Smartwatches: You Might Want One, Or Not

12th February 2013

The Pebble has been the most publicly visible smart-watch recently and with speculation growing ever since the previous generation iPod Nano that Apple may build their own smart-watch.

For those not up to date with what we’re talking about, a smart-watch is wrist-attached interface to your smart-phone that tells the time (isn’t that odd) as well as display notifications for Emails, Messages and so on as well as supporting a discrete vibration to notify you of those messages. Some models may even give you a brief summary of what was in the message and the ability to initiate/end calls from the smart-watch.

There are two problems with a smart-watch: 1) It’s something extra you need to carry/wear/charge and 2) Apart from telling the time it’s otherwise useless without a smart-phone.

Historically Apple has focussed on products that "stand alone" as it were and are optimised and focussed on being very good at a specific task. The iPod Shuffle is the most portable music player they offer and has been optimised to be light, small and unobtrusive. The iPad and iPhone have been focussed on being either a good tablet or a good phone with clear lines of distinction between them. A smart-watch can not stand on its own unless it somehow displays the time better than other watches. Unlikely.

For most people that have been around a while, before mobile phones we all wore a watch on our wrist (except those that told me I was letting time rule my life - it’s a long story). When phones became more common and people carried them everywhere the watch started to fade in popularity as one could easily reach into their pocket and check the time on their mobile phone instead. As people started using PDAs they carried a phone and a PDA. In time Blackberries came along and then iPhones and we’re back to a single device again.

The other question is effort: How much effort is it to pull back my sleeve (if I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt) turn my wrist and look down as opposed to lifting my arm pulling my phone our of my breast pocket? Most people would agree that checking the wrist is marginally easier but I would suggest that history has already shown us where that path ends.

There will always be people that want to wear a watch irrespective of whether they have a phone on them or not. People wear watches just for fashion too. That’s fine. No matter how I turn this over in my mind, I just can’t see the smart-watch being a runaway success. It will sell, but in AppleTV numbers perhaps, if they’re lucky. I imagine Apple have bigger fish to fry and more profitable niches to explore.