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Smartwatch redux

In 2003, American watchmaker Fossil released the Fossil Wrist PDA, an oversized “smartwatch” with a monochrome screen that runs the then-prevalent Palm OS. Microsoft soon followed with its own offering. It would be a decade later before the word “smartwatch” was heard again.

With the recent successful crowdfunding effort by Pebble, the new Samsung and Motorola watches that run on Google’s Android Wear platform, and of course the upcoming Apple Watch, it is tempting to conclude that the much anticipated era of wearable computers has finally arrived. While these new devices have clearly come a long way from the ill-fated Fossil – from their high resolution color OLED screens to their web enabled functionalities – there remain unanswered questions about their value proposition that bring doubt to their ability to gain mainstream adoption.

In order to be widely adopted, a new technology must provide compelling value not just for the early adopters and technophiles, but also for the average user. This is where smartwatches, along with many other wearable devices, continue to fall short. In theory, having a smartwatch is like having a tiny smartphone right on your wrist. That sounds like an amazing idea in abstract. After all, we went from mainframe computers, to personal desktops, to laptops, to smartphones. Smart wearable devices should be the next logical step in improving mobility and convenience.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that, while generally true as a long-term trend, it fails to account for present limitations that can prove much more significant. Take a look at the past five years of Android phones and iPhones and one will quickly realize that the most popular smartphones have grown increasingly larger, a trend that is entirely counter-intuitive compared to the longer preceding history of cellphone miniaturization. The reason for this is that now that smartphones have become powerful enough to take on more computing roles beyond calling and texting, a larger screen is necessary to ensure usability. Consumers want the larger physical real estate because they care about being able to do more useful things with their smartphones.

In that light, smartwatches are the exact opposite of the trend demonstrated by the unexpected popularity of the Galaxy Note series and acknowledged by Apple’s reluctant decision to super-size the iPhone 6. Instead of being bigger but more powerful, they are smaller but less functional. Unlike the iPod or the iPhone, the Apple Watch is not a self-sufficient device and must be connected via Bluetooth to an iPhone in order to receive notifications and app updates. Similar limitations exist for its Android competitors.

The smartphone replaced both cellphones and portable media players and at the same time introduced mainstream users to the joy of ubiquitous Internet access. This holy trinity created the relentless impetus for its explosive growth. Everyone who does not have a smartphone is missing out on various social interactions that are becoming an integral part of modern life. There exists strong peer pressure driving the adoption of smartphones. The smartwatch on the other hand replaces nothing and offers no feature that a smartphone cannot already do, except perhaps a lazier way to check your notifications. Hence, there is very weak network effect beyond fashion when it comes to purchasing a smartwatch.

Say you receive a notification for a text message on your watch. You have the option to compose a short reply using voice recognition, or pull out your smartphone to type it out. The former might be sufficient for a short text, but what if it is instead a notification for a work email or a Snapchat video? As long you have to reach for your smartphone in a significant number of these scenarios, the smartwatch can only be a minor convenience and not a truly revolutionary device that enables new behavior. As flash-in-the-pan messaging app “Yo” discovered, it is possible to venture too far into the territory of making a less useful product when simplifying the user experience.

A modern smartphone would be almost entirely redundant if it could only work within wireless range of your laptop. Today’s smartphones are not complete replacements for personal computers, but they do enough on their own that many people no longer need to own a laptop outside of work. Smartwatches offer no comparable benefit for now because they continue to lean on smartphones to do the heavy lifting.

The true wearable revolution will arrive when smartwatches become powerful enough to exist independently of smartphones. That future is still some time away due to battery life and user interface limitations imposed by the tiny form factor. Until those problems are overcome, the smartwatch will remain a pricy fashion accessory for early adopters.

Contact Raven Jiang at jcx ‘at’ Stanford.edu.

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