The lifecycle of a new gadget is relatively predictable: When it’s brand new, only early adopters are interested. Once the technology matures, everybody buys one. But smartwatches still haven’t caught on with most people—and that’s because no one has made a smartwatch that’s worth its cost.
The big players have already shown their hands. Google’s Android Wear, Apple’s Watch OS, and Samsung’s Tizen have all been available for years. Other upstarts like Pebble, which made our favorite smartwatch thus far, are faltering under an uninterested consumer base. The company recently laid off a quarter of its entire staff.
If landing a majority market share is your definition of success, you’d crown Apple the winner. But new estimates predict that Apple Watch won’t retain its top-dog status among smartwatches within the next few years. Apple’s price drop on the Apple Watch is also rare for a company that usually waits until a new gadget is ready before dropping the price on its outdated models. That leads us to believe Apple isn’t happy with how its wearable is selling.
Unlike laptops and smartphones, smartwatches have an uncommon challenge—they really need to look good and have variety. Laptops stay inside our homes and offices, iPods in our pockets, and even smartphones (the most luxe of the bunch) are usually hidden in a case. But smartwatches remain naked. They’re right there on your wrist. No cases. No hiding. It’s the first type of technology that prioritizes its fashion sensibility.
After reviewing about half a dozen watches, I’ve learned (thanks to impassioned commenters) that design is subjective. Big watches, small watches, shiny watches, minimal watches—they each work better for different people and different situations. Sure, I have my favorites, but there isn’t one that seems like the perfect fit for everyone.
That’s good news and bad news. Obviously, more choices are always great. Can’t find the watch you want? Luckily, there are a zillion to choose from, and some companies are doubling down on the “throw shit out there and see what sticks” strategy. Fossil announced this month that they’re releasing 100 (!) wearables across 8 different watch and fashion brands just in 2016 alone, like Michael Kors’ Access smartwatch. The flood of wearable devices has arrived to sweep away your disposable income.
But the yin to this yang is by not having that One Watch To Rule Them All, you also don’t get the widespread excitement and fervor that comes with a new iPhone or Surface Book. Whenever Apple releases Apple Watch 2, there might be some excitement, but I honestly don’t anticipate much.
People develop fashion sense as a way to stand out from everyone else. It’s not necessarily “what is fashionable,” but your own personal sense of style. Technology is very traditionally a one-size-fits-all industry. Sure you have different bands if you’re lucky, but even those are usually specific to one watch. Different colors, sure, but in the same basic design. This is the smartwatch’s biggest conundrum, one that simply may not have a solution.
That’s where market predictions of “smarter” watches begins to make sense. These are traditional-looking watches, like Timex’s Metropolitan+ and Withings Activité Pop, that don’t run apps but still have smarts. Something that can be easily included on a wide variety of watch styles could be the most sensible approach to the smartwatch—or a gateway to get people interested in the idea.
Other tech limitations still exist, too, but those are only momentary flaws. In an interview this month with Business Insider UK, Android Wear director of engineering David Singleton laid out his 50-year-plan for smartwatches, saying:
The wrist is “the ideal place for the power of Google to help people with their lives,” Singleton says, and he has an ambitious vision for Android Wear’s future — one central to the direction Google is heading. The smartwatch will feed you information before you ask for it, act as your “agent” in the internet-connected world around you, and keep you healthy — even talking to your doctor before you ever realize you’re sick.
“In two or three years time, not everyone is going to be living like this,” Singleton says. “But in 50 years — definitely.”
The vision is lofty but not impossible to achieve. All this could happen with better sensors, FDA certification, and an expansion of tokenization and encryption tech that can transmit information privately and securely. Some smartwatch accessories are already making their way through the FDA as we speak. They could unlock our autonomous cars, hands-free; ping loved ones when we arrive at our connected smart homes; and constantly check our sleep patterns and heart rate to prevent illnesses.
But it will be forging ahead as a completely new kind of gadget, one that’s fashion first and awash with hundreds, not just dozens, of choices. If you’ve been waiting for that One-Watch-To-Rule-Them-All, it isn’t coming. I invoke Tolkein for a reason. It’s fiction.
There is no precious.