The smartwatch’s uncertain future, unrealized potential
I’m a smartwatch early adopter. I’ve had one since 2013, wear one every day, and am currently on my second smartwatch (a Galaxy Gear S). Besides the fact that I think about smartwatches a lot — as is obvious from a glance at my tweets — I also talk about them all the time, with friends, co-workers, family, strangers. People rarely see smartwatches in the wild, so I’m constantly fielding questions.
Today a visiting family member asked me what I do with my watch. “So, you make phone calls from it?” he asked.
“Yeah, I can, but I usually use my phone.”
“You type texts on that tiny screen?”
“I can, but I send a lot of texts from my phone.”
“So what do you need it for?”
We both laughed, because the answer is obvious: I don’t need this smartwatch. Does anyone need a smartwatch? Probably not.
What do you do with a smartwatch?
There is another question I often answer: “What do you use it for?”
That’s easy. I use it every day. I put the watch on every morning. I use it to check the time, weather, and my Google calendar. The watch vibrates when I have a phone call, text message, or appointment. (I have disabled every other kind of notification, like Facebook and Twitter messages, and only enabled the really important ones that I find “wristworthy”.) If I’m alone when the phone rings, I might answer it on the watch (it has a built-in speaker phone). If I’m in an awkward situation I can send a text discreetly without needing to take out my phone.
I also use the S-Voice feature a fair amount — this is Samsung’s voice assistant — even though it’s a bit disappointing on a Samsung watch. It’s great at calling and texting people through voice commands, but it’s no good for accessing the internet hive mind (AKA googling things — this is a regular source of frustration).
The watch has fitness features, like tracking my heart rate, the UV index, how much I’ve walked, and sleep tracking. I barely use any of it, but I do check how much I walk each day just to reassure myself that I haven’t spent the entire day sitting around.
My watch has other features, like a web browser, GPS, and its own built-in phone. I use those features now and then. But the main use of the smartwatch is passive: It has liberated me from my phone. I can leave my phone in my purse and spend whole days ignoring it, without even feeling like I’m missing anything.
The purpose of the smartwatch is to streamline my life.
What could you do with a Smartwatch?
A more complicated question that no one asks about my smartwatch, but that I think about often, is: “What do you want it for?”
To this question I would answer, “I don’t want a smartwatch at all. I want a wrist computer.” And if I keep talking, I’m likely to explain that I think watches are cool, but I never really wore one. I just checked my phone, like everyone does.
My smartwatch adds value by keeping my phone in my purse, but beyond that, what’s the use?
Smartwatch designers are aware that their devices are mainly duplicating the features of your smartphone, and have tried to add value to smartwatches through sensors. Surely a device in direct contact with your skin all day can tell you more about your body. But how much do you need to know? If you’re like me — healthy enough but not fitness-obsessed — these features aren’t very compelling.
The Apple Watch has integrated Apple Pay, a wireless payment method, which is another excellent use for a wrist-based device. But once again, paying for things is something you can just as easily do with your smartphone. As a phone accessory, your smartwatch’s job is largely to keep your hands free. That’s useful, but not compelling enough to put a smartwatch on most people’s wrists.
The Wrist Computer as A Standalone Device
In actuality, a smartwatch is a tiny phone, and should simply be seen as an alternate smartphone size and shape, or “form factor”. The smartwatch’s role as solely a phone accessory can’t last. The watch/phone relationship is being artificially reinforced by manufacturers like Samsung, who require a Samsung phone activation in order to use their smartwatches. (Do you remember when you needed a computer with iTunes in order to use an iPod? This watch/phone relationship, like the iTunes/iPod connection, began out of necessity but only persists as business strategy.)
There may be some limitations to the smartwatch form factor, but none that will last. Even today, I see little need to carry both a “pocket computer” (smartphone) and a wear a “wrist computer” (smartwatch) at the same time. While my phone offers more apps and a larger screen, neither are necessities, nor are they smartphone-only features — my computer also has more apps and a larger screen.
How many computers do I really need? When I can choose between alternate designs for tiny portable computers, will I choose one that fits on my wrist, in my pocket, on my face, or somewhere else?
This brings me to the best reason why I wear a smartwatch every day: The smartwatch may not have a future, but it has great possibilities, and I can look to my wrist to discover them.