imbued with smarts. Therefore the impetus to buy a smartwatch or other wearable is a far different impetus than the one that drives cellphone or laptop purchases. When a customer approaches an Apple Watch or a Samsung Gear the question is not whether this device is better than the closest alternative but whether this device will go with their wardrobe.
The second problem is more vexing. Watches, unlike phones, are rarely upgraded. A watch is supposed to be an heirloom and the only way to encourage multiple purchases is to price them at far lower than a traditional watch – a near impossibility – or make them last a lot longer. This is a generational problem, obviously, but one that will stymie smartwatch sales for years.
Therefore a customer doesn’t need a smartwatch and often doesn’t want one and when she has one there is no reason to buy a new one. Pebble tried to differentiate by focusing on a very specific market, create a few very different models, and still they found their market was too small. Apple tried the luxury route and they were roundly jeered. And Android gave its technology to everyone and the result was a glut of me-too devices that were clones of each other. No one clear winner has appeared and I doubt there will be one in this decade.
So what happens next?
Everyone’s best guess is that the fashion watch brands – Swatch, Burberry, Casio, Seiko, and the like – will bring their long experience in making watches people actually want to buy to the smartwatch world. That they haven’t done this yet is a testament to their absolute incompetence. The industry, long focused on selling cheap watches for lots of money can’t sell expensive watches for very little profit. Companies like Skagen are doing the right thing by selling very minimalist but mobile-connected devices aimed at taking down Fitbit and other health-focused wearables. This won’t last long. Down the line, as Google and Apple figure out why users truly want wearables and new use cases appear, the watchmakers might be able to tag along but don’t bet on it.
I personally think the wearable will disappear. As interaction paradigms shift towards voice and motion control we can expect to see devices that are always listening to us and following us in the real world, reading vital signs and telling us important data on the go. I imagine an Alexa-like device that sits in our ears and whispers advice on getting through the day – “Turn left ahead,” “Your coffee order is ready,” “That person you’re talking to is named Joe and you met him last week.” – a sort of aural assistant that is always on. Why can’t we use a watch? A watch is essentially too far from our best sense organs to be of any use in this case.
That doesn’t mean I’ll throw away my Seiko or Omega or Rolex and neither will you. But it does mean we’ll probably stop buying smartwatches.
Smartwatches are interstitial. Watches, on the other hand, will always be with us but in their original form – as a tool and a bit of ostentation. I doubt anything, Apple Watch included, will survive the next decade as a viable product, especially as smaller devices can become smarter and more connected. Long live the watch but say adieu to the smartwatch.