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Why smartwatches just don’t seem that smart to me

May 12, 2015

Amid the excitement of the Apple smartwatch launch and the buzz around wearables more widely, I sometimes feel like I’m the only person in the tech sector who isn’t bouncing up and down like a 6-year-old on Christmas Eve. Smartwatches aren’t rocking my world. Somehow, they just don’t seem that smart to me.

I’ve spent more years than I care to remember telling clients that smartphones can do all lots of amazing things, but that consumers won’t love them unless they perform the basic job of being a phone. If you are selling a phone, then performing the basic functionality of a phone is table stakes. And – at least for me as a consumer – it’s the same for smartwatches. But it seems to me like smartwatches just don’t quite do the watch thing well enough.

So let’s think about watches. What is a watch? What does it do?

Well a watch tells the time. Right? But so does my 7-foot grandfather clock – which is a lovely piece of furniture, but considerably less useful to me.

My watch tells me the time wherever I am and whatever I am doing. I love my Omega Seamaster for many reasons, but most of all* because it comes with me everywhere, whatever I am doing. I take my watch off when I’m fiddling with the battery in the car, and that’s just about it, the rest of the time it’s on my wrist. And it works independent of anything else I might have with me: it doesn’t stop working if I leave my wallet at home; it continues to work beautifully when I don’t want to carry my swanky smartphone with me.

And that’s where (most of) the smartwatches currently available don’t quite seem to work for me – they don’t work all on their own. And more to the point, they seem to miss out on the opportunity to solve some of the problems created by our dependence on our smartphones. Smartwatches seem to be slaves to their smartphone masters rather than liberating us.

Smartphones are great. I carry two most days, and I feel utterly discombobulated if I forget to take my phone with me. But sometimes it’s a nuisance to have to carry a 5-inch phone with me. I want to be contactable and to track my exercise when I go out for a run or take my bike out, but I don’t want to lug my smartphone around, or break another one by getting it just a bit too wet and muddy. And while my partying days are pretty much behind me, I have a hazy memory of plenty of nights where I really should not have been carrying £500-worth of fragile technology and personal details with me.

Sometimes feel that I just don’t need all 5-inches of smartness – an inch or two would do. And that’s where smartwatches should come into their own.

But as long as smartwatches are reliant on a smartphone to connect me to the world, they seem to be missing a trick. If I could head out for a ride – or to the pub – and know that my smartwatch would let me call home, let people contact me and do all that clever sensor stuff, I’d be chomping at the bit. By meeting my fundamental need for security and contactability, a smartwatch with a SIM card – a watch that did the basic communication thing – would provide a sense of real liberation.

I completely understand that there are all sorts of technology and market barriers to putting the SIM into the watch, but so many interesting things might happen if the most essential part of the personal communications eco-system started to get smaller again; if it became the hub that empowered all its larger-screened siblings. Remember what it used to be like when we could leave the house without carrying this big screen around with us?

Maybe the real issue is that the benefits of smartwatches haven’t really been articulated to me yet, demonstrated to me. Perhaps that’s why I feel that there’s this amazing possibility out there that no-one has quite nailed.

* Strictly, I love it most of all because it was an engagement present from my wife, but that plays to a different strand of the smartwatch debate.

For more information, please contact Trevor Godman at trevor.godman@gfk.com.

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